The Spot: London Grill

london_grill_mike_terry_1024
Chef Michael McNally and Terry Berch McNally, who took over London Grill in 1991.

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.

 

The building at the northwest corner of 23rd Street and Fairmount Avenue has been a bar since 1843. It started as the Golden Lager Saloon, opened by a pair of Russian immigrants whose descendants still return for a family reunion every 10 years. After that, it was an Irish pub called McMenamin’s (no relation to the one in Mount Airy) and then a tavern called “London,” opened in 1968 by a publican named Warren Brown.

It remained London until 1991, when husband-and-wife employees Michael McNally and Terry Berch McNally bought out the owner and added their own twist to the name, making it London Grill.

Over the last 24 years, the McNallys (who divorced in 1996 but still work together) cemented the restaurant’s reputation as a friendly, affordable neighborhood anchor. They also went further, pioneering many of today’s popular food and drink trends. London Grill was one of the first in the city to introduce an all-craft beer list, source ingredients directly from farmers, feature amaro-based cocktails, run a small plates menu, serve draft wine and offer sidewalk seating.

Michael is the chef, and usually stays in the kitchen, but he ventured into Terry’s front-of-the-house domain for a few hours last week to join her for a look back at the last 2½ decades. At a table in the corner of the dining room, the seasoned restaurateurs reminisced about pulling the business out of bankruptcy, fighting off anti-foie gras activists and trying to get more diners to cross the Ben Franklin Parkway. They also offered some thoughts on the current food scene, including a recent 4½-hour feast at Jose Garces’ Volvér.

 

How did the two of you meet?

Terry Berch McNally: We worked together in Center City at five different restaurants. The first was called Twentieth Street Cafe (where Twenty Manning Grill is now). I was hired as a server — I had gone to Temple and was waitressing and bartending around Philadelphia — and Michael was the chef.

Had you always wanted to be a chef, Michael?

Michael McNally: I don’t know about that. My brother got me a job as a dishwasher when we were in high school (we grew up in Philly), and then it sucked me in.

TBM: Michael studied under [teacher, author and PBS star] Madeleine Kamman and others. He’s got a lot of training. He was one of the first in Philly to do nouvelle-style duck breast (served rare), and was always really good with meat and fish. That’s how I fell in love with him, watching him butcher. I took a job in the kitchen as garde manger just so I could get close to him.

 

Did you get married before you opened a restaurant together? 

TBM: Yes, we got married in 1988. That’s also around when we came to Fairmount. A place called Fairmount Firehouse had just opened (where Jack’s Firehouse is now), and right after it won Best of Philly New Restaurant, the chef left suddenly and we got pulled in. I waitressed and helped manage the floor, and Michael took over as chef. But the place closed pretty quickly, and we started working at London, for Peter Coughlin, who had taken it over from Warren Brown.

MM: I actually had a contract to go work with another chef out on the Main Line, but Peter threw this position at me. I asked myself, “Do I want to take the train to the suburbs every day or just stay here?” I didn’t want to commute, so I stayed here.

 

How did you go from employees to proprietors?

TBM: There was a big recession in 1991, and Peter wanted out.

MM: I went up to Peter’s office on a Thursday night, intending to ask for a raise. I ended up giving my notice. The next night, Peter called me back in the office and said, “Either you and Terry buy this place, or I’m going to have to shut it down after this weekend,” and made me an offer. I went home and woke up Terry, and we discussed it. We came to an agreement with Peter the next day.

TBM: That Sunday, we posted a memo that was like: “Hey, we’re the new owners!”

 

Did you get loans or investors to help you with the purchase?

MM: We decided from day one that we were never taking investors. We figured if we were going to do it, we were going to do it on our own. No one telling us what to do, no one to answer to. We've stuck by that.

TBM:  We bought the restaurant out of bankruptcy, so we just had to come up with working capital to pay our vendors COD every day. We borrowed a little money from our parents and signed a lease-management agreement with first option to buy the building.

 

Was it busy after you took over?

TBM: No. It was scary. I didn’t breathe for two years. But we knew what we had to do, and we did it. We worked our [butts] off.

 

What changes did you make?

MM: The menu here had become very French, almost fine dining, which was my background. But because of the economy, we wanted to put more of a focus on the bar. I expanded the bar menu, adding things like cheese plates and our duck spring rolls. The “London Burger” was already on the menu, but I made it better. I started getting meat from Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster.

TBM: We’ve been working with Green Meadow since the 1990s. We always laugh about the “farm-to-table” movement, because this is our third decade doing it. Anyway, I knew the bar was key. I saw the craft beer thing coming — well, we didn’t call it “craft” back then, it was “microbrew” — and I increased our taps to a dozen. I pulled all the Heineken and Michelob and worked with Carol Stoudt of Stoudt’s on a house beer, our Willie Sutton Lager. I stocked the bar with liqueurs like Cynar and Chartreuse, which were very uncommon in those years.

 

Did business improve?

 TBM: The late ’90s were great. The Cezanne show at the [Art Museum in 1996] helped, and we were busy all the time. We got 10 “Best of Philly” awards in a row.

 

What were they for?

TBM: Hmm. Best Neighborhood Restaurant, Best Bar Food, Best Duck, Best Potato Pizza...

MM: It’s interesting, because I was winning all my awards with bar food, even though we were also serving a lot of three-course dinners.

TBM: Michael saw small plates coming. He said, “People want to share, they want to graze.” So we did a whole menu of small plates. This was way before Amada, or anything.

MM: It almost killed us, though, turning out all those small plates. We weren’t ready for it at first. Especially in the spring and summer, when we have another 100 seats out on the sidewalk.

 

When did you add the outdoor seating?

TBM: It took me from 1991 to 1996 to get the city to pass the ordinance approving sidewalk cafes. Before that, there were only three in the city, and they were grandfathered in. My neighbors all fought me on it. Lots of tears. In the end, Rendell finally got it done for me.

 

You were instrumental in helping turn Eastern State into a tourist attraction?

TBM: We got the prison historically certified because we were fighting off developers. Then we started the Halloween event there (it used to be just dinner theater, now it’s something different), and then we started the Bastille Day party, where I play Marie Antoinette. It was all part of our campaign to convince people to come to Fairmount, to cross the Parkway. We paid the sightseeing trolley people to veer up 22nd Street and make Eastern State into its own stop. I also worked with Tom Muldoon at the Convention and Visitors Bureau to get the visitors’ map changed, because it used to stop at Spring Garden.

 

You were at the center of the foie gras fight that went down here in 2007. What happened?

MM: A group just showed up in front of the restaurant one day with bullhorns, yelling at our customers. I remember it was a beautiful late spring day, so there were lots of people outside.

TBM: We were in good company; they were protesting at restaurants all over the city.

 

They were animal rights activists who wanted restaurants to take foie gras off the menu, right? Did you acquiesce?

MM: No. We could have backed down, like a lot of other chefs and restaurants.

TBM: David Ansill did. Stephen Starr did.

 

Did the protesters continue to harass you?

MM: They came several times. The group grew to more than a dozen people.

TBM: They were well funded. Bused in, given scripts. Michael even got arrested one night because he started going after them — they were trained to entice you. They were following our customers home, threatening people.

 

How did you get them to stop?

TBM: We took them to court. The ACLU represented them, so we hired a law firm, Klehr Harrison, and went to trial. We won. It was the first case against the ACLU that was beat (although it actually got overturned by the Supreme Court last year).

 

Was it a civil suit, for damages?

TBM: No, no, it was just for harassment, to get an injunction to keep them away from the property. It cost us $62,000, in the end. I just finally paid it off last year. But I’m not sorry we did it. Are you, Michael? 

MM: No. Although I think it would have been nice to have had more support from other restaurateurs. Maybe we got a little bit of PR out of it. For a lot of money.

 

You also own Paris Wine Bar, right next door to London Grill. When and why did you open that?

TBM: That space has always been part of this building. When we first took over it was used for overflow seating. At one point, around 2005, I made it into a coffee shop called London Next Door. I had been going to Italy and Miami a lot and thought Philly needed a real coffee shop. The kind where you stand up and drink espresso at the bar. It did not go over well.

MM: We almost lost our shirt over there, it was a disaster.

 

So that closed, but you turned it into a wine bar?

TBM: Yes, three years ago. The idea of serving draft wine had been in the back of my head all the time, so I decided I wanted to make it into a little wine bar. At first we could only serve Pennsylvania wines that I picked up at the wineries myself, but then we got the law changed.

 

What changed?

TBM: It used to say wine couldn’t be sold or purchased in anything larger than five liters. I did a lot of research and worked with William Reed [of Standard Tap], and we got it changed to 29 liters, which made kegs of wine allowable.

 

What do you think of the restaurant scene in Philly these days? Are there too many restaurants?

TBM: For the consumer, I think it’s absolutely wonderful. As a restaurant owner, the pie is only so big. But our bottom line is we just keep doing what we like to do. It won’t work otherwise.

 

Do you go out to restaurants? Where do you go?

MM: I think my favorite new restaurant is Petruce et al. The food is very aggressively seasoned, and I loved it.

TBM: He goes out more often than I do. I don’t get to the new spots much. I like Vernick, I always have a good time there. And I love the Oyster House.

MM: Then there was dinner at Volvér.

TBM: I took Michael, my son and my father. I actually took out a credit card just for that dinner — you know, one of those zero percent cards..

 

Did you enjoy it?

TBM: We loved it. It was definitely long, we were there around four and a half hours. Michael kept looking at the kitchen, and at one point he said, “I’m on my ninth course and they haven’t even cooked anything yet.”

MM: No one cooks anything! It’s weird.

TBM: But we all left thinking it was really cool. It took us away; it was like going on a trip.

 

What does the future hold for you? Are you planning to keep doing this?

TBM: We’re really looking forward to our 25th anniversary. We figure we have to get to that.

MM: Yeah. Then we’ll see what happens. If I find a nice little farm somewhere...

TBM: We’ve never really talked about an exit plan. Someone actually came by yesterday interested in buying the place, and I sent him away.

MM: Well, we gotta talk about that.

[Laughter.] 

TBM: But no. We’re not for sale. I don’t want to miss stuff that we’ve been looking forward to for years, like the Art Museum expansion. We’re staying. We’re here.

 

London Grill

2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545

www.londongrill.com

 

Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday to Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday