The Spot: Moriarty's

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Richard Constantine outside Moriarty's, 1116 Walnut St.

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.

When it was constructed in 1830, 1116 Walnut St. was a residential building, in keeping with the surrounding area. Nearly a century later, in 1928, the Forrest Theatre opened on the same block, and the strip became something of a hot commercial zone. Eateries opened to cater to the theater crowd, and the ground-floor apartments on the corner of Walnut and Quince became a restaurant called Cafe Footlight.

The space went through several incarnations over the next several decades, and in 1974, John Ferry bought the building and turned it it into Moriarty’s Pub.

Ferry was a talented woodworker, and he commenced a series of improvements to complement the historic 65-foot mahogany bar. He added elegant wooden ceilings, carved paneling and decorative wainscoting to the interior. In 1980, he hired Richard Constantine as chef and turned the second floor into a white-tablecloth dining room that filled nightly with pre-theater customers.

Dinner business began to lag when the Forrest Theatre quieted down in the early '90s, and Ferry and Constantine set out to reinvent the tavern again. They added a third-floor bar, and expanded the number of taps, while erstwhile Philadelphia beer rep Jimmy Meiers convinced them to pour a newly hip Irish stout called Guinness, and students and younger drinkers poured in.

In 1999, when Constantine returned as general manager after a few years away, he and Ferry noticed craft beers beginning to transform the bar scene. To keep pace, they completed another round of renovations, including a remodeling of the front facade, and a more than doubling of the draft beer selection.

Throughout, two things remained constant: a welcoming atmosphere and easy, affordable food and drink.

Though Ferry is notoriously reticent, Constantine is the opposite. Last week, the storyteller held forth on what he thinks makes a great beer bar, how he’s able to keep prices low, how many wings he goes through every week, and why Moriarty’s isn’t really “a chef place.”

 

What was Moriarty’s like when you first started working here?

In the 1980s, the Forrest Theatre was huge. Cats played there, and Les Misérables, and tons of other shows. People came here for dinner before, and the stars used to come in afterwards. Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Joel Grey. I remember when Kathleen Turner was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she’d come up to the second-floor bar and pound bourbons every night.

 

Then the theater business slowed?

In the late 1980s or early '90s, they stopped doing so many shows. It’s a shame, because actors always said it was one of their favorite places to perform. It would be great if someone would buy it and turn it into something like the Tower Theater, in Upper Darby, with concerts and shows every night. But the family that owns it, the Shuberts — I don’t know if this is true or just folklore, but supposedly it’s in someone’s will that the Forrest Theatre can never be sold.

 

Where do your customers come from nowadays?

We still do get tremendous business from the Walnut Street Theatre. We’re on the tickets and subscribers get a discount. There are people who’ve been coming here for 30 years for dinner before a show there.

Also, with all the hotels around this area, we do big tourist business. Hotels know people will be able to find something good here, and get good service.

Other than that, word of mouth. I don’t do much advertising. I’m always here, and if you come in and I recognize you, it's my pleasure to buy you a drink or a dessert or something. That's my advertising.

 

When did you start selling craft beers?

Around four or five years ago, when we realized there were all these craft-beer bars opening around us. I was like a kid in a candy store, because I love big beers. Now we have 28 lines, and 15 or 16 are rotating at all times. We have 170 bottles, which you also can buy for takeout — at takeout prices! I'm cheaper than if you go to the Foodery or of those stores like that.

Thanks to our prices, we also get a lot of college folks, Penn kids, some Temple kids, too.

 

How are you able to keep prices low?

A lot of it is volume. If you go into some other beer bars, it's almost like going into a fine wine place, in that people take their time. Guests don't really drink a whole lot. Seriously, I've watched beer drinkers in some bars around here, and for every one beer they drink, my customers drink two or three.

 

What’s the best-selling beer?

One thing that makes us stand out is we have a lot of beers other craft beer bars won’t carry, like Guinness, Coors Light, Stella Artois, Yuengling. Those are our best sellers; they make up half my draft sales.

I think a lot of craft beer bars hurt themselves by being too exclusive. They’re going for a niche, fine. Thing is, and I tell a lot of my vendors this, we've been buying beer for a long time. The guy around the corner or the guy down the street - where are they going to be in five years?

Still, this is becoming a more and more viable neighborhood. Within three or four years, I think this is going to be the next really hip area. Two or three years ago, I would never have thought a restaurant like Petruce would work. But it is.

 

Moriarty’s is known for wings. How many wings do you go through?

We sell a ton of wings every week. That’s speaking literally; a ton. It breaks down like this: a case of wings weighs 40 pounds, and we go through 50 or 60 cases a week.

 

Has the price of wings changed over the years?

Wholesale, yes. When I first started, we bought wings at 15 cents a pound. Now they get up to $2 per pound.

 

What about the menu price?

I think when I started, a plate of wings was $6.99. Now it’s $9.49.

So the retail price hasn’t really gone up that much, relatively speaking.

We can’t afford to raise the prices. We were just in Thrillist as one of the 20 best places for wings in the country, but even so, if all of a sudden I charge $15 for wings, they're not going to sell. I don't make a lot of money off wings themselves, but people sure do drink beer with them.

 

Has the menu changed much, in general?

Not really. We have a whole section of Mexican food, which is kind of unusual for an Irish pub. That was because 35 years ago, we were looking to add something easy and fast, and that fit the bill. But most of the recipes and dishes have been the same for years.

We did have a chef at one point, around four or five years ago, a really good chef. But we're not really a chef place.

One day, John [Ferry] said to him, "You know, I've been looking around, and I think you should put sliders and sweet potato fries on the menu." The chef goes, "Oh, everybody's doing those. Those are passé now."

Anyway, the chef's gone, and those things are on our menu.

 

The decor in here is unique. How many mugs are hanging from the ceiling?

Probably between 300 and 400, actually out on the restaurant floor. We also have a ton in storage. It started with John buying a couple online, just off-hand, and it grew from there.

You know what those “mugs” are, right? Back in the ‘60s, there were no soda guns behind the bar. Bartenders just had little bottles of Coke, little bottles of tonic, and then water, which was kept in these ceramic pitchers. If you ordered a scotch and water, that’s where the water came from. So liquor companies would distribute all pitchers with their logos on them. That’s what these are.

 

What about all the posters on the walls? Where did they come from?

Some are just things we’ve found, and some are promotional materials got from beer and liquor companies 30 or 35 years ago. They’re vintage, now.

All the Playbills I got from a lady who ran the apartment building I used to live in. She always came in here for lunch, and one day she said, “Richard, do you have any use for Playbills?” I said sure, so the next week she called me into her office, and there’s like five or six crates, totally filled.  She said, “Here, just take them, you can buy me lunch some time.”

That was before computers. If I had known about eBay back then, they would never have ended up hanging on these walls.

 

Do you still get any show biz stars coming in here?

Sure, although I might not recognize them. One night a few years ago, one of my servers came up to me saying, "Richard, Richard, do you know who that is?" and pointing to the end of the bar. I didn’t know who it was. "That's Amy Winehouse!" she says. I’m like, "Who's Amy Winehouse?"

 

What’s your busiest day?

We do pretty good business on New Year’s Day, after the parade, but busiest has to be St. Paddy’s. If it falls at the beginning of the week, it’s not too crazy, but if it’s on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, we open all three floors and it’s packed. Past couple of years we’ve gotten a permit to close Quince Street, so people can have fun outside, too.

 

Does the bar ever close?

We close on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We actually used to stay open on Christmas. There was a bartender named Gary Kramer, a great guy — reminded me of Larry David or Woody Allen. Bad hair, but really smart and funny. On Christmas, we’d leave chafing dishes in the back, with hot dogs and stuff, and he’d run the bar. A place for all the lonely people to spend the holiday.

 

Moriarty’s Pub

1116 Walnut St., 215-627-7676

moriartyspub.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 2 a.m. Sunday