Sidewalk Cafes in Philadelphia

Establishments that serve food and drink have known since the dawn of the modern era that there is no greater way to create a local draw than through allowing the aromatic qualities of their dishes and concoctions to waft outside the bounds of their property, delighting the senses of passersby and locals. When it comes to restaurants and cafes, there is no greater avenue to aweing prospective customers than creating an outdoor space in which patrons can be served, allowing the sights and smells of the menu to captivate any and all within range.

As it stands now, certain neighborhoods and thoroughfares in the city of Philadelphia make it relatively easy for restaurateurs and food service proprietors to metaphorically and physically open their doors. However, for cafes outside of the bounds of the Center City District and off of a few main strips inside the city, the process of obtaining a sidewalk cafe license can be quite difficult.

Philadelphia allows for establishments to open their doors and operate a sidewalk cafe, adding to the ambiance and neighborhood appeal that has allowed Philadelphia to emerge as a city of culinary excellence. Those eateries and establishments outside of the Center City District, portions of Ridge Ave., Passyunk Ave., Broad St., Main St., 9th St. and Germantown Ave., must pass a bill through City Council in order to operate a sidewalk cafe



Starting the Process

Opening a sidewalk cafe is more than placing a few tables and chairs outside, the process involved to do so requires some patience, persistence and determination. Since sidewalk cafes operate within the public way, multiple city agencies need to review and approve proposed layouts for compliance on multiple levels. Adding to the complexity of a sidewalk cafe, currently only certain areas of the city (see map) are allowed to operate a sidewalk cafe, otherwise a special ordinance through Philadelphia City Council needs to be introduced and voted on before the process can continue. The following encompasses the typical process to successfully obtain your sidewalk cafe permit so people can enjoy your cafe.

Design your Sidewalk Cafe

In order to maintain a safe streetscape for pedestrians, the regulations dictating the size, location, and assorted restrictions are listed in the Philadelphia Code. Engaging a design professional who has familiarity with all of the requirements will help streamline the process and ultimately help maximize your outside seating. Of course, the best designs always start with lots of input from the proprietor or primary operator of the cafe, so it’s best to put lots of thought into what the space will look like and what unique touches it will feature.

After the best layout gets designed and approved by you, a site plan needs to be drafted by a design professional licensed in Pennsylvania. Once the site plan (also known as a plot plan) is finished, the next step leads us to the Streets Department.


main street

Prerequisite 1: Streets Department Review

The first prerequisite for a sidewalk cafe begins with the Philadelphia Streets Department, specifically the ROW (Right of Way) Unit in order to determine the feasibility and compliance of the proposed encroachment. A submission of physical drawings, as well as a filled out Streets Review Application and Streets Checklist 4 will need to be submitted and reviewed. Typical review time for this step in the process lasts up to 20 business days, but review times can vary.

After the initial review, the design will either be approved, or denied with specific items to fix before resubmission.

After the Streets Department approves the sidewalk cafe design, one of two processes happen:

  • Inside the allowable area, the Streets Department will coordinate with the Law Department to draft a Sidewalk Cafe Agreement that needs to be signed before the process can continue.
  • Outside the allowable area, the Streets Department will coordinate with the Law Department to draft an ordinance that will need to be introduced by the City Council Representative.

germantown map

Prerequisite 2: City Council and The Mayor

When a sidewalk cafe sits outside of the allowable area, an ordinance from City Council needs to be obtained in order to continue with the process. If there are no objections to the proposed cafe, a draft gets introduced, then sent to committee, then finally voted upon in general session. An ordinance fee, listed on the ordinance itself, but typically $200, needs to be paid before the bill gets sent to the Mayor to sign into law.

Once the bill passes and gets signed into law, for those outside the allowable area, the process returns to the Streets Department for a second approval. Since the plans have already been approved, this review can be completed over the counter and will result in a stamp placed on the final drawings and approval signature on the L&I Sidewalk Application.

passyunk map

Prerequisite 3: Law Department Agreement

Upon final approval from the Streets Department, an agreement gets drafted and needs to be signed by the applicant. In this agreement, a bond amount gets determined, if necessary. Every agreement is different, and bond amounts may vary depending on location, size and when it is submitted.

Prerequisite 4: Supporting Documentation

Lastly, the information needed to fulfil the requirements to finally submit for the actual permit are: Certificate of Liability Insurance, Liquor License if you intend on serving alcohol, bond and a notarized letter of the property owner’s consent.

center city map

L&I Review and Permitting

The last part of the process takes us to the Municipal Services Building at the Licenses and Inspections section of the concourse. If the L&I Sidewalk Application is complete with every preceding item approved, and all documentation is in hand the sidewalk cafe license can be obtained over the counter.

Throughout this process, the city may send out inspectors to verify the site conditions, as well as to verify compliance. If you receive a violation, time may be of the essence.

ridge map

How To Make This Easier

Given the current processes, the lack of standardization is a glaring issue for hundreds if not thousands of restaurant, bar and cafe owners across the city. Philadelphia is clearly benefiting from a renewed focus on beautification and greater culinary jewels in every neighborhood, simplifying the process will ensure continued success for all types of businesses in the city.

Requiring proprietors to draft and bring a bill before Philadelphia City Council not only presents a hardship for any individuals looking to open their own sidewalk cafe, it extends the timeline to finish the project by as much as a year.

There are two relatively simple solutions to remedying this issue:

  • Extend the standards by which restaurant and cafes can operate in the Center City district to the entire city.
  • Draft a more encompassing form of the code that accounts for other major thoroughfares throughout the city, allowing for more outdoor seating in South Philly, The Northeast, Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Fishtown and other neighborhoods.

For restaurateurs, proprietors and owner/operators, a sidewalk cafe is an alluring opportunity. For those who have considered opening an establishment that features outdoor seating, the benefits to the business are obvious -- a fantastic draw for customers and a chance to display the culinary quality of their dishes in the best way possible, through sight and smell.

Though the process for obtaining a license for a sidewalk cafe adds a few extra steps to standard opening or reopening of a restaurant, the benefits often outweigh the extra hours spent.

Steps to opening a sidewalk cafe in Philadelphia

  • Design
  • Streets department review
  • Have a bill introduced to City Council and have it signed by the Mayor (if necessary)
  • Law department agreement
  • Licenses and Inspections review and license
  • Build!

To learn more about how we help make dream restaurants and sidewalk cafes a reality, contact us.  


Philadelphia Code 9-208 Sidewalk Cafe Regulations

Streets Application - Needed for Encroachment Legislation

Streets Checklist 4

L&I Website about Sidewalk Cafes

L&I Sidewalk Application

L&I Right of Way Requirements for Sidewalk Cafe

About The Author

Hi, we're the Designblendz team! We blend overlapping design disciplines to raise the standard to design, visualize, and build virtual and physical environments.