Chef Joseph Varalli

by Len Lear

A study once concluded that the chances of finding a terrific, fast (NOT “fast food”) and reasonably priced pre-theater restaurant within a block or so of the Kimmel Center, Academy of Music, Wilma, Merriam and Suzanne Roberts theaters on the Avenue of the Arts (South Broad Street) were about the same as the chance of finding a good kosher pickle in Saudi Arabia. That study was conducted by the University of My Eyeballs.

Someone once said hope is a thing with feathers, however, and this condition changed in January of this year with the opening of Perch Pub (whose symbol is a rooster, a thing with feathers up on a perch) on the second floor of the building at 1345 Locust  St. (the northeast corner of Broad and Locust). You might say that Perch Pub is the lengthened shadow of one man, Joseph Varalli, whose upscale Northern Italian restaurant, Upstares at Varalli, had occupied the same second floor location since 1989, when Joe was just 25. For more than two decades his regulars have had bulldog loyalty, while the first floor has been occupied for the last 12 years by Sotto Varalli, the first seafood restaurant on the Avenue of the Arts.

The only constant in this world is change, though, so now Sotto and Upstares have been merged into Varalli on the first floor, which now serves Northern Italian cuisine and seafood. The three-month-old Perch Pub, on the other hand, has a more relaxed and casual vibe. In addition to boasting one of the best birds-eye views in the city for people-watching, the pub offers a big bar (every seat occupied when we were there), Phillies ticket giveaways, separate areas for a pool table and dart board and features additional amenities including a juke box, HDTVs and a large drop-down projection screen in the main dining room for watching major sports events.

The second floor dining room offers great people-watching over the Avenue of the Arts. (Photo by Chuck Borrelli)

When we were there last Wednesday night, the Phillies beat the Mets, 10-7, but the sound was turned off, so the game did not interfere with conversation at the table. (As readers of this column know, supersonic restaurant noise definitely burns my biscuits, and this was not a problem at Perch Pub.) The eye-OK surroundings also include rich mahogany finishes, large areas of glass windows, a huge blackboard on the wall with food and drink specials, exposed brick and metal beams and an ever-changing glass mosaic in the main dining room.

Explaining the dramatic change from Upstares at Varalli, Joe quoted Picasso, “‘It takes a long time to grow young.’ Over the last two decades I’ve watched the city’s dining scene grow seemingly faster than the tech bubble. Much of this has been driven by a new generation of patrons. They are very food-savvy and enjoy their beer, wine and cocktails and are not cuisine- specific. I felt it was time for a change; time to expose my unique second floor location to a new flock.” Food-wise, chef Bill Carroll, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America who also runs the kitchen downstairs, is pretty much pitching a perfect game. Laid-back and unpretentious, the Northeast Philly native wears success like a second skin and hugs you with his comfort food. Out of the 20 customer reviews I checked out on yelp.com and urbanspoon.com, 19 were raves.

Charming hostess Tina Kerekes holds a rooster, symbol of the Perch Pub. This particular rooster dopes not get anyone up early in the morning with his squawking. (Photo by Len Lear)

We absolutely loved the super nachos for two ($12), Philly spring rolls with house-made spicy ketchup ($8.50), superlative chopped salad (big enough for two, $8.50), fish tacos ($8.50) and Mediterranean melt with lots of colorful, healthy fillings ($8). With a cocktail, a beer and two glasses of wine, the bill came to $80, and we had enough food leftover for a great dinner for two the next night.

The taps are filled with 12 rotating draft beers all from within a 150-mile radius that include Guinness, Yuengling Lager, Dock Street Bubbly Wit, Philadelphia Brewing Company Kilty Pleasure Scotch Ale, Yards Brawler, Brooklyn Brown Ale, Sly Fox Saison Vos, Victory Baltic Thunder Porter and Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre. The 70 bottles are both imports and domestic. There are some reasonably priced wines by the glass as well.

Our server, Brittanie Sterner, was delightful, and charming hostess Tina Kerekes doesn’t look a day over fabulous. The crowd in this Gayborhood spot is very diverse — gays and straights, old and young, students and business types, suits and tee-shirts. And, of course, pre-theaterites who are a half-block or so from their show.

Parking is always a hassle in center city, but there is an indoor garage about 75 yards east of Perch Pub, on Locust Street, north side, that is just $10 with a ticket stamped at Perch Pub. For more information and reservations, visit www.perchpub.com or call 215-546-4090.