We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
If you’ve been inside Locust Rendezvous, you’ve probably met Michele Recupido. Tall and curvaceous, with spiky white-blond hair, the bar’s GM is hard to miss, especially considering her breezy personality. She’s worked at the Center City mainstay since its very first day of business - Sept. 13, 1989 - and loves her job so much that it seems moot to ask if she ever plans to leave.
She first met owner Nate Stone a year or so prior, and when he decided to take over the space at what had long been a joint called Bananas, he called her up and asked her to join the opening staff. Along with his wife, Marcie, Stone had been in the bar biz for decades, and once owned 10 drinkeries around the region, mostly neighborhood taverns in North Philly. He took a chance on Center City because he saw potential - even though at the time, the streets were dark and empty at night.
Twenty-six years later, of course, those sidewalks are lively and hopping, full of students, workers, tourists and lots of nearby residents. Instead of remaining stagnant, the Vous has changed with the times. Benches have been reupholstered. Floors have been redone. The beer list has expanded exponentially, along with the food offerings.
Through it all, management has been careful not to let it stray from its original philosophy: to be a place that welcomes all comers and serves them what they want at an exceedingly fair price. After Stone sold most of his other holdings and semiretired in 2011, Recupido assumed full responsibility for day-to-day operations. Though it was too early in the day to crack open her favorite can of Miller Lite, she recently sat down for a vivacious romp through her memories of 26 years at the everyman bar a half-block west of Broad.
How did you end up working here; were you a bartender before?
Yes. I’m from Philly, and have worked in the business here for 36 years, except a couple spent in Atlantic City. I worked at a place called Race Pizza on 15th and Race, and a spot called TnT Monroe's at 15th and Arch. That’s where I met Nate [Stone]. TnT was run by a real nice guy - he had been a sales manager at Schmidt’s brewery - but he wasn’t a good bar owner, and the place was shut down for non-payment of rent. Nate was going to try to buy it, but it never worked out. Nine months later, he called me and said, "I'm going to open up on Locust Street. Do you want to come work for me?" and I said, "Well, I'll see what it's like." Twenty-six years later and we'll still here.
Do you know why Nate decided to open this bar?
This was Banana's, originally. It had been around forever. It was the first place that had cheese fries in Philadelphia - I know that sounds ridiculous, but, you're talking about 46 years ago. Then it shut down, and the people who owned this building tried to take it over, but it just didn’t work for them. So Nate was in his attorney's office, who said, "Guess what? Banana's closed." Nate said, "All right. I'll take a look at it.” That was in July, and we were open by September.
What was around here, back then?
Marabella's was across the street. H.A. Winston's was where Fado is. Tequilas was up the street where Misconduct is. Good Dog was Frank Clement's. Applebee's was Bookbinders. But there was no late night - even the bars I just mentioned would close at 11 or 12 o'clock. So we were adamant about being open till 2 a.m. We’re still always open until 2, no matter what - everyone who works here knows that. Because it only takes one time for a group to get done work at 1:30 and say, “Let’s go grab last call at the ‘Vous,” and if we’re not open, they won’t come back next time.
Who came up with the bar name, and when did it get the nickname “the 'Vous”?
I think it was one of Nate’s sons - he had two sons, one has passed away, the other owns the Jughandle in New Jersey. Our shirts at the beginning said, “Locust Rendezvous: A popular gathering place.” Then around five years later, a fellow who worked here said to me one night, "Someone asked me where I work and I said, ‘The ‘Vous.'" I was confused, and I said, "You work at the ‘Vous?" He said, "Yeah, Locust RendezVOUS." And now everybody calls it the ‘Vous. It’s on our shirts. It stuck.
So you get a lot of industry people as customers?
We do. But the neighborhood has changed so much. We get a lot of students, from University of the Arts and stuff, but it's so residential now that this is a lot of people's neighborhood bar now. People that move in from the suburbs, that are just coming back to the city - so not just 25-year-olds, but 35, 45, 55. Saturday and Sunday brunch are great for us now. And lunch is busy during the week with office workers.
Have you always served food?
Yes, but our original menu was so small. It had like three burgers, an omelet, two salads, cheese fries. And it had cheesesteaks. It didn't even have chicken cheesesteaks, because that was just coming on the scene and they weren't really sure it would take off. Now, people complain our menu is too big, too expansive. But it’s good - around 90 percent of our menu is homemade. All our corned beef, roast beef, turkey, soups.
Do you have a chef?
Dan O'Hara. He started with us around a year and a half ago, and he has been great. Right now, our food business is better than it ever was. I still come up with the menu, because I have to get it printed and I like to plan ahead. But his execution and presentation are unbelievable.
When did the menu expand?
Probably around '94 or '95. It’s been like it is now for a while, because it works. It's nothing fancy. Listen, this is a wonderful neighborhood, and it's got a lot of great places in it, but everybody's got a theme. We have no theme. We're the grilled cheese on white bread of the neighborhood. We’re not trying to be brie and pear on sourdough.
There are more bars around here than ever, and -
- and guess what? That’s a good thing. The more the better, because it brings foot traffic into the neighborhood. If there were only two bars, they would really have to be hot. But if you have a lot of bars, everybody's going to come. You can stand on the corner and look at 15 different liquor licenses. It's not too many, because there’s nobody like us.
When did you expand the number of beer taps?
That was around 6 years ago, when craft beer really started to get hot. Listen, I'm a Miller Lite drinker. But that's not what our clientele is. So I gotta put myself aside, and do what's gonna sell. We expanded our taps from four to 10, but we didn't really know what we were doing. So I reached out to a beer rep - there was this young rep from Origlio named Ben Martin. I thought he was a real hipster, and wasn’t going to be able to deal with me, because I’m an old woman. But he was great. I said, “You need to teach me.” And he did. Also a kid named Matt Satten, who was from Shangy’s. They sat us down, and said, look, this is what you gotta do. Now of our taps, the only regular beer on there is Yuengling Lager; everything else is a craft. We sell 50 different beers in bottles.
Is there still a crowd that comes in for the Bud and the Miller Lite?
Absolutely. We have a 16-ounce Miller Lite can that we rock. We sell it for $3.27 plus tax. You go one block somewhere else and it's gonna be $4 or $5.
Has your booze selection also changed?
Yes, although that only started 2 or 3 years ago. We have more bourbons now than we ever did - Bulleit bourbon and rye, and Knob Creek bourbon and rye, for example. And scotches. It used to be just Dewar’s, J&B and Cutty. Now we have Glenlivet and Glenfiddich and Laphroaig, and it moves. It sells.
What’s your biggest day of the year?
New Year’s Day. Even though they moved some of the parade over to Market Street, even with it starting on Washington Avenue. People will come back every year, because I'll tell you what, we don't jack up our prices on six-packs. We make cheesesteak soup that day; we have that every year. We do now charge a $3 cover, and it gets you a $3 credit. So when you come in, you give me $3, I give you a ticket, and you can use that toward your drink. Because you can't pee for free. People were jamming up that bathroom; it was terrible.
Have there been big renovations since you opened?
It just changed piecemeal over the years. Like one day we got high-top tables - people loved them. The walls used to only have wood on the bottom, and the top was painted, first mint green, then it went pink. Then when we had new wainscoting put on the bottom, we said, why don't we put it on the top, too? Now people know us for those wood-paneled walls. When you come in here, and within 45 minutes you say, "This place reminds me of..." - then we've got you. Whether it's the first place you drank, or an old neighborhood bar, somebody's basement. We like that. We like all these paper signs everywhere. We don't want to be too fancy. We don't want to be something that we're not.
Did the smoking ban affect business?
We thought it was going to. We panicked. But people got so used to it, that it wasn't a big deal. But it didn't really affect us, because everybody went non-smoking. So now, when people go into McGlinchey's, or the P&P, it stinks! Or Locust Bar. People who work there, they say, sometimes that smoke starts to get to them.
Do you advertise? How do people hear about you?
We do advertise - we were running ads in the Metro and City Paper, on opposite weeks. Now the City Paper is gone; I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I think a lot of people find us on Yelp, too, and Facebook. I will tell you, I have a Daily News and a New York Post every day at this bar. And people pull out their phones all the time, and yet, when you put a paper in front of them, they still thumb through that paper.
Have smartphones changed a bartender’s job?
Absolutely. Because even when you have three and four people sitting together, everybody's on their phone, nobody makes conversation. We have one girl who's real good at introducing everybody. She'll find out your name, and then she'll introduce people at the bar. I still work behind the bar several nights a week, even though I’m the general manager. I would never want to give that up. I love every minute of it. To give that up would just crush me. It's a lifestyle; it's not a job anymore. The people I work with are great.
Would you like to buy this place some day?
If there was an opportunity, it would be silly not to - but to be honest, the way it is, with the relationship I’ve got with [the Stone family], this is fine. Let's put it this way, if they wanted to sell, I'm sure I would buy. But if they say, we’re gonna keep it the way it is, then I’m not going anywhere. It's the greatest thing since sliced bread. It really is. I'm really very fortunate. I'm so lucky. To be doing something that I absolutely love.
1415 Locust St., 215-985-1163
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily