Chef Chris D'Ambro and fiancee Marina de Oliveira are starting a new chapter at Southwark, the tavern at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets in Queen Village.
Official debut is Wednesday, Feb. 10.
Southwark, named after the neighborhood, opened in fall 2004 under Kip and chef Sheri Waide, turning the corner spot that long ago delighted Francophiles as Alouette into one of the city's earliest cocktail bar/locavore bistros.
D'Ambro and de Oliveira have lightened it up, both spiritually (no ties, casual) and literally (heavy drapery, gone). "We are not changing [the Waides'] philosophy of good cooking and bar," D'Ambro said. "That is the basis of what this place is about. We're just modernizing."
His early menu, which will change at least seasonally, includes four entrees (grilled sturgeon, braised beef short rib, roasted chicken, and a vegetarian Romanesco caulifower, as well as smaller plates, such as beef tartare, a soup-and-sandwich combo, and a crispy pig's-head slider served on a Parker House roll with 'nduja mayo, and wedge fries. His sous chef, Ryan LaFrance, previously worked at Barbuzzo, Vernick, and Matyson. Baking is done in-house.
They've imported Jarrod Williams, a Philadelphian last at D.C.'s Eat the Rich, to run the bar. He's divided the bar menu into parts, with drinks focusing on three periods of American drinking history, as well as contemporary house cocktails. Williams and D'Ambro will swap ingredients, such as jams/jellies and syrups. Eight beers on tap, mostly regional, plus "approachable" wines.
D'Ambro and de Oliveira, both 31, say they had been looking for their own restaurant since 2012. After touring a few BYOBs in Chester County and coming away unimpressed, they moved to San José del Cabo, Mexico, where they ran Flora Farm's Field Kitchen on a one-year contract - he in the kitchen and she in the front of the house.
"We were literally sitting on our couch in Mexico" when they heard from a business broker, telling them of Southwark's availability, he said.
The couple had met there often for drinks when both worked at Talula's Garden. "In fact, we sat right here [at the bar] when Aimee [Olexy, Talula's Garden's co-owner] offered me a job," he said.
D'Ambro sent his brothers and father to look, and they mentioned the beautiful bar and large, clean kitchen. "The only place [we saw] that was more than a closet," de Oliveira said.
Oh, and there was another storefront, two doors down Fourth Street - used as storage that could be converted to a second restaurant.
They finished their year - hosting Adam Levine's wedding as their finale - and flew back to the States.
Several hiccups later (banks, permitting, licenses), they went to settlement, as the Waides relocated to Cape May. On Dec. 23, D'Ambro's brother Joseph D'Ambro, a contractor and craftsman working with decor help from Amelia Runyan, started a quick renovation, lightening the barroom and the charming dining room in the back.
The couple had considered ditching "Southwark," but decided that the brand had solid name recognition. "People were always going to say 'the old Southwark.' Why confuse people?" he said.
D'Ambro started in the business as a 19-year-old helper in the kitchen of Vetri. His other stops include Savona in Gulph Mills, Sovana Bistro in Kennett Square, the Columbus Inn in Wilmington at its revival in 2010, Talula's Table in Kennett Square, and Talula's Garden on Washington Square.
Menus are here.
Southwark serves nightly except for Tuesday, with the kitchen open till 1 a.m. Reservations are being taken by phone at 267-930-8538. The full dinner menu from 5 to 10 p.m. during the week and 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. There's no corkage (BYO) Wednesday night, dining room only, with full bar still available.
As for that "bonus" storefront at 705 S. Fourth St., D'Ambro and de Oliveira also plan to open Restaurant Ambra, a 24-seat, upper-end Italian bar/restaurant. There's no timeline there.