The Team Behind Hearthside to Open New Restaurant

Plus: Robotic servers descend on Cherry Hill, West Chester's new 400-seat steakhouse, and chef Andrew Wood of Russet takes over Le Virtù’s kitchen.

A busy dining room at Collingswood’s Hearthside. / Photograph courtesy of Hearthside

Howdy, buckaroos! And welcome back to the Foobooz food news round-up. This week, we’ve got not just one, but TWO stories coming out of New Jersey — and one of them has a robot in it. Beyond that, there’s just a few quick things for us to get through, and then we can all get on with our week. So let’s kick things off by crossing the bridge for…

Jersey Story #1: Smoke and Martinis on Haddon Avenue

Dominic and Lindsay Piperno have been sitting on the extra-large space at 105 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood for more than three years now. They’ve been working on it since COVID — since late in 2020 — and originally hoped to have something up and running in the space by 2022 but, well, things happen.

The Pipernos run the Piperno Hospitality Group and Piperno Hospitality is the team behind Hearthside just down the street. Hearthside made a name for itself with its wood-fired entrees and handmade pastas, but Dominic and Lindsay wanted something newer, something bigger, something with a bar that could match their vision for the floor. And that was what this project was supposed to be.

But things got complicated. First, they needed to secure Hearthside in the wake of plague and devastation. They wanted to make sure their existing restaurant got back to where it needed to be before worrying about something new.

Then there was the paperwork, licenses, variances, meetings with the Haddon Township planning board. The new project is going to be big (14,000 square feet), so they had to convince the neighbors that a new restaurant and cocktail bar would be worth whatever disruptions it caused.

But as of last week, all of that appears to be done, and it looks like the Pipernos will be moving forward on a plan that will bring 145 new seats, pastas, flatbreads, seafood towers and a swanky cocktail bar to the neighborhood. There’s no name for the new place yet, but there is an amended timeline: 12 months, hopefully less. And in that time, they’re hoping to transform the former warehouse/furniture store/MMA gym into a high-class, old-fashioned, sit-down “Contemporary American” restaurant with an elevated bar program focusing on the classics (plus extensive zero-proof options) and a menu built around the same kind of wood-burning ovens that gave Hearthside its name.

Anyway, a year out, there aren’t a ton of details on what the finished product will look like, but if you’re super-interested in where things stand right now (or just really like detailed explanations of community drainage issues), NJ Pen’s Matt Skoufalos went to the board meeting and published the whole play-by-play here.

I’ll be keeping my eye on the space and will keep you updated as things progress.

Jersey Story #2: Robots Invade Cherry Hill

Kur-B, Kura's robot waiter

Kur-B, Kura’s robot waiter / Photograph by Laura Swartz

Well, just one robot, really. Kur-B, the big-eyed, jingle-singing serving robot from Kura Sushi.

Kura already has a popular location here on Chestnut Street — a place that can still pull lines during peak hours. And there are three other NJ locations up and running, but they’re in Jersey City, Edison and Fort Lee. This new one? It’ll be part of the Marketplace at Garden State Park complex on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, and though it’s only listed among the Marketplace tenants as “Coming Soon,” the team over at 42 Freeway who found the listing first reached out to Kura and are saying possibly this fall.

So what’s the big deal about Kura? Two things, really.

First, there’s the hook: It’s a partially-automated, conveyor belt sushi and dumpling operation that has robots carrying drinks and offers prize balls for every 15 plates you polish off. There’s just something cutesy-sleek and cyberpunk-lite about the whole idea, and people geek out over the little computer animations and the prizes and the plastic covers on all the conveyor belt dishes. Like eating at a Chuck E. Cheese or a giant indoor mini-golf course, the food here is almost (almost) a secondary concern.

Second, there’s the idea that when you come to Kura you’re looking at the future of dining. Sure, it’s fun NOW. And the entire experience is gentled by smooth curves, cute robots, animated touchscreens and that Pavlovian prize response. But in a way, Kura is the tip of the spear. It’s a place that serves to normalize interactions with machines over humans, contactless meal transactions and the compartmentalization of efficient food delivery systems. It’s fun because it’s different. But don’t think that there aren’t people out there looking at Kura and seeing ways to maximize profits through automation at their own businesses. It’s like drive-thrus at fast food restaurants. Once upon a time, they were a novelty. Now, how many people do you see actually eating inside a McDonald’s?

Anyway, none of this is Kura’s fault. The company has been around for decades and has hundreds of locations around the world and I’m not saying that they’ll automatically side with the robots when the uprising comes. It’s just something to think about.

Okay, now what’s next?

High Times On High Street

So here’s one of the strangest stories you’ll hear all week.

The Philly region has no lack of steakhouses. It has no lack of fancy steakhouses and expensive steakhouses, so if you’re going to enter the game at this point, you really have to come to the table with some fireworks if you even expect to be noticed.

But what if I told you about an absolutely MASSIVE Art Deco steakhouse, backed by local real estate moguls, with a menu by a big-c Celebrity Chef that’s scheduled to open in a 25,000 square foot space in a former bank building in West Chester on Friday?

I know, right? That’s huge. That’s huge for a lot of different reasons — both because it’s claiming to be able to seat 400 people and is being run in collaboration with Italian TV chef Fabio Viviani.

Yeah, that Fabio Viviani.

Commence fireworks.

The new place is called 9 Prime. It is the one of a dozen or so U.S. restaurants operating with Viviani’s name attached and, along with partners John O’Connell (the aforementioned mogul) and director Charlie Walsh, it is scheduled to open this week at 9 North High Street in West Chester.

There is not a single sentence describing this place that doesn’t just drip with decadence. From the “towering ceilings” and “resplendent chandeliers” to the marble horseshoe bar with its international wine and cocktail programs, they’re selling this as an over-the-top swing at high-end dining in a space the size of a supermarket. They’re even re-purposing the bank’s original vault as a private dining space.

And Viviani’s menu keeps up. He’s got both wet and dry-aged steaks, Japanese wagyu, Scottish Angus and all the usual bells and whistles — from bone marrow to lobster butter. There are seafood towers featuring whole lobsters, burrata smoked at your table, branzino with eggplant caponata and baked Alaska for dessert.

So say what you will, but you can’t fault this team for a lack of ambition. 9 Prime will be opening the doors this Friday, like I said, and you can be sure that I’ll be checking it out shortly after.

Now speaking of new things with an Italian accent …

New Blood at Le Virtu

Le Virtù’s Coniglio / Photograph courtesy of chef Andrew Wood

Since 2007, Francis Cratil-Cretarola and his wife, Catherine Lee have been running their Abruzze-inspired restaurant Le Virtù in South Philly. They’ve done some truly memorable dinners there, fed lots of folks, and made an art out of “cucina povera” — the food of Italian farmers, fishermen and shepherds. And now they’re shaken things up by bringing some new blood into the kitchen — namely chef Andrew Wood, ex of Russet.

Apparently this happened over the winter and I just didn’t notice, but Wood is a great choice for Le Virtù’s kitchen. After stints cooking at Le Bec-Fin, Fork, Tru in Chicago and Quince in San Francisco, he’s certainly got the chops. He was HEAVY into the whole farm-to-table thing back when Russet was one of the hottest reservations in town (and one of my favorite restaurants). And with a number of local farmers and producers on speed-dial, he certainly knows his way around a seasonal menu. All of which makes him an ideal fit at Le Virtù where sustainability and close-to-the-ground cookery are founding principles, and the ability to switch up a menu in a hurry is pretty much required.

He’s spent some time getting settled, but if you check out Le Virtù’s Instagram feed, you can see the kinds of menu additions and weekend specials he’s been adding to the board. We’re talking duck heart spiedini, tortelloni filled with suckling pig, pancetta, mortadella and ricotta and served en brodo, oxtails with gnocchi and “Gamberetto in Cartoccio — head-on shrimp cooked in parchment with zolfini bean ragú, peperoncino, sweet herbs and lemon” which sounds just about perfect right now.

Thing is, it might get even better soon, since Francis and Catherine are planning on taking Wood with them on a tour of Abruzzo in March, showing him the cuisine and countryside they know and love more than maybe anyone else in this city, and then bringing him back again freshly inspired. I’m only telling you all of this now so that, like me, you can keep an eye on Le Virtù’s Instagram to see what Wood does with the menu once he comes home. I’m psyched to see what rubs off on him while he’s overseas.

Now how about some Leftovers?

The Leftovers

Pizzata Pizzeria & Birreria / Photograph by Mike Prince

A few weeks back, I told you about Pizzata Pizzeria & Birreria trying to get open in the old LaScala’s space on East Passyunk. Well guess what? They did it. Philly’s second Pizzata (the first is still up and running in Rittenhouse) opened over the weekend at 1700 East Passyunk. They’ve got lots of space, a big patio, an expanded menu and, most notably, a bar with eight taps and 60 cans on the list (hence the Birreria in the name). You can get all the details here, or just head down to South Philly and check them out for yourself. They’re open for dinner service on weeknights, lunch and dinner on the weekends.

Speaking of beer, how about this: The crew behind Bierhaul Farmhouse in Delco just announced that they’re opening a new location in West Chester called Bierhaul Townhouse. It’ll feature an indoor beer garden with seating for 200, plus patio seating once the weather warms up, 20-odd beers on tap and a kitchen. They’re opening in the old Split Rail Tavern at 15 North Walnut Street, and are promising a “family-friendly” beer garden upstairs, an adult bar downstairs, and an opening date sometime in early March.

Wow, that’s soon. Best of luck, folks.

Over at the Inquirer, Klein has a whole, long story about the opening of Soko Bag in Phoenixville. It has everything — sports, chicken, international shipping, an airplane mechanic turned homebrewer, a Last Supper-style mural featuring Philly sports heroes. It’s a pretty cool story, actually, but for our purposes here, I’ll just give you the essentials: Korean fried chicken, available Wednesday to Sunday at 95 Nutt Road in Phoenixville.

Seriously, what are you waiting for?

And finally this week, some good news for Kensington. While COVID might’ve ended the run of WinWin Coffee in Callowhill, it looks like owners Nikisha Bailey and Matt Nam will be making a comeback with a new retail space at the Jasper House apartment building in Kensington sometime later this year.

Unlike the original WinWin, there’ll be no bar. But there will be a coffee-roasting plant inside Jasper House and a cafe with WinWin coffee and pastries from local producers. The hope is that with some new infrastructure and a new supply chain, Bailey and Nam will be able to provide high-quality coffee to the neighbors at a reasonable price while still providing a fair income for growers.

No word yet on a specific opening date, but early summer looks like the target. As always, you’ll know more when I know more.