By Len Lear
Phyllis Gosfield, one-half of the legendary owners of the iconic Chestnut Hill restaurant, Under the Blue Moon, died Sunday, Feb. 2, of natural causes at age 90 at Keystone Hospice, where she had been just a short time. Prior to that she lived in an assisted living facility in Chester County for five years.
From 1976 to 1997 Phyllis (nee Starobin) and her husband, Gene, owned and operated Under the Blue Moon at 8042 Germantown Ave., where customers would go as much for the entertainment (supplied mostly by Gene) as for the food, which was also outstanding. Gene died of cancer in June of 2007 at age 83.
“We were lucky to have such wonderful parents,” said Josh Gosfield, 66, a non-fiction writer and artist who lives in New York, in a Local interview. (The Go fields had three other children who are all musicians.) “Phyllis led a really great life, and she was ready to go. My parents taught me that it is never too late to go after what will make you happy. Gene said life is about love and work, work and love. That’s all there is.”
According to long-time Chestnut Hill restaurateur Paul Roller, “Phylis was one of the great ones. She and Gene gave us great times, great food, great energy and great politics. There were no bounds to Phyllis' cooking and to Gene's humor. There was a lot of love that they projected in that restaurant for the food and for their customers."
Most people who open their first restaurant are relatively young people who already have experience working in other restaurants. And even they have as much chance of lasting for more than 20 years as I do of becoming Philly’s next mayor. But on May 13, 1976, Gene Gosfield, who was 52, and his wife Phyllis, who was 47, neither of whom had ever worked in a restaurant, opened a small BYOB at 8042 Germantown Ave., which was previously occupied by a toy store called It's a Small World.
Gene and Phyllis had both worked for Phyllis' family-owned aluminum window manufacturing business in the lower Northeast, but it was sold to a Fortune 500 company in the early 1970s. Despite their age and the fact that they had to support four children, Phyllis, who always liked to cook and entertain guests at home, persuaded Gene to accompany her in enrolling in the very first class of the just-opened Restaurant School of Philadelphia.
After much struggle and sacrifice, the Gosfields graduated and found the Chestnut Hill storefront. Gene once told me that their original name for the restaurant was Blue Moon Cafe, but when they discovered there was already a place by that name in South Philadelphia, one of their daughters suggested Under the Blue Moon. If you called the restaurant and got their phone machine, you would have to endure Gene’s off-key singing of Rodgers and Hart's 1934 ballad, "Blue Moon.”
The small cafe was so successful that two years later, the Gosfields took over the next door corner property, which made the restaurant about three times bigger, and they added a liquor license. And one year after opening the cafe, the Gosfields hired as their new chef Don Prentis, who graduated from the Restaurant School one year after they did. (Phyllis helped with the cooking also.) Prentis stayed with them for 20 years until the end, an almost unheard of tenure in the restaurant business. Most other employees at the end had been there more than 10 years.
Nowadays we expect restaurants to change their menus two to four times a year and frequently tweak the menus with additions and specials. Maintaining the same menu items is considered a sign of stodginess and conservatism today, but it did not bother the Blue Moon's loyal customers. “We just cannot drop items like Marco Polo salad, sesame pecan chicken and Donald's Duck (named for the chef),” Phyllis once told me. “If we tried to take any of them off the menu, we would never hear the end of it from our customers.” Gene also told me that the restaurant's sesame pecan chicken was "Phyllis' contribution to Western civilization."
Gene obviously got into the restaurant business as much to entertain customers as for the food. Every night he would saunter from table to table, schmoozing with diners like a retired Borscht Belt comedian or Henny Youngman wannabe, peppering customers with one-liners such as “Did you hear about the woman who ran over her husband? Her lawyers tried to plea bargain it down to life in traffic school.” Gene referred to Under the Blue Moon as “a country club with instant membership.”
"Our secret was Gene," Phyllis once told a reporter. "He was out front. He just had this ambition; it was like the Holy Grail to him. People had to be fed, and they had to have a good time. I tried the front for a while. I saw people just sail in, full of demands. I found it difficult. Gene would say, 'They come in cranky. We gotta make them happy.'"
Gene's father had left Ukraine to avoid being forced to serve in the Russian army. The family name was Piatagortzov, but they changed it to Gosfield when they moved to England and lived on Gosfield Street in London. After moving to the U.S., Gene served as a bombardier during World War II, flying 33 bombing raids out of Italy. On one occasion he was permitted to pass up a mission so that new recruits could receive real-life action. On that mission the plane was blown up, and the pilot was killed.
After the war, Gene moved to New York, where he met Phyllis, who was a terrific blues singer. They were married in 1949 and then moved to the Philadelphia area, living for several years in Wyndmoor and then in Fort Washington until Phyllis moved into assisted living.
When the Gosfields closed the restaurant in 1997, much to the dismay and chagrin of their loyal customers, they explained that they were burned out from the 24/7/365 restaurant life. Gene was 73, and Phyllis was 68. "I've always been a cook, sew, garden kind of person,” said Phyllis. “We're still young, but that's why we're leaving. We want to have some time to ourselves while we are still young." (The Go fields' had two sons, Reuben and Josh, and two daughters, Avery and Annie. None is in the restaurant business.)
At the time of the closing in 1997, the restaurant was sold to Richard Snowden, of Bowman Properties. Attempts were made by would-be restaurateurs to open a restaurant in the Blue Moon property, but nothing ever was finalized. The first floor that housed Under the Blue Moon has now been vacant for 23 years.
Funeral services were held for Phyllis Friday, Feb. 7, 11:30 a.m., at Goldstein’s Funeral Homes, 6410 N. Broad St. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com