When local developer Carl Dranoff announced his intention to erect a luxury hotel and condominium on South Broad Street, he knew there would be some grumbling. For me, it’s a personal gripe.
When local developer Carl Dranoff announced his intention to erect a luxury hotel and condominium on South Broad Street, he knew there would be some grumbling. Music lovers are miffed at his plans to demolish the Philadelphia International Records building where Gamble and Huff gave birth to the Philly Sound. Me? I have a more personal gripe. Having grown up one block from the proposed site, I don’t want to see a wrecking ball destroy my childhood memories of surly waiters cracking wise in Yiddish at the Blintza Restaurant on the southeast corner of Broad and Spruce.
Bad enough, there isn’t a single Jewish dairy restaurant left in Philly where you can get a hot bowl of mushroom barley soup served by an octogenarian waiter in a tan jacket, but I hate to see the building with its borscht-loving phantoms go. This isn’t to say that the Blintza had great food. It was appealing only if you wanted to have lunch in 19th century Kiev. And the ambience? It had all the charm of a union hall reeking of baked flounder. But to my parents, grandparents and, by default, to me, it was home. Which meant it was loud and chaotic, and if your waiter didn’t bring what you ordered, you shut up and ate it anyway.
From the start, I was terrified of those old, bald men with sunken eyes and livery lips who stood over the table telling customers what they should eat. “No, you don’t want the tuna salad today. You want the white fish.” They spoke with an authority that left no room for debate, not even from lawyers in Boyd’s suits, politicians or manufacturing moguls. If your waiter didn’t insult you, you inquired into his health.
Although the menu included all manner of fish, dairy dishes, salads, vegetables and desserts, I ordered the same thing every time: three blintzas with a side of sour cream and a small metal container of hot, dark cherries. The blintzas were hot and tender with a sweet cheese filling. The sour cream was a complement made in heaven. But the cherries! If Proust had tasted them, he would’ve forgotten his Madelaines in a heartbeat.
In the 1970s, when the youngest waiter at the Blintza was 102, the restaurant closed and was replaced by Utrecht, an art supply store. How convenient. I was an art student and had no nostalgia for Eastern European cuisine. Around the same time, the Rathskellar, a subterranean jazz lounge with an entrance on Spruce Street beneath the Blintza also disappeared. (I have never met anyone who admitted to frequenting the Rathskeller and, until I do, I will continue to think of it as a den of debauchery, filled with hard-drinking men and women in black fishnet stockings.) But perhaps the ghostly jazz that once issued from building’s basement is what eventually drew Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff to the site.
As a native Philadelphian, I’ve learned to say “change is good,” even when it hurts. When the Kimmel Center rose up on its haunches like a supermarket on steroids, I bit my tongue. And I have to admit, I love the excitement the Cira Center has added to our city’s skyline. I’m sure one day when I pass the dazzling new 47-story SLS International at Broad and Spruce, I will swell with communal pride. But I wouldn’t be surprised if hotel guests complain that their room smells like baked flounder and they hear the shuffling of old Jewish waiters in the halls.