One Christmas, without having read it first, I gave my mother Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. When I mentioned the gift to a friend who had just finished that no-holds-barred look behind the curtains of the restaurant biz, his jaw dropped. “Dude, you gave that to your mom?” he exclaimed. “One of the first stories he tells is about watching some chef rear-end a newlywed bride over a garbage can! Bourdain says it’s the moment he knew he wanted to be a chef!”
I wouldn’t call my mother a prude, but her ideas about hospitality have a limit. She chose not to accompany Bourdain on the rest of his journey beyond that fateful 55-gallon drum in a restaurant garbage stockade. But sometimes it seems like everyone else in America did. And just like that, sous-chefs knocked bike messengers off the top of the urban-cool totem pole.
The restaurant business’s gritty glamour has now held us in thrall for a decade. And as if to prove the strength of its grip on Philadelphia, here comes its latest absurd (yet somehow inevitable) manifestation: the Industry, a restaurant dedicated to restaurant workers themselves.
The Pennsport pub-cum-clubhouse is the brainchild of Dave Garry and Heather Gleason of Center City’s Good Dog, who paid close attention to pedigree. Honorific mug shots of industry stalwarts like Monk’s Tom Peters punctuate the shadowed walls, and the open kitchen belongs to chef Pat Szoke, who made his bones at Buddakan, Vetri, and the Farm and Fisherman. A pay stub from any bar or restaurant in town gets you 20 percent off. Civilians will pay full fare for Szoke’s nifty pig-ear lettuce wraps, fast-food-style burgers and “Kentucky fried” guinea hen.
But at six, eight and 17 bucks respectively, that’s still pretty friendly—and friendliness is really what makes this place tick. From off-duty table runners hitting the bar for a $6 plate of late-night “Sunday staff meal” meatloaf, to families handing stubby jars of smoked Pocono trout around a high chair at a sidewalk table, the Industry’s genuinely caring waitstaff gives everyone the warm fuzzies.
Of course, good cooking helps. The Industry’s fried green tomatoes are the final word for evangelists of that too-frequently-fumbled dish: perfectly crispy batter, an even more perfectly tangy tomato slice, topped with peppery arugula nestling sweet bursts of ripe cherry tomatoes. A killer hot sauce spilled from those pig-ear wraps, in which julienned veggies were a pleasingly full partner. I liked the whole-grain salad, too, with its shavings of ricotta salata half-dissolving into the zucchini-and-squash-speckled heap of farro,
giving the al dente wheatberries a salty sort of creaminess.
Indeed, one of the nicest surprises here was the fair shake given to healthful stuff. You’d expect a restaurant-biz hangout to serve pig-face nuggets (an old amuse bouche from Vetri, revved up here by a mild sambal aioli) and bone marrow (mine was a little too dried out), but not necessarily whipped tofu, or an excellent cucumber salad.
A few things fell flat. There was a ho-hum wedge salad, a pulled-duck sandwich in which the barbecue sauce dominated the duck and the bready ciabatta dominated them both, and a dessert that managed to undershoot my expectations for a Swiss Roll—which I would have thought impossible. I can recognize the burger—a thin brisket patty griddle-cooked gray all the way through—as a superior, greasy-juicy emblem of the Five Guys school, but I can’t get around wanting my burgers fat and pink.
Still, that’s easy to forget over your third beer from a killer 13-tap rotation—and even easier once you taste Szoke’s lamb-neck gravy. He simmers the meat to shreds in canned Romas and red wine, tosses in a dollop of house-made ricotta, and serves it with grilled baguette. Yeah, it’s simple. But you’ll look pretty silly saying that with your tongue in the cast iron, lapping up puddles like a starved cat.
Maybe that’s why servers are quick to offer extra bread. But that just brings us back again to the Industry’s generous come-one-come-all vibe, which ended up reminding me of the first and best restaurant I ever worked in, where a white working-class entrepreneur, who had built his waitstaff out of hard-partying Bible Belt refugees, put his kitchen in the unquestioned charge of a black family man, and gave the Yale kid a dishrag and instructions for hosing food waste out of the kitchen mats—as means to earning a part-time valet gig, and a full place in the family.
The truth is, you can’t chalk up our era’s love affair with restaurant work merely to the kitchen drama that sells memoirs and TV ads. What’s most compelling about that work is the way it obliterates social differences at a time when they’re starker than ever, and remains an engine of class mobility when so many others have broken down. That’s something well worth paying homage to, and though the Industry has room to tune up a recipe or two, it’s got the spirit down pat.