From the Archives: When the Palm Was Philly’s Ultimate Power Restaurant

Frank Rizzo. Bill Gray. Aaron the King of Mattresses. Nearly 30 years ago, Philly Mag writer Lisa DePaulo captured what made the Palm the only place that mattered for Philadelphia’s Really Important People.

palm restaurant

Lisa DePaulo’s 1991 article on the Palm.

What did the Palm, which just closed its doors, mean to Philadelphia? In 1991, Philly Mag published the following story by writer Lisa DePaulo, which showcased the legendary restaurant in its heyday. Entitled “Being There,” it captured all the bold-faced big-shots – including Frank Rizzo, Ronnie Rubin, Bill Gray, Sam Katz, and Mark Segal, to name a few – who regularly power-lunched there, as well as all the posing and posturing and status-seeking that went with being a Palm regular (a.k.a., a Really Important Customer). The Palm, and the era that spawned its importance, are no more. But here’s what the moment felt like.

It was clear that the Palm had earned its reputation as the ultimate political power spot the day that its general manager climbed up on a chair in the dining room and picked a raisin out of Frank Rizzo’s nose.

“I can’t believe this,” said Jeffrey Phillips, carefully dabbing at Rizzo’s right nostril with a white linen napkin soaked in seltzer water. “I’ve never had to do this before .”

Phillips had spotted the raisin from clear across the room. It was hanging there, from the nose of one of the Palm’s Most Important Customers, all of whom have their portraits painted on the wall, but only one of whom had a raisin on his, in a place where it didn’t look like a raisin.

“Oh, no,” Phillips moaned. “Our first defacement.”

Their first defacement? What took so long?

“Jeez, it’s really stuck on there,” said Phillips, picking away at the raisin. “Great. Just great. Frank’s gonna just love this. And in an election year, too.”

Finally, Phillips managed to pry the fruit off Rizzo’s nostril. He held it up to the light.

“The black bread!” he exclaimed. “We put raisins in our black bread.”

He looked back at the nose on the wall. The raisin was gone, but in its place was —“Oh, no!” — a raisin stain. Phillips rubbed furiously at the big red blotch, and the more he rubbed, the worse it got. But the portrait kept grinning back at him, until Phillips got (almost) every last bit of raisin juice off Frank Rizzo’s nose. (Yes, astute Palm watchers, that’s why his nose is pink.)

“You don’t think,” said Jeff Phillips, climbing down from the dining room chair, “that that raisin was hanging there all through lunch like a . . . like a . . . ?

“Aw, jeez,” he moaned.

Which made him think of an even scarier question:

“Who did I seat at Table Number 3 today?”

He paced around the room, thinking this one over. Which of his Really Important Customers, the elite of Philadelphia, the Big Boys of business and politics, would have paused in the middle of his power lunch at the Palm, reached across the table in his cufflinked shirtsleeves, and said, “Gimme a piece of that black bread, will ya? I wanna zap Frank.”

The possibilities were endless.

But Phillips was not amused . He checked the reservation sheet, he paced a little more, he went over the past lunch shift again and again in his head, and then he raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t think,” he asked, with remarkable seriousness, “that the Katz guys would have done this?”

PERHAPS IT WAS just a matter of time before the local powers-that-be in this town would not only eat at the Palm, hang out at the Palm, smoke cigars at the Palm, and feel important at the Palm, but be themselves at the Palm.

And why shouldn’t they be? This is, after all, their chosen clubhouse. The place that they have deemed worthy of their presence. The room where they can all go and not only feel important, but feel important together.

How did they ever survive a mere 17 months ago, before the Palm’s arrival in the Bellevue gave everyone who’s anyone a reason to go on lunching?

Attendance at the Palm is practically required in some circles. Starting with political ones. When Sam Katz decided to run for mayor, one of the first things his campaign manager scheduled was lunch at the Palm — at least twice a week. “I don’t make Sam go there,” says Bob Kutler (who learned his tricks working for Rizzo for 20 years). “But I have advised Sam that the political process in Philadelphia requires that he be seen at the Palm.”

“The Palm is my litmus test,” says Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal. “Lots of politicians want the support of the gay community, but God forbid they be seen with us in public. So only if they’ll be seen with me at the Palm will I consider giving them our endorsement. And I always bring a copy of the paper, so they have to walk out of the Palm with the Gay News under their arm!”

It is also the test in social circles. “It’s public now,” said one New Jersey businessman, referring to his new romance. “I took her to the Palm.”

It’s remarkable, really, how the Palm has caught on. Especially since it’s hardly a Philadelphia invention. There were Palms in ten other cities before the owners — approached by Ronnie Rubin — decided to open one here. We didn’t even make the top ten! And yet only in Philadelphia is the Palm the place to see and be seen. The original Palm, in New York, draws a steady clientele, and has for 66 years — but it’s hardly a place you’d call trendy. Some of the customers look like they’ve been there for 66 years. And while the Palm in Washington, D.C. is filled with politicians, every steak house in Washington is filled with politicians. Even in L.A., where everything’s trendy, you don’t see the paparazzi hanging around at the Palm. Leave it to Philadelphians to be wowed by a restaurant that ten other cities have already deemed passé.

The Palm’s been around since 1926. It was started by the grandfathers of the current owners, who built an empire on a misunderstanding . They had wanted to open a restaurant named Parma, after the part of Italy they came from — but the New Yorker who issued their restaurant license thought they were saying Palm. The original joint, with its sawdust-covered floors, was the one and only Palm for two generations. It wasn’t until the ‘60s that the grandchildren of the founders started cloning the Palm in other cities, from Chicago to Miami — usually with great success. (Only in San Francisco has the Palm failed.) Still it took the current owners 25 years before they finally took a chance on Philadelphia. It took about another 25 minutes for Philadelphia to declare it the hot spot.

Sure, the pols in this town always had their hangouts, the business guys, the lawyers, the crooks always had their hangouts, and the local celebs (both of them) always had their hangout. But since when was it ever the same joint?

They can rhapsodize all they want about the old Hunt Room, which was also in the Bellevue — and which everyone thinks was the Palm before there was a Palm. But the Hunt Room’s a better memory than it ever was a hot spot. Yeah, all the old political farts went there. Yeah, you could run into Billy Meehan and Pete Camiel and all their cronies. Well, whoop-dee-doo. You call that a hot spot? The Hunt Room’s more exciting now that it’s a Polo/Ralph Lauren boutique.

At the Palm you’ve got all the old farts, and more! Billy Meehan is exponentially more exciting when seated two tables down from Bill Gray — both of their lordships under one roof. On another day, you have Bob Hall, publisher of the Inquirer, sitting in the very same chair that just a couple days before held the increasingly valuable butt of lawyer Dick Sprague — $34 million richer thanks to those libel checks Bob Hall gets to sign.

Later the same night, in walks Julie Alexander King — the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Larry King — Queen, when she struts into the Palm: her hair bow just so, her lips puckered ever so sweetly, and the obligatory dark glasses, worn day and night, as they ought to be, by someone cast in such a role. No, Julie Alexander King wouldn’t have been caught dead (or estranged) at the old Hunt Room. But the Palm! Now, the Palm is Julie. She is not only about to make Dick Sprague even richer, with the chunk he’ll get from landing her divorce settlement, but she has arguably made the Palm much richer. Richer from the men that follow her in, richer from the experience of simply having her there. (“Yes, Mrs. King. Your cabernet, Mrs. King!”) No, it couldn’t get much better than this.

Jerry Blavat comes here! Larry Kane comes here! The manager of Silo appliances comes here! Ron Jaworski and all those other aging jocks we keep on idolizing come here! And the pols! Why, they’re not just those self-described “political insiders,” the guys who smoke cigars and scratch their crotches and pontificate over whether Sam Katz should be banished from the race because he smoked pot in college. No, the Palm gets pols who are actually running for office! On some days there are more mayoral candidates in this room than there will be on the ballot in May. Plus, you’ve got your judges , your CEOs, your fish wholesalers . . . your fish wholesalers? Hey, it’s just part of the beauty of the Palm. Anyone can feel important if they go there often enough. Particularly if they go there often enough to hear those four magic words, the phrase that turns Nobodies into Somebodies in this town: “Bring in your 5-by-7.” This is it-the invitation to have your photo cartooned onto the Wall, next to all those fish wholesalers.

ASK ANY OF THE REGULARS why they go to the Palm and they’ll tell you it’s because the food is good. This isn’t entirely bull. The food is good at the Palm. But if food were such a prerequisite for this crowd, what were they doing all those years at the Vesper Club?

In the words of competing restaurateur Albert Taxin, whose Old Original Bookbinder’s has lost more business than he’d like to admit to the Palm craze: “A steak is a steak.” What the Palm sells is the sizzle.

Now, Philadelphians aren’t supposed to go for that sort of thing. In this town, celebrity means your last name is Biddle, and you stay put on your tattered couch, where you belong. Being · seen? Getting your picture on a wall? Who in Philadelphia would want to do that?!

Why, quite a few people, as it turns out.

Which might explain why the Palm stole plenty of business from several real-Philadelphia institutions — including the traditional (and traditionally boring) “clubs.” And no wonder. The most exciting thing that happened at the Union League in 20 years was the decision that women like Lisa Richette could go there for lunch. “At the Palm, there’s always excitement,” says one regular. “At the Vesper Club, they’re more interested in playing gin. And the Locust Club, now that we have the Palm, seems like a bunch of old guys on canes.”

“The Palm’s got energy,” says regular (and competitor) restaurateur Neil Stein. “And you know why? Because it has legs. It’s a country club with legs. They got legs at the bar, legs at lunch … how many women do you see at the Vesper Club?”

The ACLU has already protested the Palm because there weren’t enough “legs” working there. When the Inquirer reported that the waiters were all men, “because men like to be waited on by men,” as Jeff Phillips was quoted as saying, women flocked to the Palm — to stage a “lunch-in” on behalf of the ACLU. (Actually there is one female waiter, who’s been there from the start.)

But Stein’s right about the crowd. The bevy of women who hang out at the Palm, nibbling their Gigi salads, should be called the Palmettes: attractive, bubbly, and with names like Lexie Brockway. They’re also successful themselves – that is , if not gainfully employed then gainfully married (or, at least, gainfully divorced). Lexie, whose husband is one of the car dealers on the Wall (but has her own picture up there, and her own expense account, thank you), crosses her impressive legs in booth number 12 and says, “I just love being near all these men.”

And despite the protestation of the ACLU, they shouldn’t mess at all with the waiters, most of whom were imported from other Palms, and all of whom have attytood. There’s no my-name-is-Charles-and-I’ll-be-your-waiter nonsense at the Palm. These are real men, who don’t want to be actors. They wanna be waiters at the Palm. They say, “Gimme a Dewazz and water onna rocks,” to Angel the bartender, who tosses it back at them. They can call Fran Rizzo “Franco” and get away with it. They’ll tell you when the chef’s famous meat loaf “isn’t so hot today.” And they know how to say to the customer who needs to be stroked more than usual, “Lemme fix ya something special that’s not on the menu.”

The Palm waiters are also incredibly “plugged in” — more so than some of their customers. The night that the GOP decided to endorse Ron Castille, all the “players” (that is , everyone but Castille, who was eating at the Ritz) convened at the Palm. Because they figured if anything happened, they’d hear it the first. And they did. “I learned that Castille was the candidate,” says one Republican party member, “when one of the waiter clearing my bread sticks, said, ‘It’s Ron.’ The waiters at the Palm were more wired than we were.”

Then, of course, there’s Jeffrey Phillips (and his sidekick Luis). Phillips has no attitude at all. He’s just a nice kid from the Midwest who almost finished medical school, but instead became what one customer calls “the Pearl Mesta of Philadelphia.” It’s Phillips who really has the power at the Palm: He decides who sits where, and, more importantly, who gets on the Wall (and where). But unlike most maitre d’s — particularly ones whose clout actually matters — he has no shtick, no pretensions. Which really makes Jeff stand out at the Palm .

“They’re doing everything right,” says Neil Stein. “That’s why it’s the busiest restaurant, seat for seat, in its price bracket in Philadelphia. There is no place in the city that will stroke you like the Palm will.”

Forget for a moment that this is a chain restaurant we’re talking about. The owners “don’t like to call it a chain,” reports Phillips. And neither do the customers. But the Palm in Philadelphia isn’t a whole lot different from those other ten Palms. They all have the same basic gimmick — which, in restaurant argot, is known as a “concept.” The Palm’s concept starts with a very basic formula: One square room (that everyone can see each other in), hardwood floors and paneling (hot spots must be noisy to be hot spots), and a no-frills steak-and-lobster menu. If it sounds rather pedestrian, it is. Until they start to paint the walls. Now, lots of places — including the old Hunt Room — employed the oldest trick in the book of hanging photos of their customers. But the Palm goes one better. It paints people on the walls. The Palm likes to call them caricatures, which, of course, they’re not. Caricatures exaggerate the subject’s big nose or bug eyes or bald head — which there’s certainly plenty of at the Palm. But not on the Wall! These pics are glossy, glamorous, unblemished (give or take a raisin). When Palm customers say that their picture doesn’t look like them, they’re usually right. And that’s the point.

But the real key to the success of the Wall is that some of the people up there really are famous. The Palm starts with a master list of national celebrities. Anyone who’s ever made a movie and had lunch there (in any Palm) gets his or her mug on all eleven Palm walls across the country. Then, the Wall is “customized”: Interspersed between all the real stars are the alleged “local celebrities.” What this means is that everyone from Frank Rizzo to the used car dealer in New Jersey is elevated to the same status as Jack Nicholson. Or Kathleen Turner. Or Cher. Now, ask any of the regulars how much having their face on the Wall really means to them, and they’ll insist that they go there for the food. Well, of course they do.

IN THE PAST 17 MONTHS, Jeffrey Phillips has been offered the following bribes by Philadelphians who want their pictures on the Wall:

  • A complete line of furniture for his newborn baby’s nursery.
  • Free car-cleaning and detailing for a full year.
  • $1,000 in cash.
  • $5,000-check or money order.
  • Clothing.
  • A date with some customer’s daughter. (Phillips’ bride was thrilled by that one.)

“Last week I had a guy . . . it was pretty embarrassing,” says Phillips. “A big successful businessman pleading with me. ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I have to be on the Wall. I’ll give a thousand bucks. I’ll give you five thousand bucks.’”

Phillips shrugs. “I told him what I always tell them. I don’t want your five thousand bucks. But maybe if you spent that in the restaurant, you’d get your picture on the Wall.”

It’s 10:30 on a Wednesday morning and Phillips is up in his office at the Palm, counting the receipts from last night and fielding phone calls for reservations.

“Well, hello! How was Aspen? Four tonight? Of course. Your table right under your picture, yes.”

Some of his customers, Phillips explains, jotting down the reservation, like to sit under their picture. “Others like to sit facing their picture. It depends. On whether they want the friends brought to dinner to notice. Or the rest of the people in there to notice. I can usually tell. If I seat them and they start to around the room, I know that I guessed wrong. But most of them tell me when they call.”

The phone rings again.

“Well hi, Joan. How’re you doing? How are the dogs? Great. Just the two of you? O.K. I’ll save a nice booth for you …. booth . Mmm-hmmm. Right under your dogs.”

He hangs up the phone. “They’re the only people in Philly have their dogs on my Wall,” he says. He’s talking about and Leonard Schorr. Leonard is the treasurer of Ronnie Rubin’s real estate empire, the one that owns the Bellevue, among other things (like the Center City high-rise that turned into the Towering Inferno). Schorr’s a busy guy. But it turns out his life is not complete until he got his dogs — two collies, Dixie and Pumpkin — on the Wall of the Palm, next to his own head. Leonard’s wife isn’t on the Wall, but Dixie and Pumpkin are. “He bugged and bugged me to do it,” says Phillips. “I try to draw the line at pets, but he’s a really good customer.” Not to mention Ron Rubin’s treasurer.

The Rubins are the only Philadelphians who have their own entire wall at the Palm. Eleven Rubins and Rubins-in-law, smiling down over Booth 17. They earned it, of course. Ron got the Palm to come to Philadelphia. He knew the owners from Aspen and well — how can we ever thank him?

By our own unscientific count, roughly 32.4 percent of the Wall of the Palm is covered with Rubins or Close Personal Friends of the Rubins (or Close Personal Pets of the Rubins). There’s the entire Binswanger clan: Frank G. Jr., Frank G, Frank G. III, Sue, David (and Arnold Schwarzenegger) — who collectively own whatever buildings Ron doesn’t own in town (professional courtesy, no doubt). And right up there with Morgan Fairchild and Eddie Murphy are Rubin gang members Norman and Suzanne Cohn and their daughter Kimberli-with-an-i, whose wedding to the Mysterious Gynecologist, Scott (in full color attached to Kimberli), was the social event of 1990.

Jeff tries to be judicious in putting couples on the Wall together. When he worked at the Palm in Dallas, two of his Important Married People divorced, and the husband tried to remove his estranged wife’s head with a steak knife one night. It can get pretty messy. But the Cohns are very Important People, so when the request was made that Kimberli be forever-glued-on-the-wall to Scott, Phillips obliged.

Jeffrey Phillips knew that he too had become an Important Person when he received one of the coveted invitations to Cohn’s daughter’s wedding. Some of his most special customers — people who are actually on the wall with the Cohns, people who actually know what Norman Cohn does for a living! — got snubbed big-time. But the Palm’s general manager — who has also brunched at Al and Pearl Nipons’ ! — did not. (Jeff does not, however, know what Norman Cohn does for a living. But he reports that he had “a really great time” at the wedding.)

Alongside the Cohns — and Melanie Griffith — are the Claude de Bottons. And their children. And, as of recently, their children’s children. Not to be outdone by the Schorrs, the de Bottons are the only Palm customers who have their grandchildren (two-year-old Ariel Lindy and three-year-old Alessandra) on the Wall of the Palm.

“He’s a good friend of Mr. Cohn’s,” Phillips explains.

HOW TO GET YOUR PICTURE on the wall if you’re not a friend of Ron Rubin:

Before the Palm opened, Ron Rubin and friends came up with a list of 62 names, collected their 5-by-7’s, and gave them to the Palm’s illustrator. The “original Palm portrait list” included lots of the usual suspects (David Brenner, Rollie Massimino, Sylvester Stallone), some people who, as far as we know, have never even been to Philadelphia (Brian Dennehy and Jill St. John?), and some really famous people, like Superintendent of Schools Connie Clayton who, much to the Palm’s dismay, has never set foot in the place.

Back then, the criterion for being on the Wall was this: Ron Rubin had to think you were a celebrity, or a potentially big customer. On the day in November 1989 when the doors finally opened, 200 such luminaries were already on the Wall. But even in a star-studded town like this one, eventually the Palm ran out of household names (like political struggler Ed Mezvinsky and car dealer Robert Potamkin, both of whom made Ron’s original list). Still, over the past year, they managed to find 200 more faces for the Wall — which brings the current total to a little over 400, including the collies.

As deceptive as it looks, there is actually room for another 1,100 faces. Which might explain why everyone’s eating red meat again. Today the criterion is that you be a regular customer. That’s the Palm’s way of insuring its success for a very long time: Go there all the time and they’ll put you on the Wall. Then, once you’re on the Wall, well — how can you not go there all the time?

As you might imagine, just being on the Wall isn’t special enough for everyone. If you really have clout at the Palm, you get to choose where on the Wall your face should be. The Wall near the A tables is generally reserved for the A faces. But there are other requests. One woman, who works in advertising at Channel 6, begged Jeff Phillips to put her “on top of Don Johnson.” Phillips indulged her. “She’s a good customer. And besides, the space was open.” Another customer, a columnist for a newspaper most of the Palm people don’t read, asked that his picture be placed in such a way that it be visible from both sides of his favorite booth so both he and his guests could look at him all through dinner.

Every couple of weeks, a batch of portraits shows up in a manila envelope addressed to Jeff Phillips. They are no longer drawn by “the original Palm artist” — as promised in all the Palm’s press releases — but by a Philadelphia woman named Bronwyn Byrd (whose husband and son help out in a pinch). Byrd won the contest, sort of, when Phillips auditioned four local illustrators in a search for the one whose style most closely resembled The Original Palm Artist’s. (Well, there is a recession, you know.)

When Byrd delivers her art, Phillips decides who goes where. First he pins them on the Wall for a couple of days, and if he doesn’t hear any complaints (“I wanna be near Kathleen Turner!”), “then I seal them permanently,” says Jeff. He does it personally, with a roller and Elmer’s glue.

There is also some additional bonus clout in having a “prop” accompany your picture. Restaurateur Albert Taxin is shown riding a lobster. Riccardo Muti got his whole body — and his baton — on the Wall. Some bike dealer from the Main Line ate enough meals at the Palm to get his entire body on a bicycle!

Now, as you also might imagine, even this is not enough for all Palm customers to really feel special. Having one’s own Personal Table at the Palm — preferably near one’s picture-is how they really separate the men from the boys. And finally, there is the Ultimate Palm Stroke : a wish that has been granted to only about 20 of the Palm’s customers. A gesture that is grander than dogs, grander even than having your own table: having a house charge at the Palm.

Former Supreme Court Justice for 15 Minutes Bruce Kauffman (whose picture is right next to Dustin Hoffman’s), is one of the non-Rubins in the Top Twenty. How did he do it? According to Jeff Phillips, Kauffman has eaten more lunches at the Palm than anyone else in Philadelphia. Congratulations, Bruce!

The person Phillips fingered as the Number One dinner customer, another Important Judge, pleaded with us not to use his name in print, which was immediately suspicious — if he’s publicity-shy, what’s he doing at the Palm four nights a week? But we’re granting his wish. Not for the reason he originally gave — that he doesn’t want all the drug dealers he sent to jail to know where to find him at night (God, what a racket that would cause, with those high ceilings) — but for the reason he gave when we didn’t buy his first reason:

“Look,” the judge blurted. “I’m really not the number one dinner guy. They just don’t want to tell you that the Palm’s best customer is Aaron, the King of Mattresses from South Street! O.K.?”

“The Palm? I heard a’ the Palm,” says Aaron, the King of Mattresses. “But I never been there, hon.”

You’ve never been to the Palm?

Aaron reconsiders . “That place in the Bellevue-Stratford, right? Well, I’m not, like, a regular visitor. But I been there! Sure I been there!”