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 Philadelphia dentist “Doc” Ulitsky opened Happy Rooster in 1968, he did so with the intention of creating an “old boys club” hideaway, and he largely succeeded.
Aside from a few hazy streams of tinted light that made it through the rooster-covered stained glass door and windows, the brass-and-wood interior was dark and secluded.
Jackets and ties were required when sipping drinks at the bar - unless you were a woman, in which case you couldn’t sit down at all, unless you had a male escort.
It’s ironic, then, that post-Ulitsky, the 16th and Sansom tavern has had successive women as owners. After being refused solo service as a customer herself once or twice, Rose Parrotta took over the bar in 2000, and improved upon the food offerings with a series of respected chefs.
Eight years later, she sold the restaurant to current proprietor Deb Reid, who made renovations that enlivened the atmosphere, without detracting from the venue’s old school charm.
At a table in the newly bright back room, I caught up with Deb and 14-year Happy Rooster general manager/bartender Dan Mahoney to talk about what it’s like to run an old school establishment in the middle of a newly hot restaurant strip, and how you have to be quieter than a mouse when a Hollywood movie comes to film at your place.
What led you to buy the Happy Rooster? Had you owned a restaurant before?
Deb: Nope, never owned a restaurant, never worked in a restaurant, never did anything in the restaurant business before. I did guest-bartend at Bar Noir one night — it was a charity thing, lots of fun.
But my husband owns [an] investment firm right across the street, so we had been coming here for years. We loved the place, it’s like a staple in Philadelphia. When it was up for sale, I thought it would be a good idea to buy it. So I did.
You came here when Doc Ulitsky owned it?
Deb: We did. He was very into French culture — that’s where the roosters came from, it’s a French symbol of good luck for restaurants — and he had a French-Lebanese wife, Madeleine. She was a great lady, very eccentric, but awesome. He would work the day shift, and then she would arrive in a taxi. She’d get out and he’d leave in that same cab.
Dan: Then Madeleine would set up at the end of the bar with a little port glass, with around eight cigarettes in it, and she’d sit there and slowly smoke them over the night. As soon as those cigarettes were gone it was like, “Ok, everyone out!”
Why did they sell the place?
Dan: They were getting older. They were supposed to retire and go to France, but within a year of them selling, she died. He lived for another three years, but everyone who saw him said he was lovelorn, and didn’t really have much to live for. He passed away when he was 93.
Rose Parrotta was a restaurateur in the area. I knew her. I was her first hire here. Kind of funny that the Doc sold it to a woman, after all that. There are actually some crazy stories about some of the stuff that went on —
Deb: We won’t go into those things, though. That was the past.
Did you make a lot of changes when you took over in 2007?
Deb: The biggest change was the back bar. Rose had bought the shoeshine shop next door and broke through the wall, but the space was really dark and just had overflow tables. We pulled out the stained glass — it’s now hanging above the bar — and put in big windows that open on to the cafe tables on the street. I had someone come in and redo the interior with old wood reclaimed from 19th-century Main Line mansions, and the shelves behind the bar are made from an old armoire from the Divine Lorraine.
Dan: People who’ve never been here can’t believe that this room hasn’t been part of the Rooster forever. Deb also opened up the front windows, and we have lots of people say, “We’ve walked by this place for 10 years and never even peeked in before!”
Deb: But then there’s also the people who come in on beautiful sunny days, and say, “Don’t open the windows and keep the lights down.” I’m like, that defeats the whole purpose. But they want a dark bar.
Has the neighborhood changed over the years?
Deb: It’s changed so much. There’s so many restaurants on Sansom Street now. But not too many, I don’t think. We’re all different; the Rooster is unique.
Dan: This used to be an out-of-the-way bar. Now it’s like, in the middle of everything. We do still have clientele that have been coming here for 20 or 30 years. Ralph Roberts of Comcast, he still comes in for his martinis at lunch, or did until recently.
But we also have a lot of new customers. With all the hotels around now, we get a great influx of visitors, a lot of foreigners come here, actually.
And over the last month I’ve had Ryan Howard, Kyle Kendrick and Cliff Lee at my bar. I have no idea why. Maybe one of them said something to another one.
Do you do advertising?
Deb: Not really. It’s all word of mouth. We did some advertising in the beginning, but...
Dan: And we were in the movie Limitless. That was kind of advertising. Bradley Cooper was here for a few days.
How did the Limitless filming come about?
Deb: Scouts called me and asked to use the back bar as the dive bar in the movie. They made it look completely different, with chalkboard up on all the walls. Filming took maybe three days. It was a lot of fun — I stayed in the basement when they were shooting, because we have cameras everywhere so I could watch the crews work.
Dan: She made too much noise. She had heels on, and every time she got up, they’d say, “Stop walking around! Too loud downstairs!”
Deb: I was barely making any noise.
Did you feed them, the movie folks?
Deb: The crew came back here all throughout their time filming in Philly. They ate here all the time, drank here, too.
Dan: Bradley Cooper would brood in one of the booths. So serious.
Deb: He was in costume, in character. I remember someone who went to school with him came around one day, relayed the message that he was right outside. But Cooper didn’t want to be disturbed.
Is the restaurant business like you thought it would be? What makes a good bar owner? Do you recommend it?
Deb: Patience. [Laughs.] Lots of patience. Flexibility.
Dan: It’s like having a child.
Deb: Exactly! It brings you so much joy, but on the other hand it can drive you crazy. Would I recommend it? You have to be very dedicated, and really want to make it work. It’s definitely not easy. But I love it.
The Happy Rooster
118 S. 16th St., 215-963-9311
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Saturday (food served through 11 p.m.); 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday