Openings and Closings

A few weeks ago, I walked Al to work and then continued walking southeast toward Society Hill. I was on my way to check out a place my babysitter recommended called Homemade Goodies (on 5th between Lombard and South), but I figured that on the way I'd stop at The Inn on Locust and ask to see the bathrooms. I practiced my speech as I walked: "I know this is going to sound insane, but we're thinking about remodeling our master bathroom, and every time we talk about the design, my husband says, 'I wish you'd seen the bathrooms at The Inn on Locust, because that's exactly what I want.' So I'm wondering: Would it be possible to see the bathroom in one of your rooms?"

It might surprise my friends and readers to learn this, but I'm actually kind of shy/chicken when it comes to talking to strangers. I'd much rather keep to myself and interact with others only if absolutely necessary. After four blocks of practicing my speech, however, I was prepared to march up to the front desk at The Inn on Locust and sound like a total nut. Imagine my disappointment-mixed-with-relief when I arrived at Locust and 12th to find a padlock on the door and a business card from a real estate agent taped to the glass. I contemplated calling the agent, since I now wanted to ask another question besides "can I see the bathrooms?" (which I assume are still as they were): What happened?

I know businesses fail—heck, most businesses fail—but as someone who hopes to open a business someday (more on that in a future post), I find myself wishing that more of the failures would post an explanation in their windows rather than a "thanks for your patronage," a For Rent sign, or a real estate agent's business card. I want to know what happened, to learn from others' mistakes, to understand the business environment in my city. I'd love to know the story behind the closure of Hamburger Mary's and Club Dragonfly; it always seemed busy at lunchtime, but perhaps that wasn't enough to keep it going. Would it have done better in the Gayborhood? Would The Inn on Locust, which was smack dab in the middle of the Gayborhood, have done better in Hamburger Mary's location? Perhaps the spillover from the nearby nightclubs, which would have been a boon to Mary's, were what doomed a boutique hotel full of business travelers who needed to get some sleep? I guess I'll never know.

In any case, the title of this post is Openings and Closings because Mary's and The Inn on Locust aren't the only businesses along my usual walking routes that have closed recently—and because several new and interesting businesses have sprung up to take their places. The most important opening (to us, at least) is Aya's Cafe, which took the place of Nick's Pizza on Arch between 21st and 22nd. We've been watching the new commercial stoves go in, the sign go up, and the interior get redecorated for the past couple months with much excitement. We love our neighborhood, but we've been saying since we moved in that if we could change one thing, it would be to add a small, independent restaurant or two. Aya's is exactly the kind of place we had in mind.

We tried Aya's, which is a Mediterranean BYOB, the first weekend it was open. They had a high chair for the Beaner, gave him his own bowl of baby carrots to nosh on (most of which he just dropped on the floor), and did a pretty good job of keeping plates, glasses, and silverware out of his reach despite the limited table real estate, so thumbs-up for baby-friendliness. The decor is really warm and inviting—a big change from Nick's—though I found the banquette that runs the length of the restaurant a little too high. The pillows that formed the backrest were great, but I couldn't sit with my feet flat on the floor (nor could I lean my elbows on the table comfortably, though I know that's considered bad manners anyway). I tried to balance the weight of my legs on my toes, but the edge of the banquette still bit into my thighs, and my back was sore from the balancing effort by the end of the meal.

As for the food, I had the stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer (I didn't need so much cheese, but the mushrooms themselves were very good—similar to the kind I make for parties), and I think Al had a salad. For entrees, I had the grilled salmon, and Al had linguine with clams. The salmon had a wonderful kabob-like grilled flavor, but it was overcooked for my taste and slightly fishy. The cous cous it was served on was nutty, buttery, and just plain excellent, however, and the grilled red peppers were great (I wish there were more of them than the green and yellow squash, which didn't grab me the way the peppers did). Al's pasta was also a bit overcooked; I like all pasta al dente, but especially pasta that's served with clams. When your flavoring is chewy, your pasta should be, too. Caffe Teresa in Princeton gets it just right: When in doubt, lean more toward undercooked than over. Other than that complaint, Al reports that the dish was tasty. The best thing we had was the rice pudding we shared for dessert, which was served icy cold and sprinkled with ground pistachios. Creamy and refreshing.

We left thinking that we'd surely go back, if for no other reason than to encourage a local business, but I notice we haven't been in a hurry. This is the problem with restaurants that are convenient but which don't serve food that knocks your socks off: You want them to stick around in case you need them, but it's hard to patronize them consistently when you don't love the food. Such was also the case with the Teriyaki Boy at Market and 20th, which closed this week; it was nice to have a fast food sushi/teriyaki place on the way home from Al's work—especially one that was open past 5pm—but the food wasn't so good that we wanted to go all the time. We're sad to see it go, but it was even sadder to see it empty all the time. I hope something even better ends up in its space.

Another sushi (and perhaps tapas?) place we kept thinking we'd try but never did, Cha Cha Sushi (on 19th), closed a couple weeks before the Teriyaki Boy. We lamented the missed opportunity for about five minutes, or until we realized that a new place called Devil's Alley had opened up almost simultaneously around the corner on Chestnut. Now there's a place we'll be patronizing frequently. We went for the first time last week, mainly because Al had noticed that they had a platter of three BBQ sandwiches on the menu (one each of chicken, pork, and beef). The trio of BBQ sandwiches was an appetizer (Devil's Alley also serves a BBQ sandwich entree, but that's limited to only one kind of meat), so Al chose a bowl of beans and the grilled sweet potato steak fries from the long list of side dishes to flesh out his meal. I had a really bad toothache that night and couldn't imagine eating a big meal, so I ordered a grilled caesar salad, which the waiter explained was a half a head of romaine thrown on the grill—"it's warm, not cold"—and then served with caesar dressing, parmesan cheese, croutons, and sun dried tomatoes.

The grilled romaine was FABULOUS, the BBQ sandwiches were huge (far bigger than their appetizer status would have suggested), and the sweet potato fries (with the blackened bits trimmed off) turned out to be the perfect dinner for the Beaner (Al couldn't finish them anyway because he was so stuffed from the sandwiches). I had assumed that the restaurant wasn't particularly baby-friendly because we weren't offered a high chair—and I was offered a sharp knife with which to cut my salad despite the fact that the Beaner was strapped to my chest in the Bjorn within easy reach of any utensils (I declined in favor of eating the leaves with my fingers)—and this almost prevented us from returning with Val on Thursday night. Memories of that grilled caesar salad kept floating through my brain, however, so we decided to go again despite the hardship of having to hold the Beaner.

As it turns out, Devil's Alley does have high chairs, they're perfectly OK with patrons parking strollers in front of the hostess stand, and they do have some wait staff with common (or at least kid) sense. This is a good thing, because I'm now totally hooked on the grilled goodness (or devilishness). My second salad was slightly smaller than the first, but every bit as tasty; the grilled vegetable platter we got to share was not extraordinary on its own, but it was excellent with the side of chipotle ranch dressing that came with Al's special, the dry-rubbed wings. I plan to ask for a side of dressing next time I order the grilled veggies. I'd definitely have another glass of the Forrestville Riesling, and I can't wait to try some of the sandwiches and more of the sides. For his part, Al is sad that the wings were only a special and not a regular menu item, but the bright side of that is that he'll definitely get to try something new next time.

I know I've already covered a lot of territory in this post, but I have one more opening to mention before I sign off—one that hasn't quite happened yet. In late winter the Midori Mart, a Japanese/Korean grocery and fresh fish market that had been between 21st and 22nd on Chestnut when we first moved to Philly and that had moved a block east not long after, closed its doors and posted a sign in the window. Not a "for rent" sign, not a "thanks for your patronage" sign, but something more encouraging: A "Korean restaurant coming in April" sign. When the end of April approached, a new sign went up that said "Open in May". In June, that sign came down, and newspaper went up. We've been passing by periodically, looking for signs that the venture is still on, that a restaurant really will be opening sometime soon. This week I saw one: A new sign that said "Waiter/Waitress Wanted." Woo hoo!

Posted by Lori in food and philadelphia at 12:07 AM on August 22, 2005