By Alan Jaffe
From hot sausage sandwiches to center cut filets, the menus along the Delaware riverfront are undeniably diverse. The restaurants range from take-out shacks to candle-lit rooms, and from national chains to unique Philly scenes.
Yet in a city known for its excellent and varied cuisines, the Delaware waterfront is underutilized and undernourished in terms of dining opportunities.
Urban designers say the riverfront needs more housing and more people to sustain a restaurant district, and zoning that encourages restaurant development.
The waterfront’s current restaurateurs blame the fleets of cars and trucks that plow I-95 and jam the boulevard, the lack of steady entertainment venues and attractions, and a poor perception of Philadelphia’s eastern riverfront.
A few years ago, the area was mainly known for the string of noisy bars and outdoor decks that occupied the piers from Spring Garden to Spruce Streets, and for the collapse of Pier 34 South on May 18, 2000, which killed three young women attending a birthday celebration at Heat nightclub.
On May 14th of this year, Pier 34 owner Michael Asbell, of Merion, pleaded no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter, risking a catastrophe, conspiracy and reckless endangerment; pier operator Eli Karetny, of Cherry Hill, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
On Friday, June 22, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper sentenced Asbell to 11 to 22 months of house arrest, followed by seven years’ probation. Karetny received nine to 10 months of house arrest, followed by five years’ probation.
The Pier 34 disaster “cast a shadow” over the Delaware Avenue restaurant industry, said Joe Forkin, vice president of the Penn’s Landing Corporation, the non-profit, quasi-public organization that manages and promotes development on the central waterfront. But, Forkin added, the negative impact of Pier 34 has faded, and the success of the neighboring restaurants proves “we’re beyond it.”
Among the popular waterfront attractions back then was Rock Lobster, 221 N. Columbus Blvd., which opened in 1992 and continues to be a symbol of the city’s nightlife. New challenges have affected business, however.
When Rock Lobster was launched – more a restaurant than a club, with Neil Stein’s involvement at the outset — “there was no Old City, and no outside seating at restaurants in Philly,” explained Jay Klein, who started there as a waiter and is now general manager. “Now, there are 500 restaurants in Center City,” and sidewalk dining is commonplace.
“Many people still come, though, because they can sit by the water and still be in Center City — they don’t have to drive down the shore,” Klein said. “And a bus won’t drive in front of you” while you’re eating on the riverfront deck.
Rock Lobster’s lobsters, crab cakes and steaks continue to lure regulars who have been eating there since its first year and new patrons who own the boats in the adjacent marina. “Rock Lobster is an institution,” like Bookbinders, Klein said, and tourists stop in just to say they’ve been. It also offers something for every special interest, from Harley-Davidson gatherings, to gay/lesbian nights, to R&B parties.
The city could do more to enhance the riverfront district and make it more accessible, Klein believes. “I would like to see Delaware Avenue be more like a Kelly Drive, with walking paths and people sitting by the water,” he said.
“The Delaware gets a bad rap. There are many restaurants here with beautiful water views, and people don’t know they’re there.”
A bit farther north is Cavanaugh’s River Deck, 417 N. Columbus Blvd., which is in its fifth year offering “Dining and Dancing on the Delaware.” It is the former site of Katmandu, where River Deck co-owner Ken Hutchings had been sous chef and general manager. He teamed up with Patrick Pawliczek, a former Rock Lobster chef, to start the new place.
Their Irish dishes, seafood, burgers, wings and wraps attract business people and young professionals, and their Sunday reggae nights draw a “very ethnic urban and island crowd,” Hutchings said.
If the waterfront were to be reconfigured, he would like to see more restaurants and shops built closer together, like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with attractions and a walkway linking establishments.
“In Old City,” Hutchings said, “you have 15 bars within a block. Here, there are three within a mile.”
Restaurants benefit if they are clustered together, said Nando Micale, an urban designer with the firm WRT, because patrons go out looking for choices. “If one place is full they can go to another.”
That’s how several small communities, including Collingswood and Manayunk, have carved out a niche as restaurant destinations, Micale said.
Those communities have zoning codes that proscribe how areas should be developed, whereas Delaware Avenue’s zoning allows but does not encourage mixed use, Micale said, leaving it up to developers to decide if land will be used for entertainment or another purpose. A mix of businesses, like those in Rittenhouse Square, provides the social aspects for people to visit or live there, he explained. “We need to encourage mixed use in whatever development occurs” along the river.
Kiki Bolender, of Schade and Bolender Architects, said the key to creating a restaurant strip on the river is population density. “We need more people living down there,” she said. The backbone of a restaurant business is supported by tourists and the vital repeat customers, the regulars who come from the neighborhood, she said.
Bolender also said the waterfront developers could learn from Northern Liberties, where retail businesses exist downstairs and owners live upstairs or nearby. That kind of local ownership is preferable to big-box chains and mall owners that “build little Main streets,” she said. “That’s not real.”
Clustered on either side of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and providing some beautiful views of the span and the passing ships, are several restaurants that are links in national or regional chains.
Dave & Buster’s, 325 N. Columbus, is the family place, a Wildwood-style midway that keeps the kids occupied with old-school games and high-tech wizardry, and amuses their parents with pool tables, comfort foods and signature drinks. D&B’s was born in Dallas in the 1980s and has spread throughout the U.S and Canada. Locally, Sixers and Eagles have been spotted in the dining and game rooms, and the menu includes the “Philly Double Dog” and “Pretzel Logic,” three soft twists with melted cheese.
On the same pier, and with better views of the river, is Hibachi Japanese Steak House, which has other locations throughout the suburbs. Hibachi specializes in traditional teriyaki and sushi and a popular Sunday brunch.
Adventurous dining is offered down on Penn’s Landing on the Spirit of Philadelphia, one of the fleet of Spirit Cruises, which has a fleet of 12 ships based here, Boston, Chicago, New York, Norfolk and elsewhere. The Philly voyages include a Gospel Lunch Cruise, a Girl Scout Cruise, a Tony n’ Tina Wedding trip, and a Fireworks Dinner Cruise. The “grande dinner buffet” includes New Zealand green mussels, smoked andouille sausage and stuffed sole Chesapeake.
The Spirit yacht docks next to the Chart House Restaurant, a fine dining chain that stretches from Malibu to Lake Tahoe to Miami to Penn’s Landing. The Chart House is proud of its upscale fare, particularly prime rib, steaks, and shrimp entrees. It also provides wide windows on the river and the city skyline.
Inside the nearby Hyatt Regency, Keating’s River Grill has a more casual atmosphere, and offers chops and seafood and terraced dining overlooking Penn’s Landing.
Heading south, the choices are mainly fast-food restaurants and ubiquitous names like Longhorn Steakhouse, Famous Dave’s Barbeque and Champps.
But there are other one-of-kind restaurants along the river and the boulevard, with full-blown personalities of their own.
For 10 years, Warmdaddy’s served Southern delights and live blues in Old City. But as the neighborhood got younger and the parking got harder, the proprietors started looking for a new venue. Last November, they moved Warmdaddy’s to 1400 S. Columbus Blvd., in the shopping center anchored by the Riverview multiplex.
General manager Ben Bynum said the restaurant owners wanted a “more modern, airy, smaller” site that would be easier to fill. The location also provided opportunities for an outside patio and roof deck. And, Bynum said, “we wanted to be near the casino project.”
He said many people see the Delaware waterfront as an “eyesore,” but he sees its potential. He also cites Baltimore’s harbor and Camden’s promenade, and believes Philadelphia needs “something family-oriented … and a destination place for visitors” on the riverfront. “Sure, there will be growing pains,” he said, but condos and townhouses are being developed in the area, and he believes the aerial tram, the
casino, and other commercial projects will follow. “It’s just a matter of time before it happens.”
Across the boulevard, dwarfed by the majestic Pier 40 at Christian Street, is another small business that is hoping the southern casino project will happen. Standing behind the grill at Tug Boat Annie’s is the towering, liberally tattooed Bob Miller, who bought the tiny breakfast and lunch establishment in 2005. Miller mainly serves truckers and construction workers his specialties: the Hydro, a smoked sausage sandwich topped with mozzarella sticks; and the Double D, a half-pound cheeseburger with a layer of jalapeno poppers and a layer of onion rings.
Miller, who grew up in South Philly, said the casinos are needed for the jobs they’d bring and revenue they’d provide. He’s looking forward to the 1,700 hungry construction workers the nearby site would employ.
As to the fears the casinos raise, Miller said, “There’s always going to be traffic, and there’s always going to be crime.”
At the other end of the central Delaware River strip, near the other proposed casino site, is another sandwich specialist. You can’t miss his blazing red sign.
Johnny’s Hots moved into the former diner across from Penn Treaty Park four years ago. But the eatery has a family history. Owner John Danze’s father started the business 55 years ago serving longshoremen back when the Sugar House refinery was still operating.
“I-95 wasn’t even built yet, and Delaware Avenue was the way out of the city. My dad had a lunch truck, and hot sausage was his main seller. He became so busy, his customers would line up and block Delaware Avenue.” A nearby dinner theater complained about the lunch truck, and Danze’s father relocated to a shack on a pier, where he sold his sandwiches for 45 years.
In 2003, Danze moved the shop into the obtuse triangular building at Delaware and Columbia Avenues, and put up the fiery Johnny’s Hots sign. “We’re a lot more visible now,” Danze said. “We kind of stick out.” And business has quadrupled. Rather than dock workers and truckers – there isn’t much space to park a semi — his customers are often cops on their way home to Northeast Philadelphia, but also
local white-collar workers.
The bill of fare is much the same, though. Danze’s father started with hot dogs and hot sausage, then added egg sandwiches 20 years ago. Breakfast is still 50 percent of business at Johnny’s Hots.
Cheesesteaks and roast pork have joined the sausage as lunch staples, and a lot of the “older guys” order the hot dog and fish cake combo, a specialty borrowed from Levis Hot Dogs of blessed memory.
Danze is happy with the way the neighborhood is becoming more residential, with young families moving into Northern Liberties and spreading into Fishtown. He believes the waterfront needs more attractions for families, but he also supports the plan for a casino on the refinery site. “I would like to see both,” Danze said. Behind the grill each day, “I hear both sides of the story.”
Heading back toward Penn’s Landing, there is another restaurant with a family history. Brothers Giuseppe and Antonio Cardillo, who were born in the small town of St. Andrea Del Pizzone just outside Naples, bought a building that had been a bar called Winds on the Water in 1991, when Penn’s Landing was still under construction. They turned the site on Pier 3 into La Veranda Ristorante and serve an upscale crowd of business people, professionals, and couples in an intimate dining room overlooking a marina. Their menu is mainly Northern Italian, with specialties like calves liver sautéed in wine with onions, tripe prepared in tomato sauce, and braciola over rigatoni.
Unlike some of his neighboring restaurant owners, Giuseppe Cardillo said the waterfront is “pretty fine the way it is now.” The arrival of gambling crowds will require a reworking of the roads, but “hopefully, the casinos will affect us all for the good.”
The other unique, elegant dining experience at Penn’s Landing is aboard the Moshulu, the 103-year-old, four-masted sailing ship that has circled the globe numerous times and came to rest in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s. She has undergone several renovations and setbacks, including a fire in 1989. In 2003, the ship reopened under the direction of experienced restaurateur Martin Grims.
The floating restaurant offers private dining rooms and outdoor decks, and has a clientele that draws from businesses and neighboring condos during the week, and the tri-state suburbs on the weekend.
They come for the surf and turf, sea bass, duck breast and pork tenderloin. And the atmosphere.
“We have marvelous views of the waterfront and the city,” Grims said. “Philadelphians rarely think of being on the water, but really this is a port city. You can sit and watch the ships come in, and the large-scale yachts – this is an active place for boaters.”
Out on the decks, patrons can enjoy warm-weather breezes, he said, and “inside, there is something magical about being on the water.”
But Grims hopes the city will realize the full potential of the waterfront. “We’ve made a big investment, buying and redoing the ship. And the Delaware riverfront is the city’s last great, untapped resource. Different political administrations have struggled with it, and politics or other things have impeded the progress,” he said.
Penn’s Landing should become a destination point, but there is not enough happening to draw large-scale crowds, Grims said. There are occasional concerts, and annual fireworks, “but you have to give people a reason to use it every single day. It’s a wonderful venue for restaurants and hotels. … Philadelphians need to think big.”
WRT’s Micale also said dining can’t serve as the sole motivation to bring people to the waterfront, “but combined with other uses it could encourage development.”
Bolender, though, said restaurants do bring an important aspect to the riverfront. When they are shopping, people go in one store and out another. “But there is something about stopping and eating that gives you a sense of place, a settled feeling … and gives people a reason to be out there.”