The Revisit: The Saloon

The South Philly steakhouse stays true to itself

A man in the bathroom spoke softly into a cell phone, his voice a dead ringer for Fat Tony from “The Simpsons.” “If that were to happen,” he purred, “it would be … advantageous to me.” A stall-dividing slab of cream-colored marble hid his view of the entrance door, which swung soundlessly closed on hushed hinges.

[sidebar]“So if you want to make it happen, I would be … grateful.”

Or so my dinner companion swore to me upon returning to our table upstairs at the Saloon.

“I always thought that when people talked about mobbed-up South Philly restaurants, they were full of crap,” he said. “But dude, I am not lying.”

So of course now I had to hit the john, too.

Alas, there are only so many comings and goings a murky phone conversation can take. All I got to hear was, “Wait for a minute,” and patient silence as I soaped (and re-soaped) my hands.

There are plenty of reasons to go the Saloon, aside from eavesdropping in the restroom. To sit at a table draped in white linen and wonder if it’s the one where “Skinny Joey” Merlino first scoped the waitress who became his wife. To admire the grape leaves carved in bas-relief on dark wooden lintels, or the ancient group portrait of the Germania Society. To drink a manhattan upstairs at the most atmospheric bar in the city—or downstairs, mixed by Frankie, who’s been here since the place opened in 1967.

But the root of all of them is this: It’s another country in here. Or at least another time. One where your waitress plugs the New York strip not on the merits of some organic-grass diet or Lancaster pedigree, but by mentioning the cardiologist who comes in for it every week. Where the most loved piece of art is a print of TV Guide’s 1977 cover illustration of The Godfather, Part II (by Charles Santore, the owner’s brother), and on any given night you’ll see a moustache-and-blazer combo minted the same year. And where an inquiry about specialty cocktails is met with the frank, game reply, “Whatever you want to drink.”

The two head chefs, Oscar Reyes and Jerome Palumbo, have 30 years’ experience between them in this kitchen. But the menu has seniority over both. The advantage of this is clear the moment your tongue meets the perfectly melded flavors of the clams casino. An ambitious young chef, his sights set on fawning media encomiums to his creative genius, has every incentive to keep something like that off his menu. Who’s going to heap praise on a faithful rendition of a dish that’s nearly a hundred years old?