Center City restaurants boosted by outdoor seating

For nearly 50 years, Oscar’s Tavern has been a destination for those who don’t want to be seen. Or at least, seen very well.

The dive bar, situated on Sansom Street in Center City, is known for its vinyl booths, cheap beer, and orange lighting.

But back in June, the pandemic forced Oscar’s to do what was previously unthinkable: put some tables outside.

“Oscar’s is dark … outside is bright,” longtime manager Angela Mullan said. “It’s not what [customers] come to Oscar’s for.”

At first, the outdoor seating didn’t do much for the bar’s business: Oscar’s can only fit three two-person tables on the sidewalk outside. But, starting in July, the city began closing Sansom Street every weekend to traffic to allow for more outdoor seating.

Now, Friday through Sunday, Oscar’s has 20 tables outside — more than doubling its capacity.

“I never expected to see outdoor seating,” Mullan said. “But it’s definitely helped keep us open.”

The proliferation of outdoor seating has been a major driver in the rapid recovery of Center City restaurants since June, according to a detailed new survey from the Center City District and Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.

The number of temporarily closed restaurants in Center City fell from 262 in June, to 144 last month, according to the survey. In that time the number of outdoor seats nearly doubled, going from 2,997 to 5,152.

But, the report warns, the restaurant industry’s continued recovery is not assured. It depends in part on the weather, and on whether city officials choose to extend COVID-era outdoor dining regulations that are currently set to expire at the end of December.

“[Outdoor seating] has really helped business,” said Paul Levy, president and CEO of Center City District. “I think a lot of people are talking about how much of this can we standardize?”

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