The Spot: Copabanana

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Bill Curry (left) and Dan Christiansen at Copabanana.

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 1978, when Inquirer nightlife columnist Bill Curry quit journalism to open a restaurant, his colleagues could scarcely believe it. Their surprise grew when they discovered he wasn’t launching something large or fancy, but instead was taking over the former Open Kitchen, a tiny watering hole near the east end of South Street. There was a simple enough explanation, though — the reporter had fallen in love with the neighborhood and wanted to be a central part of its freewheeling, Bohemian culture.

A South Florida native, Curry started writing in high school, and was instrumental in turning his college newspaper into a daily. He landed a job with the Miami Herald, where he wrote a popular Q&A column and became art director for the Sunday magazine, until the Inquirer stole him away.

After moving north, he fell in with the jet set of 1970s Philadelphia — the hip party crowd that included man about town Stanley Green, jewelry designer Henri David, socialite Kiki Olsen and Princess Grace’s brother Jack Kelly.

While still covering nightlife for the paper, he opened a South Street card shop called Paper Moon, and became a fixture on the strip. When the owner of the dive across the street died, Curry left his writing job and took it over, replacing the shot-and-beer bar with an Art Deco lounge that specialized in fresh lime margaritas and grilled-to-order burgers. It was a success.

By 1982, Copabanana had outgrown its initial footprint and expanded next door, but Curry’s ambitions didn’t stop there. Over the course of the next 30 years, he launched at least eight other food and drink venues, from New Orleans-inspired Cafe Nola to beer-centric Copa Too. His most recent venture is Redwood, Copabanana’s upscale wine bar neighbor.

On a recent afternoon, with sun streaming into his Key West-themed dining room at Fourth and South, the serial restaurateur sat across from business partner and nephew Dan Christensen and recounted his Philadelphia story.

 

How did you end up opening a bar on South Street?

I had Paper Moon, right across the street, so I would come to this little hole in the wall after work to get a drink. The owner was a former longshoreman named [Frank] Turk [Jaworski]. Once, when Jimmy Carter was running for president, he bet me $1,000 that Carter would lose. I won, of course. I never collected, because it was just silliness, but I always thought it was funny that I wound up with his bar when he died.

Had you ever owned a bar before?

No, but I had been to plenty — I got paid to drink. I was around town all the time telling folks what was good and what was bad. So I was ready to do it. My original partner was a man called Stanley Green, but that only lasted a few months. He was supposed to know the restaurant business, but he really didn’t.

Had he owned other restaurants?

He owned a chain of restaurants, and had a big deli on Broad Street at one time. But he was the type who would get drunk and fall down. By two months into our partnership, I ended up being responsible for getting him and his wife home every night, and I didn’t like that. So I got a new partner, Judy DeVicaris. She was my partner for 26 years.

Did you serve food from the start?

We had a grill in the front window, and one person would bartend and cook burgers. The burgers were great — although they’ve kept improving since then. They came from a bartender named Sarah O’Keefe. She was from Tulsa, Okla., and also did this dish called Spanish fries — we introduced those to Philadelphia. And her main thing was fresh lime margaritas.

Margaritas weren’t that popular yet, right?

Well, back then, everyone used sour mix, or worse, Rose’s lime juice. But we squeezed our own limes. I used to kid the bartenders that I would charge them a Nautilus fee for the workout. Eventually margaritas got popular, and now you can buy fresh-squeezed lime juice from Mexico.

What was in the corner space before you expanded and took it over?

It was a furniture store. We put in a bar and a lot of Art Deco neon. Of all the pieces, the Concord plane is the treasure. It’s by a guy called Rudi Stern, who was a famous neon artist. He did a lot of stuff in Times Square, back in the day. We’ve had the piece since 1982. It’s probably worth more than anything else in here.

In 1982, you opened Cafe Nola. How did that come about?

My partner Judy and I started doing food shows in New Orleans and ended up being very tied to a lot of food people. We met Ella Brennan, James Beard, Julia Child and Mark Miller. We met Emeril [Lagasse] before he was loud. He really was a shy kind of guy.

Mr. “Bam!” was shy?

Oh, he was incredibly shy. He wasn’t a TV person at all, back then. Anyway, when we were in New Orleans, we saw the letters N-O-L-A on a manhole cover — like you see PECO here — and that’s where we got the name. People really didn’t call it that, at the time. Cafe Nola was very successful, but the snowstorm in 1996 put us under, and it closed in 1997. [Another Cafe Nola since operated under different management.]

You had other restaurants?

My nephew Dan joined me in 1991, and then helped me open a place called Tutto Mixto [where Reef Restaurant is now]. It was a beautiful Mediterranean restaurant. We had two cruvinet systems and a menu of tapas plates, which no one did back then. People thought we were saying we had a “topless” restaurant.

Then there were a few Copa spinoffs?

Copa Too opened in 1985, during that time when everyone wore pastels; the Miami Vice era. We rode that one for a long while. It was popular, but it was awkward because the bathroom was all the way up on the third floor. People would go next door to McGlinchey’s — the beer there was really cheap, like 75 cents, so customers would go there, buy a beer, use their bathroom and come back.

Tom Peters handled beer for you there?

He did, that was great. Because of him we were the first ones in the U.S. to serve a Belgian beer on tap, Kwak. I was upset when he left to open Monk’s Cafe. Another one of our early bartenders was David Ansill [now chef at Bar Ferdinand]. Also Neil [Laughlin], who owns Sassafras. He was wonderful, our best bartender. He worked for us until the day he opened his own place.

Was there a Copa in Rittenhouse, briefly?

Yeah, very briefly. It was called Copa Miami, and we took the pastel thing to the next level. I didn’t really run that one. It was run by my very good friend Joe Cuculo, who has been a great help over the years. He actually owns Paper Moon now.

And there’s a Copabanana still operating in University City. But you’re no longer connected?

I opened that one around 12 years ago. My partner was a friend of mine, but he was worried about everything all the time. Once you reach a certain age, you just don’t want to worry about things. So we parted ways. There was also a Copa in the Northeast at one point, but it was hard to know how to market that one.

How did you market the other bars? Did you do advertising? Do you still?

In the beginning, we got lucky, because right after we opened in 1978, Barry Manilow released his song “Copacabana” and it became a number one hit. It was like a free ad. Now, it’s much harder to know how to get the word out. We used to be big on MGK, MMR, YSP — you could count on radio delivering a crowd. But not anymore. Dan and I have arguments about social media versus traditional advertising.

Do you use a PR firm?

Not yet; we might soon. Originally, I was so connected that I was the PR person. But then they all died. It’s so different now — I went back to visit the Inquirer newsroom recently, and it felt like I was in a library. It used to be very exciting, with copy boys running around, ticker tapes going off, all these noises. But now it’s all computers.

What’s the key to a successful restaurant?

Consistency. You can go somewhere once and love it, but if you go back and it’s not good, you might never return. Good consistent food, and consistent drinks. The number of regulars we have here is almost absurd. You can tell the day of the week by who is sitting at the bar.

 

Copabanana

344 South St., 215-923-6180

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily