Hard Rock Cafe Is a Philadelphia Success Story

Before you get snobby about chain restaurants, remember the tumbleweeds.

When you look at it now, it seems unfortunate that there’s a 36-foot-long, four-ton spinning neon electric guitar jutting out of a grand historic building like Reading Terminal. But when Hard Rock Cafe first came to town in 1996, the Terminal Headhouse had been vacant for more than a decade, and was considered an embarrassment to visiting conventioneers. The city, SEPTA and the Convention Center Authority opened their wallets to the tune of $7.8 million for a renovation of the Headhouse, and Hard Rock moved in. The Historical Commission quickly got on board with the guitar, and a corner that had tumbleweeds blowing on it now has tourists flocking to see a sweaty shred of a Hendrix bandanna embalmed inside a trailer-park Cornell Box.

It’s difficult to think of the arrival of the Hard Rock Cafe—a dream Mayor Ed Rendell had when he took office—as a local success story, perhaps because the phrase “chain restaurant” doesn’t mesh well with “local.” The restaurant seems such a vulgar reminder of the stripmallification of America—writ large, in a G chord, on the facade of a historic building in one of the country’s most historic cities.

Yet there’s no question that the restaurant has been successful—so much so that it’s had to expand. There’s simply not enough room to accommodate all the conventioneers and tourists and, yes, residents (especially those serving jury duty) who want to eat there. The expansion, which has been covered at Philly.com and the Philadelphia Business Journal, includes the addition of a “Philadelphia Room” to honor the city’s rock history—rather belatedly, it seems. In 1996, before the Hard Rock got here, the Inquirer imagined the restaurant would have a local angle from the start:

And given Philadelphia’s special place in rock history, a Hard Rock Cafe here could offer some unique touches. (Frankie Avalon Fries? Burgers with Bobby Rydell Relish? Wash ’em down with a Patti LaBelle Brew?)

Wrong on all counts. Is this perhaps because Philly doesn’t have such an incredible rock history? The Philadelphia Room is thin on “rock and roll” and even sounds a bit grim: It has handwritten lyrics by Wynnewood native Joan Jett, a “shredded” outfit worn by TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and a cape a fan gave to Elvis at a Spectrum concert in 1977, the same year he died. There’s also a Dick Clark doll, an autographed photo of Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff back when they were Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and an autographed cymbal from Questlove of The Roots.

Philly does have an amazing music history, particularly jazz and R&B, but other genres as well. But if if we’re talking about real rock and roll and the city proper, well, let’s just say American Bandstand does some heavy lifting. If only the Hard Rock Cafe were called the Philly Soul Cafe or the East Coast Jazz Cafe, the Philadelphia Room might really swing, as the hepcats used to say.

I suppose it doesn’t much matter what’s in that room anyway—that’s not why people will go there. The point is that the Hard Rock Cafe has fulfilled the promise that Rendell, City Council and other stakeholders saw in it: It reenergized that space, which can only help as another revitalization of Market East moves forward. So why does the fact that it’s a chain remain a stone in my civic shoe? Why can’t I get over my horror at that 36-foot-long, four-ton spinning neon electric guitar? Better that, I suppose, than deserted sidewalks.