To define Walnut Street Cafe, which opens officially this week at the base of the FMC Tower at Cira Centre South, its partners Patrick Cappiello and Branden McRill will explain what it is not:
“We don’t want this to be something that people think of as a white-collar restaurant. We want it to be a blue-collar restaurant, as well,” Cappiello said. Most entrees are under $28, and sandwiches and a burger is on the menu. “We want it to be a place where people can come and chill at the bar over wine…”
“And we have a frozen margarita machine,” McRill said, brightly.
Set up by New York’s Parts and Labor Design, Walnut Street Cafe looks stylish, with an airy, brass-accented interior whose use of cerulean and marble present it as modern and retro at once. Yet it’s not fancy in the plush, traditional sense.
Its approach to breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a mix of casual and the more formal.
Even the location is aimed at everybody. It’s at 30th and Walnut Streets — on the long-ignored western end of the Walnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill — linking Center City and University City. It’s designed to feed the tower’s office workers as well as the guests at the AKA hotel on the upper floors.
Cappiello and McRill — who’ve won a Michelin star (at New York’s Rebelle) and a Wine Spectator award of excellence (the now-shuttered Pearl & Ash) — have brought with them chef Daniel Eddy. Before he ran the kitchen at Rebelle, Eddy worked in Paris at the acclaimed Spring with Daniel Rose. Also on board is pastry chef Melissa Weller, a veteran of Per Se and Roberta’s.
Cappiello, McRill, Eddy, and Weller chatted last week during staff training.
What is Walnut Street Cafe?
Cappiello: It’s a restaurant whose intent is to be as many things to as many people as it possibly can. We look at Philadelphia as being a very diverse city, both economically as well as culturally, and it’s a town that obviously appreciates restaurants. It’s seven days a week, three-meal service, amazing beverage program.
McRill: We have great hospitality, great drinks, great food, it’s really comfortable, kind of fun, inviting, open, airy. Great dining room, good coffee, good juice, good baked goods, and all that gets brought together by a group of individuals who are extremely nice, friendly, gracious, and ingratiating and have just zero interest in achieving goals that are not aimed and focused toward making people happy.
Among dishes are beer-battered porgy, a wedge salad, raw bar tower, and ricotta-and-Parmesan-filled ravioli.
How did this come about?
Eddy: David Fields [a consultant for AKA] came in for dinner [to Rebelle] with a group, and toward the end of the night, he said: ‘Chef, I had a great time, phenomenal. We missed our last train to Philly. We have a magnum of champagne. Do you have any plastic cups that we could take?’ I went downstairs and got him a box of wineglasses and said, ‘Here, take these. You shouldn’t drink great champagne out of those plastics.’ He came back a few days later, talked about how much he loved the wine list, how much he loved the space, how much he loved the food, and gave me his card and said, ‘There’s something that’s happening in Philadelphia. I would love for you guys to come down and talk.’
Your big focus is wine. Yet frozen drinks?
Cappiello: “We’ll be doing hurricanes and stuff. The wine program’s goal is to try to get people to be tasting wine in a way maybe they haven’t done traditionally. Not only we will have 50 wines by the glass, but we’re going to have a small list that’s going to be accessible by the half-bottle, as well. For me, open wine is the best way to share it. If it’s a museum list, if it’s a bottle list that nobody can access or have an interest in, that’s a problem.
How did you get on board, Melissa?
Weller: I met Branden a little over a year ago, and he approached me about some projects. One was in Detroit, and then he’s like, ‘How would you feel about Philadelphia?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’m from Pennsylvania.’ Eight or nine years ago, I was still trying to decide if I was going to stay in New York or if I was going to open a bakery in Philadelphia. I was seriously considering it, so when he mentioned the project in Philadelphia, I was really happy.
You bake all day?
Eddy: Melissa and I talk a lot about what the programming would be and how to give people different reasons to come down at different points of the day, and also the shelf life. The idea that the croissant that’s baked off at 6 in the morning really shouldn’t be eaten at 6 o’clock at night. That’s not what the ethos of the restaurant’s about. As we have people here who are working early and they’re here until the afternoon, they should have different reasons to come down. So, start off the morning with a croissant. Three hours later, what do you really want to eat? Well, maybe I’m ready for something salty — let’s put out the seasonal focaccia. This is the afternoon now — a chocolate-chip cookie. To do programming where, like, it gets into people’s minds like, ‘Oh, it’s 10:30. This is about to come out, hot out the oven.’ But we couldn’t do a bakery in the building, where people are walking around. How do we mimic that? We have the bakery team come in and walk through the dining room with these trays of the beautiful product. It’s a wonderful visual. It shows you that this is a system that’s alive, that’s happening, that people are creating every moment of the day. It’s not something that’s being phoned in.