We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
In the late '70s, South Street was arguably the hottest food neighborhood in Philadelphia, with establishments clustered around the eastern end of the strip and Headhouse Square. The density was enough to convince John Foy that he should leave his job as manager of a Center City restaurant take over an old, run-down building at the corner of Second and South Streets and open his own place.
Originally called East Philly Cafe, the restaurant launched in February 1978.
For 37 years, Foy, his wife, Bernadette, and his daughter, Bridget — the restaurant’s namesake — have continued to operate the business in a hands-on, no-nonsense style. Over four decades, they’ve upgraded and renovated the interior substantially, and changed the menu more times than they can count.
A new direction for the kitchen is taking effect right now, thanks to the recent hire of Garces Group alum chef Paul Wachman. He and Bridget joined John at a table next to windows overlooking the sidewalk patio as he reminisced about creating Philly’s first sidewalk cafe, becoming the first Philly bar to serve Guinness on tap, and the brief interlude in the ‘80s when the bar became the hot hangout for the Sixers, with Dr. J and his team stopping in after nearly every game.
What was South Street like in 1978?
It was just coming off sort of a hippie era. Because of the [failed] proposal to put what is now the Vine Street Expressway right through this area, there were a lot of inexpensive buildings, and it spawned a whole street of really neat shops and restaurants. We came in at the tail end of that movement — it had started around ‘72 or ‘73.
What inspired you to open a restaurant here?
I was manager of a restaurant called Cobblestones [at 250 S. Fifth St.], where the Philadelphia Sports Club is now. There was an old curmudgeon, a regular who used to come in every day. One day he was sitting at the bar grumbling about people who were renting his building, how they hadn’t paid rent, and he was going to throw them out. I asked how much the rent was, and he said it was $1,250 a month. I said, “I’ll take it!” and the rest is history.
It was $1,250 a month for this whole building? Pretty good deal.
Well, the space looked nothing like it does now. It was derelict. The second and third floors had no windows; there were pigeons living up there. Water drained right into the basement. It was just a shell of a building.
Why did you name your restaurant East Philly Cafe?
At the time, this area of town was just starting to come up and Philadelphia magazine was looking for a name. There was a South Philly, a North Philly and a West Philly, so they called it East Philly. It didn’t stick, obviously. So when Bridget was born, in 1982, we changed the name to Bridget Foy’s. It just had a much better ring to it.
Did your wife run the business with you from the start?
It started off just me. I had this real pretty waitress working here, and I kind of took a shine to her. We got married in 1980.
Has the concept for the restaurant been the same all along?
Not really. It’s changed all the time. The only constant here is change.
Is there nothing from the opening menu that you still serve?
No. We opened with a young chef that had been working at Le Bec-Fin, Danny Fleischmann. His menu was what they used to call “continental cuisine.” Veal marsala, pork dijonnaise, rack of lamb, stuff like that. If you saw the prices, you would laugh. Plates of veal for $12, glasses of champagne for $1.50.
Were you busy?
Yeah. We were packed. Because there was no Manayunk, no Fishtown, no East Passyunk — even Center City didn’t have that many restaurants. This was the restaurant district in the city at the time. This was it. This was where the restaurants were concentrated. There wasn’t really any competition.
Did you do a lot of renovations?
As soon as we bought the building, in 1980, we started to fix it up. We added windows all along the walls. We added the outdoor cafe...I think back that was 1984. Maybe earlier. We were the first people in Philadelphia to have an outdoor cafe. It wasn’t elevated like it is now; it was down on the sidewalk. Those were the days before the PPA, before all that stuff. It was pretty much footloose and fancy-free.
Things have changed?
Things are always in flux, in the neighborhood and in the restaurant. There was an era where we did a sports bar thing, back in the mid ‘80s. After every Sixers game the entire team would come in here, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, everyone. It was Dr. J that sparked it, he just started coming here, and it just took off. ... But that was only for a few years, and it sort of ran its course. When it was over, it was over, and I said, “We’ve got to change again!”
What kind of things did you implement?
We got into beer. We were the first restaurant in Philadelphia to have Guinness on tap, after I had it on a trip to Ireland. We were the first restaurant here to use the English pint glass. We were one of the first to carry beer from Stoudt’s. That was because we went on a family trip to Montreal and I saw this beer explosion. I knew it was going to be the next big thing, and as soon as I got back I did a little research and found Carol Stoudt. She used to brew a house beer for us, we called it Bridget Foy’s South Street Amber. I remember having fights with the Budweiser rep, who would come in here and scream, “This is only a fad!” I was like, “Nah, I don’t think so.”
When did Bridget start helping at the restaurant?
She’s been involved since the start. She practically grew up here. She tells a story of being here one day and having a guest ask for ketchup. She brought it to him and he gave her $5. She was like, “Hey, the restaurant business is awesome!” She was hooked.
There was one holiday Monday that she was here, and we got unexpectedly busy. I didn’t have a bartender on so I had to jump behind the bar and make drinks. Eventually I called my wife to come down from the office, and when she got here a guy says to her, “How much longer for my table?” She looked confused, and he said, “Well, I gave my name to the hostess!” It was Bridget. She was 7 years old but she had decided to pick up a piece of paper and start a wait list.
Now she’s the manager?
Yes. I take care of the messy stuff, the financials and the bills, and she runs the day to day. She went to Johnson & Wales for hospitality management, then worked in NYC a couple years, and then came back to help run this place. That was around 10 years ago.
Are there too many restaurants in Philly these days?
I think maybe we are a little bit over the saturation point. I like to joke that sooner or later, we’re going to have so many that there’ll be a restaurant for every person. I do think it keeps us on our toes. We know we have to keep changing all the time and that’s good. If you stagnate, you’re not going to be able to compete in the marketplace. It’s good for the patrons, that’s for sure.
Have you ever considered opening a second spot?
I’ve thought about it, but we own the building and have put a lot into it. It would be like having two wives. One is plenty.
200 South St.; 215-922-1813
Hours: Noon to 10 p.m., Monday to Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday