McCrossen’s Gets a Makeover

By Sunday night at 11, Spike TV will have aired four episodes of “Bar Rescue,” the reality makeover show that has consultant Jon Taffer transforming pitifully underperforming bars by defining “cocktail” to servers (no joke, that happened last week) and screaming at pathetically indifferent or simpery owners. Carve another notch in the bedpost of reasons why the world thinks our city is a hotbed of lame-osity: Thus far, two of those four episodes have been based in Philly.

But obviously the hope is that after Taffer leaves, the bar’s new interior, image, menu, employee training and management style revive the place enough to allow it to hum along pleasantly until it dies a natural death a few centuries from now. (For likely success rates, please reference “Hot Potato Café” and “Kitchen Nightmares, Season 3.”) But just as the Taffer caravan rolled in and out of Philly, a quieter bar rescue has been taking place–this one absent camera crews and unctuous host.

The revolution is at McCrossen’s, a 75-year-old tavern that you probably haven’t been to since college. To catch you up, in the time since you graduated and moved to the Main Line, the Art Museum spot that opened as a destination for quality food has lived on … but only as a vaguely Irish and outmoded pub with a clientele whose check totals made the family of owners sigh.

So a year ago, they hired their long-time friend Townsend Wentz to act as Jon Taffer and rescue their bar from the all-green ceiling, ubiquitous beer signs, and fried-stuff-and-sandwiches menu that kept it from keeping up with the Kite and Keys and The Belgian Cafes that have moved in nearby.

Wentz says, “The other places in the neighborhood had out McCrossened McCrossen’s. There was no more definition to the brand.”

As the new sheriff and business partner in town, Chef Wentz (who’s done time in NYC, but also worked his way around Philly at places like The Fountain at the Four Seasons, Lacroix, and as Executive Chef at Twenty21) started making major upgrades six months ago with the goal of re-establishing McCrossen’s as a true focal point for dining in the neighborhood.

Taking a cue from the myriad Improve-My-Whatever shows filling up TV schedules, he repainted. He took down the signs, opened up the space, updated the lighting, upgraded the china and barware and re-upped the standards for service (which might not have involved explaining to his bar staff what a cocktail was, but still). He’s removed the fried apps and replaced the sandwiches, putting together a free-form and ever-changing menu of the types of foods foodies brag about eating: Spanish tapas, gazpacho, panzanella, beet salad, sustainable seafood and fresh corn he buys from the farmer down the street from his house in Palmyra, NJ. He’s kept the prices reasonable, with the most expensive entrée – a 12 oz. dry-aged Black Angus ribeye — currently listed at $24 and a weekend brunch that costs $20 for a meal and unlimited bloodies or mimosas.

Wentz also brought along his sous from Twenty21 and hired the new face of the restaurant: sommelier and general manager Lauren Harris, whose CV also lists Twenty21 (way to keep it in the family, Wentz), as well as Tria and Sean Connelly’s Astral in Sydney, Australia. Harris, who started in April, is bringing fresh wines and specialty cocktails to the mix, plus a lineup of 12 beer taps and two dozen bottles with geek-friendly names like Bell’s Oberon, Orval, North Coast La Merle and four selections from Sierra Nevada’s various Beer Camps. Together, Harris and Wentz are programming three-to-four food/wine pairing events per month, including the monthly wine-cheese-food tutorial with a DiBruno’s cheesemonger that costs $32.

And the tweaks keep coming. They’re continuing to develop ideas for special events and are in the process of incorporating some outdoor seating. Their aim is to complete their transformation by the time the new Barnes Foundation opens a block away in the spring.

It’s not quite the three-day turnaround that “Bar Rescue’s” crew manages on Spike. But with patience, international experience and in-house investment, hopefully the new-and-improved McCrossen’s can last longer than a season of “reality” television.

McCrossen’s Tavern [Official website]

Bar Rescue [Spike TV]