Yo Fishtown: A Biergarten is in your future

March 15, 2010

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr plans to bring a little Frankfurt to Frankford.

Starr hopes to open a 10,000-square foot, mostly outdoor beer garden  at 1210 Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, near Johnny Brenda’s Tavern, this summer.

“The emphasis is absolutely on beer, in the spirit of German and Austrian beer gardens,” Starr said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.  The menu isn’t set yet, he said, but the food will be “consistent with that concept,” although there may be a few lighter, healthier options, as well.

The beer garden will have about 250 seats outside and between 80 and 90 inside.  The outdoor seating will be enclosed with a wall that already exists at the site. No drawings or plans are ready yet.

The concept is quite different from Starr’s other projects, which include the Asian fusion POD in University City, the comfort food with Brady Bunch décor at Jones in Center City, and Tex-Mex with a side of kitch at El Vez, to name just a few. Check out http://www.starr-restaurant.com/

When asked why create a beer-focused venue, Starr said, “I’m always looking for something new to do. I get bored with myself.”  

Starr admits that while he has a cold one now and again, he’s not even that into beer.  “I’m a wine guy,” he said. “Or, if I want a real drink, I have a martini.”

But Starr knows plenty of people have a special place in their hearts for fine beers. “This is a beer city, absolutely,” he said. “There’s even a neighborhood called Brewery Town.”

Why plop it down in Fishtown? Starr thinks it’s an up-and-coming place.  “It has a nice scale to it. It is a true community,” he said. “Fishtown feels right. I can’t put my finger on it – I just felt it.”

Starr said Girard Avenue – close to his Frankford  location – “is a great avenue that will and needs to be developed. It has good bones.”

The beer garden project won the approval of Fishtowners at a Fishtown Neighbors Association meeting earlier this month, where attendees voted in support of Starr’s project, 158-11. Starr also recently got the zoning variance he needs to operate.

Fishtown Neighbors President Neil Brecker is thrilled that Starr is coming. “When you have somebody of the reputation and stature of Stephen Starr, who is known for creating not just restaurants but destinations …  and he decides to put a one-of-a-kind place in your neighborhood, it’s a reflection of that  neighborhood,” he said.

Brecker also sees an opportunity for the Fishtown-Kensington area to capitalize on beer tourism, what with Starr’s project, Johnny Brenda’s, Yards on Delaware Avenue and the Philadelphia Brewing Company on Amber Street.

Starr says local brews will definitely be joining German and Austrian imports on the menu. His people are still working on which ones.

FNA and Fishtown FACT are known for their disagreement on one development under construction in the neighborhood: SugarHouse. FNA opposed it. FACT enthusiastically supports it.  But FACT co-founder Maggie O’Brien is just as pleased about the beer garden as Brecher is. “I think it’s the perfect idea,” said O’Brien,  who says she’s a big fan of Starr’s.  And nothing could better complement the growing number of art galleries on Frankford Avenue than a biergarten, she said.

“Frankford Avenue before was a dump, and now it’s really being revitalized,” said O’Brien, with compliments to the New Kensington Development Corporation for its work.  “I have an art gallery around the corner from my house,” said O’Brien. “Who would have ever thought that?”

O’Brien has lived in Fishtown for 25 years. “Before, when I told people I live in Fishtown, they would say, ‘Eww!’ People didn’t realize what a great place it was,” she said. “Now they say, ‘I wish I could afford to buy a house in your neighborhood.’  Stephen Starr is giving validation to what we’ve known all along.”

On the issue of SugarHouse, Starr is more closely aligned with FNA than with FACT. When asked what the proximity of SugarHouse, and, further south on Columbus, Foxwoods, would do for his business, Starr said, “I think they do nothing for it. I’m not a big fan of the casino thing.”

The neighbors did have some concerns about Starr’s proposed restaurant. The biggest issues were parking and noise, FNA’s Brecher said. He said that the Starr team said there will be no live music, which helps with the noise. “The acoustic expert estimated that taking into account the 25-foot high walls, the expected sound levels would be approximately 50 decibels,” Brecher said.

Starr said Monday the acoustics expert is also looking at baffles and other sound-reducing options.

To ease parking concerns, there will be off-street, valet parking in a nearby lot, Starr said. “I normally don’t like to do that, but that’s what they wanted,” Starr said.

He went into the project thinking it wouldn’t be needed, he said. “We want to do a neighborhood-y place. A place that caters to the city, as opposed to the suburbs,” he said.

Starr figured most of his customers would walk to the beer garden, and still expects a lot of foot traffic. But the neighbors at the FNA meeting told him that a lot of people drive to Johnny Brenda’s from other parts of the city, and they expect that will happen at his new place, too.

If the beer garden does open this summer, it will be just months behind another new Starr restaurant that will open at 20th and Chestnut on April 20th.  Starr says he’s turning an old “divey-diner” into a 90-seat, authentic – not-Americanized – Mexican restaurant. A connected, but thematically separate space will hold a 35-seat cocktail lounge. Starr hired the owner of Milk and Honey (http://www.mlkhny.com/newyork/newyork.php), located in New York’s east side – to develop the cocktail menu.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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