‘No disaster, no bump.’ Philly restaurants reflect on the DNC

    Center City restaurants are vying for DNC business. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

    Center City restaurants are vying for DNC business. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

    Heading into DNC week we wondered how local restaurants would approach this major international event given that the papal visit was an unholy disaster for them. Did the DNC live up to lower expectations? Depends who you ask and where they operate.

    It’s Tuesday night, the middle of the dinner rush during the heart of the DNC. Davio’s — a swanky steakhouse in Center City — is teeming with slick-suited customers and dotted with stern-looking men.

    Owner Steve DiFillipo points to a man sitting ramrod straight at the end of the bar, a curly wire visible just over the ridge of his ear.

    “Everyone’s got these things in their ears,” he says with a half-laugh. “And it’s crazy.”

    U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren passed through earlier in the day, DiFillipo tells me. Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” fame is sitting a large round table in the center of the dining room.

    The people-watching in Philly is never this good. And for places like Davio’s, neither is the business. DiFillipo says receipts are about double what he usually does this time of year, a month where lots of big-spenders are typically on vacation.

    “To do these numbers in July, they can come back next year if they like,” DiFillipo says with a laugh.

    Then he says the words restaurateurs have been dying to utter for months: “It’s making up for the pope.”

    Things are looking up

    Heading into DNC week we wondered how local restaurants would approach this major international event given that the city’s last major international event — the Papal visit — was an unholy disaster for the city’s dining industry. Closed roads and penny-pinching pilgrims combined to put a hurt on local eateries, even though many thought they’d benefit from the flood of visitors. Many restaurateurs, still feeling burned, kept expectations low when the Dems rolled into town.

    And has the DNC lived up to those lowered expectations?

    Depends who you ask and where they operate.

    Restaurants in prime locations — think Center City and Old City — generally report a business boom. That’s especially true for those on the high end who’ve been able to either rent out their dining rooms to large parties, attract spendy walk-ups, or both.

    Ellen Yin, who co-owns Fork in Old City and a trio of other nearby restaurants, says business is up between 25 and 50 percent at her establishments.

    “This is definitely not the same as last September,” says Yin. “Conventioneers are definitely out and about eating and drinking.”

    Many restaurateurs accused Philadelphia officials of poor communication leading up to and through the papal visit, which led to distorted expectations. But Yin says she’s been impressed with the city’s outreach efforts this time around.

    “I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she says. “Every day in my inbox  are at least two e-mails from the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau talking about what the schedule is, what’s expected to happen, [and] traffic patterns.”

    Lower-cost joints in Old City and Center City report less robust crowds, but still a modest uptick. Sto’s Bar, just a block east of Fork, set up a Donald Trump dunk tank to attract walk-up crowds. On a Tuesday night, a crowd of curious onlookers watched as folks attempted to soak a masked, insult-flinging Trump impersonator perched atop the tank.

    “We have no corporate contacts,” says owner Michael Stosic. “We don’t know anybody in politics or anything like that. But people are more hanging out, drinking, having a good time.”

    At Jake’s Sandwich Board — a to-go lunch spot at 12th and Sansom Streets — owner Gary Dorfman decked the windows in cardboard cutouts of political figures. Business is up about 25 percent during the DNC, Dorfman says. Yet at the store’s second location in West Philadelphia, there’s been no spike to speak of.

    Luke warm results

    Those beyond the shadows of the big hotels — even if only slightly so — say the convention hasn’t been a boon. Some say it’s even hurt. Jill Webber owns Jet Wine Bar on South Street, just a block west of Broad. She says out-of-towners haven’t ventured down to her shop, and that the combination of stifling heat and intermittent road closures have discouraged locals from venturing out.

    “And that’s the killer,” she says. “If it was just a normal week it’d be fine. But it becomes, in these cases, a worse-than-normal thing. And that hurts.”

    The restaurants along booming East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia stayed open until 1 a.m. Wednesday to try and draw conventioneers. The strategy didn’t work, says Francis Cratil Cretarola, who owns Brigantessa and Le Virtu, two highly regarded spots on the avenue. That’s partly because the final speeches didn’t end until almost midnight. With post-convention traffic, visitors didn’t have the time to venture into South Philadelphia — even if they had the energy to try.

    He describes his DNC week succinctly: “No disaster, no bump.”

    That sentiment seemed to sum up the attitudes of many around town, especially those who aren’t high-end or in prime locations.

    “The folks that have the buy-outs are certainly happy,” says Ben Fileccia, president of the Philadelphia Hotel and Restaurant Alliance. “The folks that don’t have either reported business as usual or a little less.”

    The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau will eventually do a post-mortem analysis of the DNC and its benefit to the local economy. That will put some hard numbers on this hectic week.

    Until then, restaurateurs have their hunches, and, if their lucky, a few more bar tabs to close before the party ends.

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