South Street restaurateurs talk about the past, present and future of this storied strip
Sometimes, when walking down South Street, it seems like nothing has changed.
Sometimes, when walking down South Street, it seems like nothing has changed. Tourists and locals line up under the onion-heavy air at Jim's Steaks, the TLA marquee often boasts acts that are more at home in the year 1995 than 2015, and over at Copabanana and Fat Tuesday, it seems like the margaritas and hurricanes will never stop flowing.
But looking to other corners, it's clear that the street has seen almost constant change since 1963, when the Orlons famously asked in their song, "Where do all the hippies meet?"
Street-wear shops have overtaken the spaces that once specialized in spiked dog collars and Manic Panic hair dye, and the Philadelphia Pizza Company, romantically referenced in "Punk Rock Girl," the Dead Milkmen's iconic ode to punk rock love, is long gone.
Headhouse Square used to be a place where the underage contingent of the city and suburbs used to go to see and be seen (that is, sit around and generally do what teenagers do). Now, it's the Sunday morning farmers' market hub for the city's finest selection of locally sourced produce.
Perhaps the best authority on the history of the iconic and ever-changing thoroughfare is Tom Vasiliades, who has owned South Street Souvlaki for the past 39 years.
When asked about the scene on South Street before he decided to open his nearly 40-year-old taverna, Vasiliades replies, "There was very little here. Ninety-five percent of the storefronts were all boarded up. There were a handful of — one, two three restaurants — the one on Front Street, that Irish place. I opened and everyone else started coming. Jim's Steaks came after me, Bridget Foy's came after me, that's about it."
That's hardly it, though. "I came from New York in '72 and a friend of mine took me down here after living in Jersey for about a year and a half. He says, 'You've got to go down to South Street,'" Vasiliades explains. "I'd heard about South Street from the song ... and when I came down it reminded me so much of the Village in New York. And I saw the Village evolve back in early '60s, and I just had a sense that the same was going to happen here, and it did."
With his infinitely recognizable blue-and-white storefront and Greek music spilling out into the street, Vasiliades might have pioneered the South Street restaurant-scape, but others quickly followed suit.
When Bridget Foy's parents, John and Bernadette, started their bar and restaurant in 1978, it was called East Philly Cafe, named for a moniker for the neighborhood that never took off. And when Foy was born, her parents changed both the name and the concept of the restaurant.
"When it first started, it was more fine dining," Foy says. "There were certainly less restaurants in the city. My father had come from a fine-dining background so when they made that transition that was the initial step that they took. Then they went to bar food; back in the day, it was chicken wings and quesadillas. It was a sports bar and now we're a casual American eatery."
Foy has grown up in the South Street restaurant game, living right around the corner and always somehow involved in the restaurant. For the last 10 years, she has been running the front of the house. But living and working at the corner of Second and South for her entire life, sometimes it's difficult to see the gradual transformation of South Street in its entirety.
Doug Hager, co-owner of Brauhaus Schmitz, opened his beer hall in 2009, during the height of the financial crisis. "I didn't pick South Street," he says. "South Street picked me."
When scouting spots for his restaurant concept, the foot traffic sold him on South Street. As secretary of the South Street Headhouse Business District, Hager has a lot invested in the street, which he sees as a strip with a constant ebb and flow. Next up for him is Whetstone, a new American concept, that he and Brauhaus chef Jeremy Nolen plan to open later this spring at Fifth and Bainbridge.
Being the one and only German place in Center City to kick back a kölsch and enjoy a killer wurst was a boon to Hager from the get-go, but the niche nature of Brauhaus was hardly the only contributing factor to its success. "Everyone knows where [South Street] is," he explains. The appeal of Nolen's creative take on German cuisine is a draw in the colder months, but you can't argue with the tourist foot traffic that takes over the street when the temperature rises.
Erin O'Shea, chef-partner at Southern-accented Percy Street BBQ, can't argue with the location. When she and partners Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov, owners of Zahav and other restaurants, took over a short-lived New Orleans eatery back in 2010, O'Shea wasn't sure what the location of her new restaurant meant. "I didn't realize that it held such an important place in Philly history, so that has been interesting. Meeting the people who have been on the street for a long time. You get a certain reaction, 'Oh, you're going to South Street?' And it wasn't always positive."
O'Shea sees South Street as a microcosm of the city itself. "It's block to block. This block is this style, that block is that style, and it all depends on what you're looking for. There is a broad attraction for a lot of different people."
Of course, the not entirely positive reactions have been turned around by O'Shea's remarkably delicate takes on classics like brisket, burnt-end beans and a pantry full of house-cured pickles. The smell of O'Shea's smoked meat was enough to gain her a quick and devoted following. "I joke around, but honestly it's true, that you open up these doors and its like a mating call. This place just fills up."
The clientele that O'Shea has seen over her five-year tenure at Ninth and South has been as varied as South Street over the years. "You have your high end — I'm going to use the word foodies — that spend their time at Vetri and Zahav, but they also enjoy coming here and appreciate what we have to offer," she says. "Then you have the people walking down the street in flip-flops and a T-shirt and it's lunchtime and they want to come in and get a sandwich. You have neighborhood people that we've come to know and love, for sure. We've seen people date, get married and have children.They are part of our family and we feel like we're part of theirs. You see everything, which is cool."
Perhaps the most unlikely addition to the South Street restaurant scene in recent years is Serpico. Before moving to Philadelphia, Peter Serpico was the chef at Ko, the most sought-after reservation in the Momofuku family, a tiny, tasting-menu-only chef's counter in Manhattan's East Village. Opening his namesake spot with Philadelphia restaurant impresario Stephen Starr was a calculated move on his part — that won him rave reviews, not only from critics, but also from his neighbors.
"I like Seprico's [place]," says Vasiliades. "What a great person he is. We just met him recently. Have two years already gone by since he opened?"
The fact that Serpico, with his forward-thinking menu and destination restaurant, is already a favorite of Vasiliades barely two years in is a testament to the ever-changing and very accepting nature of the street.
When Serpico moved to Philadelphia he immediately saw potential in the former Foot Locker space where his restaurant now stands. "There was just something about it, something about the shape, something about the ceilings and something about the bones of it that I really enjoyed."
When scouting South Street, Serpico did his homework. "I walked up and down the street, I Googled it. I didn't know that much about it. I just knew it was a hangout spot for kids on the weekend, a great way to kill three or four hours without spending any money."
Nearly two years later, Serpico sees so many pluses in his Sixth and South location. Unlike other neighborhoods, where multiple-bell restaurants line the streets, South Street allows him and his team more breathing room to create a menu that marries Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn into a Mexican-accented (and gorgeously crafted) plate of ravioli, and tuck deep-fried duck leg into Martin's potato rolls with hoisin sauce, scallions and pickles.
"I want to be able to do what we wanted to do and not what out customers dictate what we had to do," he says. "If I was going to do this project, I wanted to be able to have freedom to do what we wanted to do as a team and then grow it from there. So that's what we're doing."
Serpico has plenty of hope for the street's future. "I think the neighborhood is just going to continue to grow and continue to mature," he says. "With Whole Foods coming in on Tenth and South, they're just crushing it. Garden of Eden (a gourmet market with multiple locations in New York) is coming to Second and South, those are all good signs."
Vasiliades recently opened the second floor of South Street Souvlaki (509 South St.) as a BYO tapas spot with live entertainment on the weekends. Why? "I don't know. I got bored. I need challenges," he says. With 39 years of South Street experience, Vasiliades is the unofficial mayor of the strip and the best person to ask about its future.
"I've seen it go up, I've seen it go down; now it's downwards a little bit again," Vasiliades says. "In the last few years a lot of other areas have opened up and they've taken a lot of the business from us. Manayunk opened years ago and then you have Second Street, then you have Passyunk Avenue, but I think it's going to rebound again, and I think its going to come back stronger than ever. I believe in it. I've seen a lot happen here, and I can sense it in a way."
Vasiliades seems to have a sixth sense when it come to the street that he's called home for many years. "I just have a feeling, I guess," he says. "This street cannot stay down forever, it's a famous street, people know about it. Nobody knows anything about Second Street or Passyunk Avenue.South Street is a famous street and it's been for years and years and years."