Off the Cuff: January 2010
AS WE BEGIN A new year, a lot of us at the magazine are breathing a great sigh of relief. We survived 2009! The worst seems to be over, although we still have economic challenges ahead. All of this has me thinking about the many changes the city has gone through over the years.
Anyone who regularly reads this column knows that some changes — such as how this city is managed, or how we’ve gone from being a business and manufacturing mecca to what we are today — are highly frustrating for me. But there have also been terrific advances in Philadelphia, and it just so happens that this issue of the magazine celebrates an important one: the incredible variety and quality of dining in our region.
Once things change, we tend to forget the way they were — and the restaurant scene in Philadelphia was once completely different. Or, more accurately, practically nonexistent. In my mind, the restaurant renaissance began all the way back in the early 1950s.
When I came to Philadelphia in 1952, there was just a handful of decent places to eat, including Shoyer’s, Frankie Bradley’s, Bookbinder’s and the Vesper Club. Horn & Hardart, at 54th and City Avenue, was considered something special; people would stand in line for dinner. For a “decent” meal, you might head out to Howard Johnson’s at City and Haverford avenues. (I’m not kidding.) I had a front-row seat as the restaurant scene evolved — and even played a small role in it.
In late 1953, brothers Wallis and Chuck Callahan came to see me. They were opening Coventry Forge Inn, a French restaurant, just this side of Pottstown, and they wanted to advertise in the magazine. I advised them to wait a year before running an ad — which astounded them. But at that point, I thought they’d be throwing their money away.
Yet I was curious, so about a year later, editor Alan Halpern and I drove west and had dinner at Coventry Forge Inn. It was fabulous — the Callahans were really the first restaurateurs in the area to aspire to haute cuisine — and we gave the place a glowing review, which certainly helped it. A year or so later, the Callahans started advertising in the magazine.
But here’s where it gets really interesting: A young guy named Peter Von Starck, the son of a prominent lawyer in town, wanted to learn the restaurant business. He went to Provence, in the south of France, to apprentice at L’Oustau de Baumanière, where a young chef named Georges Perrier was working. Von Starck returned to work in the kitchen of Coventry Forge, and subsequently created his own restaurant. Von Starck brought Perrier to America to open La Panetière in a small townhouse on Spruce Street in 1967; three years later, Von Starck moved it to a larger space on Locust Street, but Perrier remained to open Le Bec-Fin, and our restaurant boom was off and running.
As I watch us ride another wave, from bust to equilibrium to, I hope, another boom, I’m reminded of how things evolve in an unpredictable fashion. There’s a simple lesson, I think, in remembering the restaurant renaissance: There are still big challenges ahead as our economy recovers, and of course there will still be difficult problems in Philadelphia. But sometimes it helps to step back and see what has worked. Above all else, you have to keep the faith, and keep plugging away.
Happy New Year, everyone.
D. Herbert Lipson