‘Center city food at neighborhood prices’
Operating a successful neighborhood restaurant for 16 years is as difficult as finding a Japanese man named Biff, but Jan Wilson has been doing just that for 16 years at Cafette, 8136 Ardleigh St. And it’s the only Chestnut Hill restaurant not on a major road; in fact, it’s on a residential street that otherwise has only single-family homes.
“I believe we’ve lasted so long,” said Jan, 50, “because we have center city quality food at neighborhood prices, and we have always been BYOB, so people save lots of money by bringing their own wine. We make our own stocks, have layering of flavors and take no short cuts. I can truly say we do things the right way.
“With the economy the way it is now, everyone is looking to save money. On Sundays we offer a full three-course menu, including homemade desserts, for a total of just $16 per person. And every night of the week we have a special entree for $16 in honor of our sweet 16 years in business. Nowadays quite a few restaurants are offering three courses for $30 but definitely not for $16! Please tell me where else you can get this quality of food at those prices? And on school nights children eat for free!”
The executive chef at Cafette is lifelong Mt. Airy resident John McLaughlin, 33, formerly a chef at Goat Hollow in Mt. Airy for three years and Rembrandt’s in Fairmount. His cooking is as reliable as an expensive watch. “I am truly honored to put out the food that John and his team turn out,” said Jan, “which is creative homestyle cooking. I can remember seeing him around the neighborhood growing up (in Mt. Airy). He was very handsome and just a little older than my daughter. I love John as a chef and as a person. It’s nice to get the whole package. He could show off and do a lot more fancy food, but we want to keep the value that we’ve always had.”
“I have made a conscious decision not to go into the world of fine dining,” added McLaughlin, who still lives in Mt. Airy with his wife, Maria, a schoolteacher, and daughter, Ella, 1 and 1/2. “I honestly think it is morally wrong to charge $40 for an entree, as many center city restaurants do. It’s over the top. Cooking isn’t rocket science. Our goal is to keep it simple with lots of good flavor. There is no need to be pretentious.”
You don’t last 16 years in the restaurant business, where new competitors open up all the time, unless you change with the times. In the case of Cafette, they are selling many more salads and fewer sandwiches than they did 16 years ago; they are serving more fresh pasta and seafood and homemade desserts, rotating menus seasonally and dealing with local farmers wherever possible. For example, they purchase eggs from Lancaster County farmers and fresh produce from the Weavers Way Farm.
McLaughlin’s right and left hands in the kitchen are Mike Donato of Germantown (who is also an artist) and Tim Cunningham of Mt. Airy, and Jan’s sister, Ginger, has been with her for the entire 16 years. Cafette’s pastry chef, Ellen Grey, also has a long-standing Chestnut Hill area pedigree. A Wyndmoor resident, Ellen previously was the baker/owner of A Slice of Heaven, which operated out of the space now occupied by King’s Garden, close to the Chestnut Hill Hotel.
“Her light seasonal confections are never cloyingly sweet,” said Wilson. “She makes an amazing scotch pudding and a sensational ricotta cheesecake. One bite of it transports me to Italy.”
For lunch, a few of the most popular dishes are the Japanese vegetable salad ($8.50), Mediterranean salad ($9) and crispy Asian tofu and portabello club sandwich ($8.50). For dinner some of the favorites that customers will not let Jan take off the menu are the French onion soup ($5), barbecued baby back ribs ($19), Maryland crabcakes ($20), flat-iron Asian pepper steak ($21) and horseradish-crusted tilapia ($18).
For 20 years, from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s, Gump’s Luncheonette was housed in the property at 8136 Ardleigh St. It was a popular gathering place for nearby residents and youngsters relaxing after a game at the Water Tower. When Jan was a child, her grandmother, who lived right around the corner, would send her to Gump’s for sandwiches or ice cream. After Gump’s, many wannabes tried their hand but had no staying power.
Then came Wilson, who has been down the long and grinding road. When she opened Cafette early in the early ‘90s, some neighbors reacted as if she were spreading malaria. Eventually, however, the most vociferous opponent moved out of the neighborhood, and Jan won over the others with her sunshine personality and cheerleader enthusiasm. (She also does not close the restaurant when she runs out of rolls, as Gump’s used to do.)
“I’m very bullish about Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy,” said Jan. “I love this area, and I feel privileged to live here. In addition to the food, what has helped us to last this long is the sweet relationship between our customers and our staff.
“Our customers are cosmopolitan people who could go to any restaurant to eat, but they keep coming back to this little place, and we really appreciate it. Having such nice customers is what makes this place so special for me.”
Jan Wilson has become as much of a Chestnut Hill institution as the Water Tower or Pastorius Park. A graduate of Jenks School and Girls’ High School (the Bicentennial class of 1976), Jan was also president of the Jenks Home and School Association for two years in the late 1980s and was a CHCA board member.
She was once a waitress and later a manager at Chautauqua, the predecessor of Pollo Rosso and Stella Notte, both now defunct. In addition, Jan was a disc jockey at several night clubs including London’s Hard Rock Cafe, and she interviewed rock bands for a local TV station. Jan has also made wedding gowns for area residents, and she is a certified massage therapist.
Cafette can seat 42 diners indoors, and when the weather cooperates, 50 more can be seated in their outdoor garden. A recent interior renovation by noted New York designer Arthur Zweck-Bronner modernized the Cafette interior with sconce lighting, banquette seating, bright colors and poster art on the walls.
In addition, Cafette is now offering a series of cooking classes. The first will be a hands-on baking class by Ellen Gray on Monday, Feb. 9, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, you can learn to make raspberry tiramisu, double chocolate cherry biscotti and lemon linzer tarts. The cost is $35.
To pre-register or for any information about Cafette, call 215-242-4220 or visit www.cafette.com.