Last Call For Cheu Fishtown and Bing Bing Dim Sum

Plus: Volvér gets ready to close after a decade of service, Vita Gelateria’s new Italian speakeasy, and the return of Art in the Age.

new years eve dinner philadelphia south

Photograph courtesy of Bing Bing Dim Sum

Howdy, buckaroos! And welcome back to the Foobooz food news round-up. With the long Memorial Day Weekend now in the rearview, it is officially the start of summer in the restaurant industry. And while that can sometimes mean a lack of industry news (because everyone is too busy making bank while the days are long and the nights are warm), that isn’t always the case. This week, for example, we’ve got some huge news from some of the biggest names in the game. Unfortunately, most of it is bad. So let’s just get right into it, put it behind us and try to not let it bum us all out so early in the season. We’ll start this week with this…

End of the Line for Cheu Noodle Bar and Bing Bing Dim Sum

This one hurts.

Late last week, co-owners Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz announced on Instagram that they were going to be closing both restaurants, putting an end to their run that began back in the summer of 2013 with the original, deliberately inauthentic and wildly popular Cheu Noodle Bar on South 10th Street in Center City.

Cheu (the first one) was an industry bellwether — a bold move away from the classical and the serious, away from the hipster gastropub model that was dominating the scene, and toward a goofier, more experimental anti-fusion mash-up of Asian noodles and Jewish flavors. It was a place that served brisket ramen and spiced, dry instant noodles as a bar snack. Where you could come and slouch at the counter on an (extended) lunch break and taste things that weren’t being served anywhere else in the city — or the world.

The Center City Cheu gave birth to Bing Bing Dim Sum on East Passyunk, a milk-bread-and-tuna-dip Fishtown izakaya called Nunu that was better than it ever got credit for (if, maybe, just too small to hold the number of people who should’ve been eating there at any given moment) and, next door, a second Cheu that was larger, more efficient and more polished than the O.G.

Nunu changed the concept a few times before getting swallowed up by Cheu next door and, eventually, closing entirely. The pandemic killed the original Center City Cheu.

But Cheu Fishtown and Bing Bing seemed like they’d weathered the storm in decent shape. I mean, they’d already survived the worst thing to happen to the American restaurant industry since the invention of New American cuisine, so what could possibly be worse than that?

Turns out, the real estate market.

Cheu and Bing Bing were still earning, but a combined change in landlords at one address and a lease renewal at the other convinced Darragh and Puchowitz that it was time to close up shop and move on. And that’s sad, sure. Every closure is a tragedy. People lose jobs. Neighborhoods lose their anchors. Regulars lose their favorite tables, their favorite dishes, that sense of a place where they belonged.

But it’s more than that, too. If we assume that a generation in the restaurant industry is about 10 years (time enough for an entire cohort of young cooks to get trained up, make names for themselves and move on to opening their own restaurants), then the openings of Cheu and Bing Bing were generation-defining moments. They would go on to color and flavor so much of what came after. Looking back, they represented a sort of benchmark for that era’s culinary expressionism.

So now, between Pizza Brain’s upcoming closure (which we talked about last week) and this week’s new one-two punch, it feels like the credits are rolling. For me — and no doubt for a lot of other people who were eating and drinking their way through the city at that time — this feels like the end of that particular generation. I mean, seriously? What else do we have left that looks and tastes like that wild moment in Philly’s edible history when it seemed like anything was possible? What’s been left unscathed by economics, plague and shifting demographics that still feels like the early 2010s?

Anyway, Cheu Fishtown will be turning off the lights following service on June 7th. Bing Bing has a little bit more runway, but will be packing it in on July 21st. There’s nothing about this that isn’t bad, but get there while you can, show a little love to the staff, and say your final goodbyes.

And now for some more bad news …

Volvér Is Closing at the Kimmel Center

Garces in Volvér’s test kitchen. / Photograph courtesy of Cashman & Associates

This announcement is … less surprising.

Jose Garces’s Volvér opened as a complicated, modernist, highly biographical and seriously spendy destination restaurant inside the Kimmel Center around the same time as Cheu Noodle Bar did in Center City — 2014, in this case.

It was the first restaurant in Philly that offered a “ticketed” dining experience where guests booked a seat like they were going to see a play. A meal there clocked in at somewhere between two and three hours for the full prix-fixe experience, with Garces himself overseeing it all from the kitchen. The chef brought in original Kentucky Fried Chicken pressure fryers to reproduce the KFC picnics of his youth, served a course in custom dishes sculpted like cupped hands, had daily catches flown in from Tsukiji fish market in Japan and, 10 years ago, priced this performance at around $600 for two people, including beverage pairing.

This original plan didn’t last long. The logistics of it, the infrastructure, the cost — there was nothing about it that was sustainable. Back in the day, Philly Mag’s then-restaurant critic, Trey Popp, gave it a very rare four-star review which was absolutely deserved. I ate there in its opening weeks and was charmed by the pure hubris of it, the unmitigated excess, and the once-in-a-lifetime nature of every meal served there. Legitimately, it was less like a dinner than a performance by a culinary storyteller operating at 1980s Manhattan extremes, but in Philly, on Broad Street, in 2014.

Anyway, what followed was a series of pivots — each one interesting in its own right, but each one also taking the place further and further away from its original concept.

The bar started serving much more reasonably priced bar snacks for the pre-theater and post-work crowd. Ticketing was dropped. The kitchen added an à la carte menu.

After a few years, Volvér became a spot for some pretty inventive seasonal menus and chef collaborations in an age before those were as common as they are today (again, an example of the place being groundbreaking but, maybe, just a touch too avant-garde), and then a place for extended residencies for chefs on the rise. Chance Anies of Tabachoy did a turn through Garces’s kitchen. Sally Song from Dim Sum Garden. Kiki Aranita from Poi Dog. Jenn Zavala. The list goes on.

Anyway, after 10 years of constant reinvention (and a failed attempt at installing a Garces Trading Co. in an ancillary space at the Kimmel), Volvér is done. The lease is up and Ensemble Arts Philly (who owns the Kimmel Center) has announced that a new, high-end food and beverage provider (Rhubarb Hospitality Collection, which is kind of a big deal in its own right) will be coming in to take over the space, and will open a new restaurant with a new menu sometime in the fall. In the meantime, they’ll be taking over catering operations starting June 8th. Volvér’s last night of service will be June 7th.

But Hey, How About a New Speakeasy Inside a Gelato Restaurant?

Arancini from Vita Gelateria’s new Italian speakeasy. / Photograph by Mike Prince

Meanwhile, the crew at Vita Gelateria have a pretty big announcement.

The tiny, 375-square-foot gelato spot that opened at 261 South 17th Street last October has, apparently, always been hiding a secret. Since the start, there has been a shiny red refrigerator door just to the left of the gelato case. No one knew what it was for. This being a gelateria, I assume most people just thought it was, you know, an actual refrigerator. Probably full of gelato.

But no. Because starting May 30th you’ll be able to walk through that door, Chronicles of Narnia-style, and find yourself in an expansive Italian restaurant complete with a full bar, private dining, garden seating and a decked-out dining room with a kitchen turning out hand-made pastas, meatballs and sea-bass puttanesca.

Juan Luis Urdaneta will be in the kitchen. Born in Venezuela, he has opened a bunch of fancy taco shops (and, notably, an Italian restaurant) in Colombia, but moved to Philly this spring just for this gig.

Obviously, Vita’s gelato operations will be continuing. Owners Massimo and Ana Boni opened their shop at what I think is safe to say is the worst time to open a gelateria — just as the weather in Philly was turning cold. Now, coming into their first summer, things are likely to pick up a bit. Which is cool (see what I did there?) because chief gelato guy, Matthew Cocco, also recently rolled out a line of spiked sorbetto and gelato cocktails that’ll be perfect for those hot nights in Rittenhouse — and as a dessert course at the bar.

Reservations are available now. First night of service behind the red door is Thursday.

Now how about some leftovers?

The Leftovers

Freaky Squeeze canned drinks from Tröegs Independent Brewing. / Photograph courtesy of Tröegs Independent Brewing

Just in time for summer, Tröegs is releasing a new line of alcoholic fruit drinks that aren’t beer, aren’t hard seltzers or ciders, but something … different.

They’re calling them “Freaky Squeeze” and according to co-founder and brewmaster John Trogner, they’re “what happens when you’ve got a team obsessed with finding delicious flavor combinations. As with everything we make, we’re proud to use exceptional ingredients and innovative techniques in these two beverages.”

And okay, that’s fine, but a slightly more definitive description might be that they’re 5.5 percent ABV can sugar and malted barley fermentations, combined with real fruit, to make something that’s got a fuller fruit flavor than your average White Claw, and a softer carbonation. There’s a spiked black-cherry limeade and a peach orangeade on the shelves right now which, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, sound like a pretty good alternative to your standard oat soda now that the sun is out.

On June 10th, Carlos Aparicio of El Chingon will be hosting a pop-up collab dinner with chef Tim Dearing of Little Owl. Haven’t heard of Little Owl? That’s okay. It’s a new concept from Dearing that he’s hoping to open in Philly in the near future. This pop-up is kind of like a test dinner — a roll-out of some of his ideas to see how they work in front of a live audience.

The menu is five courses, featuring nopales with shio koji, charred aguachile, black honey, chicatana dust, and tostadas, pink shrimp with mole blanco and chiles, hay-baked sweet potatoes, steamed catfish with chile butter and a squash tart with mole negro ice cream for dessert. It sounds pretty killer, actually, and Dearing seems like a guy with something to say, so I’m looking forward to it.

Dinner is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets will run you $100 (plus tax and tip) and reservations can be made here.

You guys remember Art In The Age, right? Yeah, well after an unexpected break-up and subsequent closure back in September, it looks like Steven Grasse’s experimental botanical liquors are back. Kinda.

There’s still no AITA space, but the brand has persisted and is now releasing two new spirits to the Pennsylvania market. “Siege of Wolves” spiced rum is described as a cross between AITA’s well-known ROOT botanical liqueur and Sailor Jerry rum, and “Dunce” bourbon whiskey is … well, bourbon whiskey. Aged five years, 80 proof, perfect for anything that requires brown liquor.

There’s going to be a tasting of both new bottles at on May 30th from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nips are free, cocktails will cost you. Both bottles should be available for purchase across the state right now.

And finally, if you’re looking for something to do to cap off your week, how about checking out the Bethesda Project’s 27th annual party and auction at the Reading Terminal Market?

It’s happening on Friday, May 31st, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., and is the major fundraising event for the local non-profit that provides emergency shelter, housing and support to people experiencing homelessness. You’ll get to hang out at the RTM without the usual crush of crowds, sample foods from the vendors and bid on items in a silent auction. Philly Mag has a couple items up for bid this year, including a pair of tickets to our Best of Philly Soiree and another pair for the Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival. Plus, our very own Kae Lani Palmisano will be hosting the event, so stop by and say hi.

Tickets are $150 to $200. And if you’re down for partying for a very good cause, you can get yours here.