Montco native comes home to open P.J. Clarke's

At the announcement of P.J. Clarke's coming to the Curtis building (from left), Keystone Property president and CEO Bill Glazer, former Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Jim Kenney, and P.J. Clarke's CEO Philip Scotti "toast" with the restaurant's renowned hamburgers.

How do you get P.J. Clarke's, one of the oldest saloons in New York City, to open a branch in your city?

Sometimes, it's a matter of friendly political pressure - which helped lead P.J. Clarke's to sign a lease at the Curtis building at Sixth and Walnut Streets; it is supposed to open late this summer as part of Keystone Property Group's extensive renovation of the landmark former publishing house. Apartments and other commercial space are being built upstairs, as well.

The political pressure was applied by Ed Rendell, a New York native. Rendell said he was age 16 when he began frequenting - and drinking at - the Midtown East location. It's an unpretentious establishment, founded in 1884 as a workingman's bar whose look could be described as 19th-century Mad Men (red-checked tablecloths, sawdust on the floor, waiters in ties, dark wood bar). Eating at the Lincoln Center location one night while Philadelphia's mayor, Rendell asked if the owner was in.

Philip Scotti presented himself, and the story became a tale of two men selling their home cities to each other. Rendell said he asked him to consider opening in Philadelphia.

Rendell said he was interested in spurring economic development, adding self-servingly, "They serve the best cheeseburger in New York." 

Scotti, now 67, knew Philadelphia. He grew up in Jeffersonville, outside of Norristown, and after service in the Marines chose the restaurant business in New York over a job with Genuardi's Family Markets, his family's line of work (his mother, Rose, is a daughter of founders Gaspare and Josephine Genuardi). Scotti set out to scout Philadelphia.

Scotti and business partner Arnold Penner, along with a collection of investors including the actor Timothy Hutton and then-Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, had bought the restaurant in 2002, closed it for renovations, and reopened in 2003.

P.J. Clarke's has grown, adding two more Manhattan locations, as well as one on Long Island, one in Las Vegas, one in Washington, D.C., and several in Brazil.

What lured P.J. Clarke's to Brazil? Cash, more than diplomacy.

Scotti said a Brazilian businessman eating at a P.J. Clarke's in New York emailed him and insisted on an immediate meeting, even offering to drive out to Scotti's farmhouse in upstate New York that night. The man and his partners agreed to bankroll the operation there, he said.

The Philadelphia location will occupy 11,000 square feet on the ground floor at the Sixth and Walnut corner, formerly a furniture showroom and assorted businesses.

The corner location will give it windows facing both Washington Square Park and Independence National Historical Park, as well as sidewalk dining on both frontages.

A 7,000-square-foot private dining area dubbed Sidecar - including a bar and four exclusive, old-time bowling lanes - will be built downstairs, accessible only by people bearing magnetic door cards. 

The location - which potentially will spur more restaurant activity on Washington Square, just as Rouge kicked off Rittenhouse Square's scene in 1998 - will reflect Philadelphia's informality, Scotti said.

He related an anecdote from his early days in Manhattan 40 years ago.

P.J. Clarke's, he said, was his first-date place of choice back then.

"If she didn't get it, she's too fancy for me," said Scotti - whose wife, Thea, passed the test.

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