Restaurant Review: The Farmers’ Cabinet

Pounding out stride intervals on a refurbished player piano, singing into a Western Electric broadcast microphone from the Coolidge era, and surrounded by revelers drinking at upended wine barrels, Drew Nugent can only get so far into a weeknight at the Farmers’ Cabinet before someone requests “My Girl’s Pussy.”  

At the cocktail bar, Crusta-sippers crane their necks.

There’s one pet I like to pet/And every evening we get wet …

Across the room, the tenders at the beer counter take in the smiles of customers who’ve never heard the 1931 ditty, which are only slightly more entertaining than the smirks of those who have.  

Seldom plays, never purrs/And I love the thoughts it stirs …

The microphone is actually a replica—a metal chicken feeder and some screen-door meshing jerry-rigged around modern electronics. But like Farmers’ Cabinet itself (with its jarred candles dangling from ceiling ropes, antlered heads peering from the walls, Victorian parlor furniture upholstered in jacquard), what a replica it is.  

Of precisely what, who knows? A frontier saloon refitted for bawdy sailors seeking Captain Radcliffe’s Punch? A hunting lodge commandeered by hot-jazz barnstormers just as a pirate ship crashes through the front wall?  

Take your pick. When a place has drinks this good, you might decide it doesn’t really matter. Owners Matt Scheller and Colleen and Matt Swartz have picked up right where they left off with Fork & Barrel, their short-lived tavern in East Falls. Farmers’ Cabinet goes two steps further, though. What had been the most compelling bottled-beer list in town now adds a draft selection to match, packing enough treasures for a month of drunken discovery. And the Cabinet has overhauled its cocktail program as well—hewing close to the pre-Prohibition standard so de rigueur in Center City.

Reliable food, however, just hasn’t been in the cards. For the first couple months, chef Peter Felton turned out baroque dishes that were twice as expensive and half as consistent as they ought to have been. Then he left, and the 150-seat restaurant limped through the summer without a replacement. There were worthwhile snacks—spiced pickles, rustic pâtés, salted potatoes—but entrées tended toward overcomplicated muddles. By August, Swartz was promising a complete overhaul in the fall under the direction of a newly signed chef, Jason Goodman, formerly of Parc and Meritage.  

Whether the kitchen’s grasp will catch up with its reach is an open question. But as a bar—one with drinks as refined as its music is rollicking, and an atmosphere as convivial as it is contrived—the Farmers’ Cabinet is a good old-fashioned riot.