The little café on Forbidden Drive is a family affair

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 11/27/20

If you’ve walked in the Wissahickon Woods lately, you probably noticed a change at Cedars House, the historic property on Forbidden Drive at 200 W. Northwestern Ave. Since last May, the …

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The little café on Forbidden Drive is a family affair

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If you’ve walked in the Wissahickon Woods lately, you probably noticed a change at Cedars House, the historic property on Forbidden Drive at 200 W. Northwestern Ave. Since last May, the café has offered socially distanced, outdoor dining at tables set amid its lush foliage and tall trees.

“It’s not just for our customers,” said Cedars House owner, Mary Ellen Skarbek, “It’s for anyone using the park.” This is not the only change Skarbek has instituted since taking over last February. “I redecorated, adding an additional room for indoor dining, and put a large menu board in front of the property,” she said. Our favorite touch? The antique cabinet holding an assortment of teas and coffee flavorings.

Thanks to Skarbek’s ingenuity, hikers, bikers and dog walkers now know that Cedars House is more than a “coffee” shop. It’s a warm pet-friendly eatery and meeting spot serving up an eclectic array of breakfast and lunch items that will satisfy vegetarians and carnivores alike. Why so many wagging tails? “I’m a dog owner,” said Skarbek, “I have a Pekinese rescue named Gucci.”

For Skarbek, Cedars House is a family affair. “My sister, Jenny Skarbek, ran the café for two years. Jenny is no longer involved, but everyone who works here now is a family member or a good friend,” said Skarbek, 51, who grew up in Mt Airy and has resided in Wyndmoor for more than 20 years. 

Previously, she worked in area pharmacies, including Battin and Lunger in Chestnut Hill. Her staff is comprised of her sons, nieces and their good friends. “I’m the Momma Bear,” said Skarbek. “I protect my staff. We only use disposable plates and utensils. And they work behind the counter and do not do table service during the pandemic.”

“The café was originally started in 2010 by Ricki Einstein, who lived across the street. We continue to offer many of her recipes, including curried chicken salad,” said Skarbek, who has added a few touches of her own to the menu such as her homemade chili, breads from Baker Street, rolls from Le Bus and Bassett’s ice cream.

“Our Grand Opening during the Maple Sugar Festival last February was tremendous,” said Skarbek. Then Covid hit. People were suddenly housebound and came to the Wissahickon Woods in droves. “We were so mobbed that I decided to close for the month of April,” she said. That is when Skarbek added outdoor seating. “We can now seat indoors at 50% capacity, but as long as the weather is good, people gravitate toward the tables in the garden.”

How does Skarbek keep up with the non-stop flow of customers? “We keep it simple. We do a lot of prep work on Mondays and Tuesday when we are closed.” Speaking of closing, Cedars House is open year-round.

Cedars House is more than a café. On its second floor, Jennifer Merritt, 37, a licensed massage therapist and yoga teacher, offers massage therapy and hypnosis to reduce stress and create emotional well-being. She also provides online classes in adult and kids yoga, Pilates and Ayurveda.

Meanwhile, Morgan Wells, 27, a web designer, is heading up Cedar House’s merchandising and display of local artists. “I created our WissahickonWild.com site which promotes upcoming artists,” said Wells. In November, Cedars House is featuring artist Barbara Zanelli, whose oil paintings capture the many moods of the Wissahickon Woods.

Cedars House has a history going back over 100 years. In the late 19th century, the property was the office of Andorra Nurseries. It later became a park ranger station. At that time, Forbidden Drive was open to traffic. In 1920, concerned citizens opposed automobile access. This conservancy group evolved into Friends of the Wissahickon.

Later, Fairmount Park took over the property, and the house became a storage building. People lived in it for some time, but eventually it became dilapidated. That is when Einstein took up the challenge and renovated the property, turning it into a café.  If you go, take note of the historic photos in the entryway.

For more information, visit thecedarshouse.com

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