Dig this: Restaurateur's other life as an archaeologist

Jill Weber of Rex 1516, Jet Wine Bar, and Cafe Ynez in Rex's dining room on Friday, May 5, 2017.

Philadelphia archaeologist Jill Weber, an expert in animal bones mostly from Bronze Age sites in the Middle East, thought Philadelphians needed to experience the present-day food and wine from the exotic locales she visited.

Weber, 45, with her now-husband, Evan Malone, a scientist and entrepreneur she met at the University of Pennsylvania, opened Jet Wine Bar on South Street near 15th in fall 2010, branching out across the street with the Southern-theme restaurant Rex 1516 a year and a half later, and then opening Cafe Ynez on Washington Avenue near 20th Street a year and a half after that. Starting Tuesday, she'll have a restaurant at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's pop-up beer garden at uCity Square, 36th and Filbert Streets.

Let's talk about your path to archaeology.

Born in Indiana. Wanted to travel all my life, but we couldn't afford any traveling, but I fell in love with these names like Shiraz -- you know, these great-sounding names -- Damascus, Baghdad. I always wanted to go see something that I didn't know. ... My mother always says, 'Jill, you used to say you were going to run away when you were 5 years old. I never believed it from any of my other children, but when you said it, I was like, She's going to walk to Chicago.' I just had this urge to go and do things. Finally got to do that with archaeology. The first country I ever was in outside of the U.S. was Turkey. I arrived and didn't know the language. Now, I excel at it. I love going to a place I've never been, where I don't speak the language, where I have no idea what's going on. You can talk to anybody with just sign language and gestures, and people are so helpful if you just let them be.

Why did you get into the restaurant business?

I guess I wanted a challenge. ... As I was away, as I was traveling, I never was in the mainstream areas as I was working, and I would always have wonderful food, wonderful wine, wonderful this, wonderful that. That's what I wanted to do here. I wanted to bring flavors I didn't get in Philly. 

Where have you been that lent itself to that kind of experience?

Turkey. Syria. Those two in particular. Some of my fondest memories and now, unfortunately, probably just memories, are sitting in my favorite square in Aleppo in al-Jdeideh, in the new quarter, but it's also the Christian quarter. There were these Armenian restaurants that you could sit out at an outdoor table overlooking this beautiful square and have a glass of wine. 

What were your first impressions of the restaurant business?

Frankly, I don't want to say I was naïve, but I was probably naïve. I just went into it as I go into anything — which is just headfirst. I just did things and so probably there were some problems that occurred that I could've avoided. I think honestly a lot of it is somewhat luck — just being the type of person for whom things kind of roll off me and then I just kind of forge ahead. And then, obviously, surrounding myself with people who knew what they were doing.  

Jet is a wine bar and Rex 1516 has Southern cuisine. What inspired Cafe Ynez?

That's actually a simple question. It's [inside] my husband's business [NextFab] and there was a cafe there that closed. My husband needed something there and we were talking about what could we do, and then he's like, 'Why don't you do it?' He needs to eat there every day. We knew that JC Piña, the cook over at Jet, made excellent Mexican food.   

If you were to talk to somebody who's never opened a restaurant before, what would your first bit of advice be?

Prepare yourself for good and bad. Make sure you are aware that there can be great high points, but also be sure you know there can be low points. It's difficult to deal with staff, and it's difficult to deal with customers, it's difficult to deal with the city and the state and [Licenses and Inspections]. You're going to find the best and the worst of everyone and everything.

Who runs the businesses while you're gone?

Heather Rodkey, frankly, runs the business while I'm here. I have people at each place who take care of business. Now that we have a restaurant group, in essence, I'm more the CEO. I have people who do just about everything and I'm definitely here for the big picture, but on a day-to-day basis, I have people who are much more adept at this than I am.

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