Restaurant Review: Juniper Commons

Kevin Sbraga goes long on nostalgia at Juniper Commons.

Juniper Commons | Photos by Michael Persico

Juniper Commons | Photos by Michael Persico

At Juniper Commons, where old newspaper headlines paper two walls in a triumph of microfilm and selective memory, there’s electricity in the air.




Lionel Richie’s on the radio — along with Air Supply and Hall & Oates, all those smooth synthesizers washing over the occasional drum-machine downbeat of early LL Cool J. Votive candles flicker in amber ashtrays beneath globe lights fed by telephone-coil wire, and the lounge area goes back to the future with wingback chairs out of the Jetsons’ living room.

Twelve years after VH1’s I Love the ’80s kicked off the wink-heavy love-in for Reagan-era Americana, Kevin Sbraga let the next shoe drop: a 1980s theme restaurant. It’s a fitting enterprise for a guy who won his fame — and the money for his outstanding eponymous debut restaurant — on Top Chef. The Wolfgang Puck ’80s were a watershed in the transformation of restaurant chefs into national celebrities.

They were also the defining decade of Sbraga’s childhood. And this sprawling amber-and-beige fantasia is packed with reminders of just what a singular decade it was. Glam metal! Distressed denim! Revenge of the Nerds on the barroom TV! But whether your delight will survive an encounter with the menu? That’s another question entirely.

Sbraga steers clear of Nouvelle Cuisine, whose fussy miniatures stranded on giant plates rank among the decade’s most dubious distinctions. He likewise declines to simply blacken everything, à la Paul Prudhomme.

So far, so prudent. But what’s left? Judging from Juniper Commons, the answer would appear to be greed-is-good portions of the country-club staples that have provided a safe harbor for mainstream family dining in every era. As a friendly server reassured one of my parties, we didn’t have to worry about encountering “anything out of the ordinary.”

Whether that’s a feature or a bug depends on just how boring you like your harbor. There’s a gigantic short rib served on a Flintstone bone, fried crabcakes with tartar sauce, a wedge salad, a roast beef au jus sandwich with horseradish cream — all serviceable, none much more thrilling than the hunt for a parking spot. Eggplant parm had the sweet sauce and faint rubberiness I remember from cafeteria days. You can order a baked potato, though I couldn’t bring myself to. I didn’t summon the make-your-own salad cart, either. I share Sbraga’s fond childhood memories of salad buffets, just not enough to pay $12 for the vastly diminished pleasure of drizzling on the ranch as a grown-up. Critics usually don’t mention dishes they neglect, because it points out their failure to try every last item. I hereby enter a guilty plea: That potato may have been starch heaven and the salad-cart greens immaculate, but some things are just too banal to bother with.

A Caesar salad mixed tableside was a subtler and more engaging proposition, and executive chef Greg Garbacz’s deeply caramelized French onion soup could pair with the superlative beef-fat-drizzled fries as an über-comfort lunch. The raw bar excelled with oysters and lobster, but the deveining process for the shell-on shrimp cocktail needed work. And the service, led by gregarious general manager Tom Pittakas, is more sophisticated than the smotheringly norm-core menu.

The tastiest entrées come off a wood-fired hearth, and none beat a stellar half rack of lamb, tinged with smoke and brightened with almond-mint pesto. It had more going for it than the simply prepared, perfectly cooked, excessively oversized prime rib. What’s more, the worthiest sides come from beyond the 1980s. Surprises like piri piri sauce on roasted root vegetables and fried smelts with chili aioli suggest that the kitchen cooks best when least constrained by the restaurant’s theme.

The same goes for the bar, which mixed the best martini and Martinez I’ve ever sipped. Curious that the menu lists neither, considering the encyclopedic gin list — for which Pittakas is an enthusiastic sherpa. It focuses instead on some uneven “remixed” ’80s cocktails, a spread of truly creative and delicious tonics, and, less rewardingly, house-made sparkling wine coolers. Those are a step up from Bartles & Jaymes — which still leaves them two steps down from everything else.

Sbraga’s first two restaurants have helped elevate Philly’s dining mainstream in the 2010s to a level that this one’s underwhelming inspiration hinders it from reaching. The problem, I think, is that he aimed for a middlebrow smorgasbord and managed to score a perfect bull’s-eye.

Two Stars – Good

Juniper Commons [Foobooz]