Today - my 20th anniversary writing "Table Talk" - I'll yield the floor to a few old guys. Too often, these veterans are pushed to the side by the flavor of the month. But in an industry famous for quick flameouts, experience counts for something.
What has the experience taught them?
"The one thing that I have learned is that the only thing that is constant is change," said John Foy, who with his wife, Bernadette, founded East Philly Cafe on South Street in 1978. In 1982, they renamed it for their baby daughter Bridget, who runs it now.
"As fast as this business changes or evolves, the more it stays the same," said Kevin Meeker, who with his wife, Janet, has owned a series of restaurants since 1976 and now has Keg & Kitchen in Westmont. "Different aspects of the business change, like what is popular to eat or drink, but the overall running of a restaurant is the same as it was. . . . The simple truth is you need a good, solid business plan with a concept that is neither trendy nor gimmicky."
"You have to learn how to change and adapt," said Fred Vidi, who owned Frederick's in Queen Village for several decades and is now consulting. "Restaurants have to have three things to survive these times - theatrics (the decor and ambience), food that is fresh, and very creative and great service."
"Being authentic is key," said Robin Barg, who opened the Center City bruncherie/caterer Day by Day in 1981. "You've got to know who your customers are and be prepared to meet their needs without compromising your core values and vision."
It's 1993. The Convention Center is being finished. Striped Bass, arguably the city's most important restaurant in decades and the symbol of the 1990s bull market, is being built in the former Butcher & Singer brokerage house at 15th and Walnut Streets. It will open in 1994 under Neil Stein and Joe Wolf, down the block from Susanna Foo and Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin.
You can see the stirrings of a restaurant boom in Manayunk. Fishtown and Northern Liberties have corner bars, yes, but none are destinations. East Passyunk is a modest neighborhood shopping strip. Two old-time diners - the Continental and Snow White - form twin pillars straddling Second and Market Streets in Old City, whose main draws are bar/restaurants such as Los Amigos and Sassafras. Cafe Nola, then on South Street, brings in an unknown New Orleans chef who has just opened a restaurant with the same name: Emeril Lagasse, pre-Bam.
Jose Garces is starting his career in Chicago. Stephen Starr, still booking music and comedy acts, is testing the restaurant business - stung by a dining flop in Ardmore, a '50s diner called Shake Burger & Roll.
Philadelphia has gone from what Foy of Bridget Foy's calls "a small-town mentality . . . to a world-class dining destination."
Day by Day's Barg says: "The world has gotten so small. People travel . . . people demand and expect and enjoy new tastes but are open to new ideas. Their palates are more sophisticated, but they still like comfort foods."
"The best part of the restaurant business is the people. The worst part of the restaurant business is the people," said Derek Davis, who opened Sonoma, a groundbreaking spot in Manayunk now called Derek's, in 1992.
As the restaurant business has expanded, restaurateurs see greater challenges in keeping staff. "With all the concern about workers' rights and possible exposure, employer references have little value," Barg said. "Hire slowly, fire fast."
If you think the scene is hard to track, imagine those who service the industry. "More restaurants are being built nowadays, and closed restaurants don't stay closed long," said Tom Jordan, a 40-year veteran who has leased dishwashing equipment for Termac Corp. for 33 years. "There always seems to be someone willing to take over."
Not only are there more restaurants, but the standards have risen. When Judy Spielman began designing restaurant kitchens 32 years ago, "designs were really sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin and it was unheard of to pay for a kitchen design," she said.
Olivier Desaintmartin, who was chef at the old La Campagne in Cherry Hill 20 years ago, said the business had evolved considerably. "Around that time, we learned that the Europeans weren't the only ones who knew how to cook," he said with Gallic pride. Later that year, Desaintmartin bought Caribou Cafe at 11th and Walnut Streets from its founder, Bruno Pouget, and overcame the challenges that any chef encounters in learning to run a business.
For an old-timer, competition can be a challenge as the dining public flits from newcomer to newcomer. "We had a tough time when the economy went bad in 2010, 2011," Desaintmartin said. "Then I started seeing faces I didn't see in a while."
Said Terry McNally, co-owner of London Grill in Fairmount: "As long as we continue to stay true to our own passions, we will prevail. The moment we try to keep up with the Joneses, we will fail."