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.
If you ran into brothers Sam and Aly Lynagh on the street, you might not peg them as men who have owned a bar for their entire adult lives. They and partner Nate Ross have none of the swagger - rather an unassuming affability that has led to nearly 30 years in business at New Wave Cafe.
On the northwest corner of Third and Catharine Streets in Queen Village, the New Wave space had been a bar for decades before Ross and the Lynaghs took it over in 1985, but the trio of childhood friends morphed it into something more. They brightened the interior, expanded the beer selection, and introduced a full menu with notable cuisine. It became a gathering spot for a wide-ranging cross-section of Philadelphians - industry folks, sports fans, and families.
Though they were barely past 21 when they started out, the Lynaghs now both have families of their own, and finding a chunk of time to sit down together wasn’t easy. They managed to snatch a few moments to look back at the past three decades, reflecting on the changing face of Philly’s neighborhoods, the best and worst things about owning a bar and how they ended up with an impressive beer selection even though neither of them drinks beer.
Why did you decide to open a bar?
Aly Lynagh: Our family had an ice cream parlor at 23rd and Spruce — the Ice Cream Corner — and we were looking to find a business that was year-round, as opposed to seasonal. A friend of our father’s owned this place, and he brought the idea to Sam that he could take it over. (I was away at school in DC at the time.)
Sam Lynagh: We were looking at two or three different locations. We wanted to buy the bar at Seventh and Kater [now Good King Tavern], but the owners of Chick’s had no intention of leaving.
Was this location already a bar?
Sam: Yes, it had been a bar since the ‘40s. It was a place called Farmer’s, for the longest time, and then it was a place called JB’s Variety. JB was John Bream, who owned the place with Jack Roe [he also owned Tangier]. I guess the two of them came to loggerheads over something, and decided they wanted out of the partnership. So they sold it to us.
Did you renovate when you took over?
Aly: We put in the pool room in the back, and cleaned it up a bit. But we were renting at first, so we couldn’t make too many changes. Once we owned the building we were able to break down the wall that separated the bar and the dining room, and add windows along all the outside. It used to be a really dark place.
When did you buy?
Sam: 1997 is when we paid off the mortgage. The owner of the building had been threatening to get rid of us, so we had already bought another bar at 21st and South, and we were going to move everything up there. But then she passed away and we were able to stay, and buy, and renovate.
Where did the name New Wave come from?
Sam: I used to play ball in a really competitive league here in Philadelphia. There was a woman named Judy Kratchman who was involved in the league, and she knew a lot about baseball; a close friend of hers played for the Orioles. When she didn’t get enough respect here, she decided to put her own team in. It was a big deal, having a woman run a team, something new. So she called it “New Wave.”
How did you get people to come here, when you first opened?
Sam: Well, we’re from here. We grew up at 18th and Lombard and every person between the ages of 17 and 25 knew us when we opened this place (I was 22 at the time). Also, this neighborhood used have a lot more young people. What are now single-family homes used to be triplex apartments, with three or five people living there.
When did the neighborhood start changing?
Aly: Queen Village has been in flux since the ‘70s. I think it’s a model for how neighborhoods get gentrified. Like Pennsport, Northern Liberties, Fishtown and Grays Ferry, where we grew up. I walk through those neighborhoods now can’t believe it. Sometimes driving home I’ll see a pair of hipsters on the corner of 18th and Morris,at 1 a.m., just smoking a cigarette. When I was young, you wouldn’t have been caught dead in that neighborhood, or you would have been in jeopardy. Same in West Philly around Strawberry Mansion or Mantua, because of Drexel. Young girls jogging, late at night! You would have never seen that, back in the day.
Has business fluctuated here, over the years?
Aly: Business has gotten slowly better each year, and it changed from just drinks to more of a food and drink place. Now everyone eats when they come in; the food brings people in.
Who created your menu, have you had different chefs over the years?
Sam: The first chef we had was French, a friend of our parents. He was stolen away to a fancy restaurant on Pine Street called Deja Vu. Then we had a guy doing Italian food for a few years. After that, a guy named Joey [Lazar]. He built up the business here, but then tried to go off on his own and open [Tori’s Brickhouse] at Front and Bainbridge. He was basically trying to take our customers. When he did that, I countered by bringing in Ben McNamara. He was one of the top three or four chefs in Philly, but he was also a childhood friend. So I brought him in, [Craig] LaBan gave us a good review and we were off and running. This was around 1999.
Who’s the chef now?
Sam: His name is Evans Herbert. We got him from Oyster House. He's a good, reliable, trustworthy family man. With the exception of maybe Tater Tots, there's nothing frozen coming out of our kitchen, he makes everything from scratch.
You have an impressive beer selection. Who got you into beers?
Aly: It was the clientele that got us into beer like that. I don’t even drink beer, I just don’t like the taste of it. And Sam doesn't drink anymore.
Sam: Everything here is like that, customer-driven. The menu is a reflection of what's worked well over the years. We're not too smart for ourselves. If somebody wants a product, and they come in here a lot, we're going to stock it for them.
Aly: Yuengling is a perfect example. We didn’t carry it for maybe the first 10 years, because when I was young, Yuengling was not considered good beer. You would only drink it if you had to. But not anymore. It’s like Pabst Blue Ribbon. Now Pabst is a trendy beer, with the hipsters, and so is Narragansett. Yuengling was a thing where people started asking for it, so we started buying it. Now it’s our number one seller.
Is it true that you’re never closed?
Aly: We’ve only closed two days in almost 30 years. Once was because we had to put a fire coating on the ceiling, and everyone had to be out of here, and the other was when our partner [Nate Ross] got married. There could be a blizzard outside, or a blackout, and we’ll still be open.
You don’t close on holidays?
Sam: We close half a day on Christmas and half a day on Thanksgiving. We have around 20 people on staff now, so there’s always someone willing to make $300 or $400 bartending. People tip very well on holidays.
What’s the best thing about owning a bar?
Aly: For me, it’s always been the ease of scheduling. Sam goes away every year for spring training, and no one’s ever going to say to him, “Hey, you can’t take off that many days.” I used to go SCUBA diving a lot, when I was single. I went to Australia for a whole month, one time.
What’s the hardest thing about owning a bar?
Aly: Now that I have kids, my lifestyle and theirs don’t match up. They wake up at 6 o’clock and don’t care that I was up until 4 in the morning. Otherwise, the hardest thing is that you’re usually dealing with a room full of people that are under the influence. That’s not always bad, but when it does go bad, that’s the worst. It doesn’t happen much in here, though.
Sam: I think the hardest thing is all the regulation, the burden the government puts on small businesses. It’s amazing, the taxes we have to pay. Outrageous.
Has that changed over the years?
Sam: I think they take a bigger chunk every year. Our tax nut here is something like $5,000 a week, and that’s just payroll, not sales tax or anything. For us, we’re past the point of — we own the building. But for new places just starting out, I can’t imagine it, these days.
Do you think there are too many restaurants in Philly?
Sam: Yes. Absolutely. Places do go out of business. Even our neighborhood is a tough little spot. Look at Society Hill Society. Which, by the way, was one of the worst names for a bar in the history of the United States. I don't think you could find a worse name for a bar anywhere, in any city, maybe in any country.
Speaking of names, there’s another place [in Port Richmond] that calls itself New Wave Cafe. Are you connected?
Sam: No. We have the trade name, we opened many years before them, but there’s not a whole lot of confusion between the two places, so we never pursued going after them. It’s on Allegheny Avenue, and they do Polish food. They’re famous for their pierogies. People will occasionally call here by mistake wanting pierogies, but it doesn’t happen often.
What’s the deal with all the magnets lining the bar? How many are there?
Aly: I don’t know how many, hundreds. Customers bring them in. It started randomly, when someone’s kid left a Rugrats magnet here, so I put it on the wall, thinking they’d come back for it. A couple weeks later, it was still there, and someone had put another one next to it. So I thought, “OK, let’s just do this.” So if you go away on vacation or a trip, bring back a magnet for us and we’ll buy you a drink.
Has the rise of the Internet affected your business?
Sam: We’re not the best with the Internet, unfortunately. It should help our business. We just hired a guy to redo our website. We’ll get better with that. People have high expectations when they go to a restaurant in Philly these days, even if it’s just a bar. Philly’s a big restaurant town — what other industry here is bigger than hospitality?
New Wave Cafe
784 S. Third St., 215-922-8484
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday (full menu served through 1 a.m. daily)