Taste: Food For Thought: Everything Old Is New Again

Can two Philly restaurants reinvent themselves?

The history of Marigold has been one of constant evolution. Throughout the spot’s 70-plus-year tenure in West Philly’s Spruce Hill neighborhood, the restaurant has changed with the city’s dining scene, from casual Marigold Tea Room to comfort-foodery Marigold Dining Room to upscale BYOB Marigold Kitchen, with a much-praised chef, Michael Solomonov, and a labor-intensive Israeli-inflected menu. But now the restaurant has abruptly reinvented itself again. Solomonov’s sous-chef, Erin O’Shea, has taken over the kitchen, and her upscale Southern cooking — Byrd Mill grits, Wigwam ham, pickled peaches — is on the menu.

Across town, Washington Square’s less-than-a-year-old 707 Restaurant and Lounge is undergoing a similarly dramatic shift. Under the direction of new chef Jayson Grossberg (of South Jersey caterer Alphabet Soup), 707 is replacing its tepidly received menu of Reuben spring rolls and pigs in a blanket with modern-bistro-style plates like Muscovy duck breast paired with apples and port.

Outwardly, little has changed at these establishments — a new coat of paint at Marigold, a different style of candle holder at 707 — which leaves the (old) owners and new chefs with the steep challenge of convincing diners and critics to give them a fresh glance, even amid the spring glut of new restaurant openings.

“I stayed up a lot of nights thinking about what would happen,” says Marigold Kitchen owner Steven Cook, who is collaborating with former Marigold chef Solomonov on a new restaurant, scheduled to open this spring in Old City. Cook has shepherded Marigold through a transition before, when he stepped out of the kitchen and Solomonov stepped in. “But we made that transition slowly,” Cook said. “This is more abrupt.” In her first chef role, O’Shea has some serious hype to live up to. Though a name change (Marigold Country Kitchen) was considered but discarded, management has tried to give her a soft landing, reintroducing the now-lower-priced restaurant to the neighborhood with local advertising and an open house. Though you’ll hear diners asking, “Where’s Michael?,” Cook says the shift feels natural to him: “Erin’s cooking is an even better fit for the neighborhood. It all feels very Marigold to me.”

It’s a sentiment repeated by 707 management, which maintains that the basic goal of the restaurant — to be the sort of place where regulars dine several times a week — remains unchanged even as the cuisine shifts.

At 707, the challenge is overcoming lukewarm reviews of the original menu offerings. After a month-long “soft opening” following Grossberg’s arrival, the restaurant began a concerted media and advertising campaign to rebrand itself. Though the decor and name are unchanged, the menu is a complete departure from its ’70s-trendy predecessor, and Grossberg reports that though some people are disappointed to find their favorites gone from the menu, “Ninety percent find something else they enjoy.”

After all, the Philly diner is an adaptable creature. In fact, we’ve come to expect menus to change seasonally, if not monthly or daily. But even in a city that increasingly views chef changes as soap opera, the makeovers in progress at Marigold and 707 seem extreme. As he hopes his customers will, Grossberg is considering his revamped 707 nothing less than a “new” restaurant on the Philly dining scene. “I won’t even look at the old reviews,” says Grossberg. “As far as I’m concerned, the restaurant opened in January.”