Lafayette Hiller the next Stephen Starr?
Watch out, Stephen Starr, four young Philly guys are gaining on you. While Stephen Starr is the undisputed king of independent, upscale restaurants in Philadelphia with showcases like Morimoto, Barclay Prime, Butcher & Singer and Buddakan, and nobody outside the restaurant business has ever heard of Gary Cardi, Brian Harrington, Frank Falesto and Chris Coco, this quartet of local thirtysomething entrepreneurs is definitely moving up quickly along the rail.
While their business, Public House Investments, does not have a very romantic name, banks supplying millions in loans must be finding them pretty sexy. Early in 2005 the quartet opened Public House in the former home of Dock Street Brewery at 1801 Arch St. in Logan Square. It offers a new modern-meets-traditional decor and an American comfort food menu. At Happy Hour, their 77-foot-long granite bar is a real “meet market.” It is said that money talks, but if all yours is saying is “goodbye,” then perhaps you should try their enormous salads, which are a meal in themselves for $9 to $16. For more information, call 215-587-9040 or visit www.publichousephilly.com
In February of 2007, the enterprising quartet opened Mission Grill, a huge operation (140 seats and three private rooms) with a Southwestern ambience on the ground floor of the old Bell Telephone Building at 1835 Arch St. And in January of 2008 they opened Field House, a sports bar in the Reading Terminal’s old Independence Bar & Grill location. It seats 315, thus making it the biggest restaurant in center city. As if that’s not enough, they also own four restaurants in New York City and one each in Stamford, CT; Wilmington, DE; Baltimore and Washington, D.C. And they plan to open a second Tap House in Baltimore in October and an Irish pub called Harrington’s Pub and Kitchen in Washington, D.C., within days. That will make a total of 14 restaurants.
Someone in the restaurant business once said that some days it just doesn’t pay to gnaw through the leather straps, but this quartet of entrepreneurs apparently experiences many of the non-gnawing days. “It’s exciting to open restaurants,” said Brian Harrington, a Lafayette Hill resident who learned the business while working for McFadden’s, a chain of pubs, for seven years.
“But the only way you will last for 20 years is to concentrate on good food. You will not make it over the long haul on just beer and music.” (Brian, 38, a graduate of Germantown Academy, has been married for 10 years to the former Molly Foley, of Flourtown, a Mount St. Joseph alumna. Brian started out as a sportscaster in Baltimore, but he says the $7-an-hour salary quickly made the restaurant business seem more tasty.)
What has been the effect of the economic recession on the quartet’s restaurant empire? “The recession has made us focus more than ever on making sure our customers are getting value for their dollars, along with a good experience,” said Brian. “In years past, many operators had the luxury of charging a premium for their products because of ample disposable income and insane business expense account spending. Those days are gone, and they are never coming back. Ask any steakhouse operator in Philadelphia.”
On Monday, May 10 of this year, the quartet christened their latest culinary child when City Tap House opened its doors at 3925 Walnut St. The new restaurant serves the region’s largest selection of draft beers — at least 60, including many rare craft offerings — as well as a menu of American pub fare. The newcomer features extensive open-air seating on two terraces and a row of five stone fire pits overlooking Walnut Street.
City Tap House is located on the second level of The Radian, a new building that houses University of Pennsylvania students. The restaurant features a large “island” bar with all 60 taps, a 120-seat dining room and an open kitchen.
The timber-framed interior with a natural color scheme is outfitted by reclaimed wood from old barns, used for everything from the walls to the ceiling beams; slate tile floors and hand-hammered copper accents, including the bar top.
The restaurant’s beer list was developed by beer steward Andrew Farrell, 30, an Overbrook native who was formerly a chef at Smith & Wollensky in center city and Fleming’s in Radnor, among others. “Years of cooking got me into beer,” he said, “and I treat beer like a great chef treats wine.”
At City Tap House you will not find a Miller’s Light or Coors, thank goodness. Of those we tried during a May 25 visit, I found Bells Oberon and Hitachino Nest White too bitter for my liking, but four that I loved were Schneider Aventinus, a Dopplebock with hints of chocolate, bananas and raisins ($8); Kira, a Belgian white with a light spice and citrus taste, and it’s only 4.7 percent alcohol ($6); Southampton Double White, an American wheat beer with a spicy clove aroma and citrusy taste ($6); and Framboise, a champagne-like Belgian Lambic with a distinct raspberry flavor and just 6 percent alcohol ($8).
The American pub fare is produced by culinary director Brian Cooke, former general manager at The Fountain Restaurant at The Four Seasons, and executive chef Albert Paris.
A few dishes we would highly recommend are the hand-cut sweet potato fries with a sensual maple bourbon sauce and spicy ketchup ($6); a brick oven pizza with sweet fennel sausage, mozzarella and oven-dried tomato ($13); an open-faced Reuben sandwich with smoked brisket, Gruyere cheese, pickled red cabbage, Russian dressing and fries ($9); and an entrée of shrimp with an orange-thyme glaze and chorizo sausage ($22).
Philadelphia is now bursting with chefs from the world’s most prestigious culinary schools, but not many can trump homegrown product, Albert Paris, 53, who grew up in a typical South Philadelphia Italian neighborhood, where cooking for him was almost as instinctive as breathing. (His last name does not end in a vowel because one of his forebears Americanized the name, which he believes was originally Parisi.)
“My wonderful Neapolitan grandmother would take me into the kitchen and teach me her cooking secrets,” said Al. “I loved cooking from then on. I started working in a neighborhood restaurant at age 12 washing dishes, and I learned everything I could from the chefs. As a result, I was made sous chef at Lily’s in New Market at the age of 18.”
Paris’ reputation grew as quickly as tomatoes in Tuscany. He moved to San Francisco, where he soon became sous chef at famed Café Riggio, then executive chef at the exclusive San Francisco Tennis Club. Eventually he moved to Napa Valley, where he was named executive chef at the spectacular La Belle Helene Restaurant and then at the Cain Cellars Winery. He soon moved back to San Francisco, where he ran two Italian restaurants.
You may have concluded by now that the one thing Paris cannot do is stay at one job for too long. He finally got homesick enough to move back to Philadelphia, where he became executive chef at two very hot properties at the time — Marabella’s and Pomodoro. Of course he moved on and in 1993 became a chef/partner at Circa, which was at 16th and Walnut Streets for 10 years.
It will probably not surprise you that he moved on to other restaurants — Rococo in Old City, then City Grille on City Line Avenue, Guru on South Street, Zanzibar Blue at The Bellevue, Mantra, an Asian fusion restaurant/lounge near Rittenhouse Square, and Public House (and probably some I left out). His resume may be longer than the menu at City Tap House, but his food is always excellent.
Menu items range in price from $6 for the aforementioned hand-cut sweet potato fries to $29 for Saturday’s grilled bone-in rib-eye dinner special. City Tap House, which so far has been attracting loads of Penn students and faculty members, serves lunch and dinner, seven days a week. For more information or to make a reservation, visit www.citytaphouse.com or call 215-662-0105.