Dining out during pope's visit? Expect the unexpected

At the Bishop’s Collar in the Art Museum area, Jeff Keel has installed a temporary “Pope-Up Beer Garden” with kegs and a grill in a lot next door. He expects to host tourists and regulars. (JONATHAN WILSON/For The Inquirer)
At the Bishop’s Collar in the Art Museum area, Jeff Keel has installed a temporary “Pope-Up Beer Garden” with kegs and a grill in a lot next door. He expects to host tourists and regulars. (JONATHAN WILSON/For The Inquirer)

Technically, gambling is not a sin.

At the Bishop’s Collar in the Art Museum area, Jeff Keel has installed a temporary “Pope-Up Beer Garden” with kegs and a grill in a lot next door. He expects to host tourists and regulars. (JONATHAN WILSON/For The Inquirer) Gallery: Dining out during pope's visit? Expect the unexpected

That's fortunate, since restaurants across the Francis Festival Grounds - the 4.7-square-mile, car-free security zone heretofore known as downtown Philadelphia - are placing wagers on Pope Francis' visit Saturday and Sunday.

Some are doubling down: placing advance food orders, buying extra refrigeration units, rolling out cots for workers, expanding their hours, building beer gardens, and running promotions. Others are shutting down altogether.

Many will have limited menus, but they'll be open. And, with plenty of reservations available, walk-ins are welcome.

"We did consider closing, but you have to roll the dice," said Jim Kirk, co-owner of Kite & Key on Callowhill Street, near the event site on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He, like many others, is running a sharply reduced menu, given that there will be no deliveries this Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

"The risk you run is: If it's not busy, you change your whole menu and you're left with a bunch of product that has a shelf life," he said. "From what I've been told, the hotels aren't full, so we don't know what to expect."

Still, the city's largest restaurant groups are preparing as if for a banner weekend.

"We've been working on this for months," said Scott Steenrod, vice president of operations at Garces Group. He's planning for extra-large deliveries Thursday to last through the weekend, and will use catering trucks to add storage capacity while running reduced menus.

The action plan includes running special prix-fixe menus at restaurants such as Amada, Tinto, and Distrito. At Garces Trading Company, there won't be any à la carte options. And, they're expanding hours at Buena Onda, the taco shop just a few blocks from the Parkway, likely from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Jeff Benjamin, managing partner at the Vetri restaurants, said he will be running normal menus, plus a to-go slice deal at Pizzeria Vetri near the Parkway.

He noted that there were a lot of variables: Will the expected crowds show up? Will it rain? Will hotel concierges give him referrals? Will the pope's travel plans change again?

But, after a summer of debunked rumors - that staff couldn't bike to work, that they'd have to carry clear backpacks, that there'd be no deliveries starting on Tuesday - he's given up worrying.

"There's only so much anticipating you can do," he said. He added that Vetri and Osteria, normally booked up a month in advance on weekends, still had tables available.

"I do anticipate a strong walk-in weekend companywide. I would encourage Philadelphians to go to a restaurant they wouldn't normally walk into. I bet they'll find a spot."

Diners won't be the only ones making last-minute plans. Given how security measures and restrictions have been shifting, some operators are also delaying their decisions.

As of Tuesday, Helene Weinberg was still debating whether to open her Rose Tattoo Cafe on Callowhill. She's worried her employees won't be able to get to work. "The rules change day to day," she said.

Zahav, Abe Fisher, and Dizengoff will be open, but maybe with limited menus - the CookNSolo restaurant group hasn't decided.

And Ellen Yin, whose Fork and High Street on Market restaurants are in the Independence Mall secure area, intends to open as normal. But, she said: "We can only operate if we can receive perishable items and remove trash, and, of course, if our employees can safely get to work." She's not yet convinced.

A few places are closing: Zorba's in Fairmount, Supper on South Street. But many others are operating as normal, or expanding capacity.

It's business as usual at the Starr restaurants, as well as at Vernick, Sampan, and the Sabrina's chain, among others. R2L, atop Two Liberty Place, is opening for lunch with a special menu; Lolita and Barbuzzo will also open for lunch.

Michael Schulson, whose Independence Beer Garden overlooks the site of a planned papal speech, is ready for the crowds with a 26-foot refrigerated trailer. (Though, whether pilgrims will run up large checks or nurse their beers for hours at his tables, he can't predict.) He considered raising his prices for the weekend but decided against it. "Hopefully, these people might come back," he said.

Top of the Tower is taking a different tack: The venue atop Three Logan Square normally offers its Skybrunch for $50; for Saturday and Sunday, it'll be $90 (though views of the papal Mass are gratis).

Many in the secure zone by the Art Museum have refrigerated trucks on order, and are developing limited menus focused on things that store flat and require little prep work. (Think: burgers, quesadillas, arepas, and pulled-pork sandwiches.)

But, even now, those menus are in flux.

"Are we set? Hell, no!" said Terry Berch McNally, co-owner of London Grill and Paris Wine Bar. The logistics she's still tangling with include: whether she can secure a backup ice source and what type of food and drink to order for this religious crowd.

She recently learned, to her relief, that she can get trash pickup between midnight and 4 a.m. Sunday. (She could get deliveries, too, but no vendors will come then.) And, she made space for six staffers to sleep above the restaurant.

"We all need to stay open to make money, because it's the end of the month," she said. But she'll likely have $5,000 on the line, with all the advance orders. "I hope it's worth it," she said.

At La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount, general manager Zachary Bourne said the menu would be cut almost in half. He and other staff will stay in a third-floor office, equipped with a futon, air mattresses, and video games, from Friday through Monday. "I don't want to take a chance in not being there in time," said Bourne, who lives in South Philadelphia.

At the Bishop's Collar in the Art Museum area, Jeff Keel is still facing a number of unknowns.

"Our biggest gripe," he said, "is that the city's just not telling us anything."

But he's optimistic enough to have installed a temporary "Pope-Up Beer Garden" with kegs and a grill in a lot next door. He expects to host tourists but also plenty of regulars, including those who tried and failed to rent their homes to pope-peepers.

Also open with reduced menus are area standbys like McCrossen's and Tir Na Nog. Both plan to make the best of the situation - and, hopefully, make some money.

"The only way it wouldn't be a good weekend is if nobody shows up," Tir Na Nog manager Liam Kelly said. "But we've got to get a couple hundred thousand people at the least, which is 10 times a good convention for the city. So, we'll take it."

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053@samanthamelamed

For a rundown of restaurants and bars in or near the papal zone that will be open during the World Meeting of Families, see www.philly.com/popefood.


 

For full coverage of the pope's visit, go to philly.com/pope

To plan your way around the city during

the visit, go to philly.com/popemap