The One Where the Lab Ate the Cheesesteak

Abner’s and Koreana — the last restaurant holdouts of 38th and Chestnut — are closing this month in preparation for a new 13-floor life sciences building.

Abner’s Cheesesteaks / Photograph by Hannah Albertine

Ask anyone who has spent time in University City what they know about the block of 38th and Chestnut, and you’re likely to hear a version of the same few stories over and over again. Squeaky styrofoam plates holding up Koreana’s bul deok boki, a strip club around back, and the promise of a free Abner’s cheesesteak if Penn’s basketball team scored 100 points before the clock ran out. A Penn student who graduated in the aughts might recall a Chili’s with a broken awning and Sitar’s all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Someone who hung out on the block in the ’90s might wax poetic about the bar in the basement space. 38th and Chestnut measures all of 310,000 square feet, but to consider its property is to consider a kaleidoscopic collective of nostalgia that lives well beyond its physical bounds.

See all »

By 2025, the block’s story will change. And, by the end of April 2022, 38th and Chestnut’s only remaining restaurants — Abner’s Cheesesteaks and Koreana — must vacate to make room for what will reportedly be a new, 13-floor laboratory and office space.

Emma Harper, who co-owns Koreana with her husband Mike, says she learned their Korean restaurant would be forced to shut down back in January. Aside from Harper and her husband, the restaurant currently employs two staff members: a cook and an international student from Vietnam who works three nights a week. “COVID hit and we lost everybody. We are struggling but we’re trying.”

Koreana’s last day will be April 17th so that the team has time to clean up and move out. Their next door neighbor, Abner’s, will continue service until the last week of April — though part-owner Mike Badlis says the restaurant won’t be seeking another location. “We cannot afford it. The business didn’t come back. I mean, it’s not something we’re looking at now.” Badlis is not aware of the block’s future plans, but he’s been preparing to close Abner’s down for several months.

The cheesesteak spot originally debuted in 1981 with jerseys on the walls and TVs blaring in the corners. It became known as a hub for Philly sports crowds before and after games. Then, in the mid ’90s, the business formed a catering sponsorship deal with the University of Pennsylvania’s basketball program, committing to handing out free cheesesteaks to anyone who could present a ticket to a game where Penn scored over 100 points. Suffice to say, fans have only been able to cash in a handful of times.

At Koreana, Harper says she has been searching the neighborhood for another lease agreement. Even still, the casual and beloved Korean restaurant has no plans to reopen in a new location. “It looks like it’s not happening. It’s not affordable for us.” Harper says the restaurant pays between $3,000 and $4,000 per month in rent in their current space, whereas other commercial spaces she’s seen in University City cost between $8,000 to $9,000 for roughly 1,000 square feet. Koreana is also considering a move to Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, where there are commercial spaces available for around $7,000 a month. “Owners would rather keep their buildings empty than rent it to us because they want so much money. They know we’re closing soon and they think that we’re desperate. I’d rather sit back and take my time.”

Although a group of developers attached to the lab project announced the acquisition of the site on February 1, city property records show that the land at 38th and Chestnut is currently owned by Ted Pagano and his son Dean Pagano – whose family opened a neighborhood pizza place called House of Pagano in 1955 where the Annenberg Center currently resides. After Penn bought out House of Pagano, the restaurant moved into the 3800 block building in 1984 and Ted Pagano took over the business. He then opened the basement bar Campus Lounge, which, according to a 2004 interview in the City Paper, inadvertently turned into a strip club when a “beautiful dancer named Mitzy, who everyone just loved, started taking her clothes off.” Pagano remains the owner of several other businesses in the city, including Club Risque on South Columbus Boulevard. Foobooz attempted, unsuccessfully, to reach Pagano for comment multiple times.

The block’s new life sciences project will be helmed by Chicago-based firms Sterling Bay and Harrison Street, as well as Botanic Properties in New York. Their plans join a growing roster of new real estate developments in the neighborhood. According to an investigation into the city’s biotech boom, Philly’s life sciences sector accounted for $745 million worth of real estate deals in 2019. Much of the industry’s upcoming action centers in University City, thanks to its proximity to Penn, Drexel, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

University City’s changing commercial landscape comes as no surprise to Badlis at Abner’s, either. “We really appreciate every customer. We appreciate all the business that they’ve given us. And we’re sorry. It’s out of our hands. I guess it’s part of the game. What are you going to do?”

One thing you can do: Get yourself a cheesesteak and some kimbap between now and the end of the month.