Just off the newly repaved smoothness of Frankford Avenue north of Girard, the little sign caught my attention with a start and nearly caused me to veer off the road. It was innocuous as most signs go, except the message - Valet $6 - might as well have been written in orange flames. Valet? In the indie heart of that hipster-ville called Fishtown? There goes the neighborhood.
"Never thought I'd see that happen," said my friend Aaron, a longtime Fishtowner, as we settled into a community table at Frankford Hall for a meal of wursts and brews. He shook his head in disbelief at this emblem of change, his urban frontier being tamed into a touristic haven. "It's like a Fellini movie come to life."
I was thinking more like a Wim Wenders production, actually, if we were going to be cinematically correct. Because Germany is clearly Stephen Starr's thematic muse for this 400-seat über-beer garden, where newly planted linden trees dot a spacious gravel courtyard and diners at picnic tables while away the night over gulps of hefeweizen, bratwurst, and ping-pong. Cue the doe-eyed "pretzel girl": She drifts out from the shadows like a modern-day Bavarian peddler, hawking giant dough-twists from a wicker basket. And I do mean giant. Like as big as a VW steering wheel - and about as tasty.
Dry, bland, and bready, without enough of that good lye-tanged pretzel chew, it's no surprise they're imported frozen from Germany then reheated. This menu, on the whole, is big on reheating and light on ingredients cooked from scratch. You'll need at least a liter of one of the 18 or so good German brews here (like the Köstritzer schwarzbier, or classic Celebrator doppelbock) to wash that "riesenpretzel" down-especially with dabs of good sinus-clearing mustard.
At least the pretzel's bursting split-seamed crust was appropriately distressed, a perfect match for the patchwork industrial age setting, which is among Starr's coolest space creations to date, an indoor-outdoor urban playground that salvages the bones of the neighborhood's past to stage a glimpse of its future-crowds and then some as Girard Avenue develops into a regionwide nightlife destination. At Frankford Hall, there were more polo shirts, button-downs, and pinstripes per square foot in one night than the neighborhood's grungier pioneer, Johnny Brenda's, has seen across the street in several years. (And most of those were Starr managers.)
The brick-walled ruin of a long-ago former brewery has been rehabbed just enough to create a sense of blight on a high-concept bounce-back, with roll-up garage doors separating the boisterous and moody interior hall (long community tables, couples playing board games) from a 260-seat open-air garden where the fun really happens-good old-fashioned hanging out, fueled by steins of beer, schnapps shots, and a steady hail of errant ping-pong balls whizzing past the sausage concession window.
It's a lovely idea, and long overdue on this scale in Philly, a beer-loving town without enough genuine gardens to express that love alfresco. That a project of this magnitude should come to Fishtown courtesy of Stephen Starr, however, is fraught for many locals with the baggage of a seismic cultural shift.
Starr is quick to point out that, despite creating nearly 20 restaurants in the lap of Center City's mainstream comfort, his heart longs to be back in a neighborhood on the fringe, not unlike Old City was when he launched the Continental 16 years ago. But the trend-setter finds himself in an unusual position here-that of being a follower to Fishtown, rather than a trailblazer. It's an already vibrant scene stocked with edgy and artful youth who frequent lively venues with killer beer lists (Kraftwork), the latest live bands (Johnny Brenda's), and more thoughtful, hand-crafted menus (both of the above, plus Ida Mae's to the north, Sketch to the east, and Memphis Taproom in nearby Kensington). What Frankford Hall ultimately brings is a large-scale dose of Old City-fication-from the bouncer-managed lines out front to the suburban and cross-town diners for whom that valet is essential. (The neighborhood association, Starr says, absolutely required it.)
The resident hipsters, who by the way, were the newcomers just a few years ago, can't stem the tide of further gentrification, so they might as well tip their Panamas and pull up a picnic bench, grab a sausage, and join the party. And the setting, I must concede, is one of the most appealing fair-weather hangouts in town, which in itself is worth a lot. I felt a flash of true happiness (or at least the warming schnapps) when I rediscovered one night that ping-pong is still one of my strongest games ("Let's go to Johnny Brenda's," my surprisingly competitive friend insisted after a couple of losses. "They've got a pool table.")
Yet I couldn't help feeling an overall sense of disappointment that Frankford Hall is missing-out on a major opportunity. And what's obviously missing here is Starr's usual attention to food.
His restaurants have always backed their fanciful themes with serious cooking, whether it was Moroccan, Mexican, Japanese, or pizza. Even that frumpiest of pub fare, fish and chips! But Frankford Hall makes the least effort along those lines of any big restaurant Starr has opened in his storied career. A stylish twist to German cuisine? Now that's an intriguing idea-even in the casual setting of a beer garden. The choice instead was for a no-frills concession window where the best things brought out on flimsy paper boats are the sausages made elsewhere, by Illg's in Chalfont. To be sure, these are seriously good German-style wursts, from the smoky hot bauernwurst, to the creamy white weisswurst, to the plump knock, tasty brat, and excellent snappy-skinned frankfurter (the only link that comes with a roll without the $1 surcharge). They're substantial enough that the wimpy plastic cutlery can barely slice them. But with artisan sausage-craft rising across the city, from Brauhaus Schmitz (by far a superior German kitchen) to the homemade hot dogs at Supper, Garces Trading Co., and the South Philadelphia Tap Room-Frankford's kitchen is behind the curve before it starts.
Then again, based on the limited items it actually did cook, that might have been a smart decision. The spätzle noodle dumplings were turned to pasty glop beneath a thick sludge of cheese sauce and bacon. The jägerschnitzel pork cutlet in mushroom sauce was leathery and tough on my first visit, tender but achingly oversalted on my second. The rotisserie-cooked chickens have a nice juicy savor. But ours was shellacked with so much skin-sogging gravy that it looked more like a hunk of challah bread than a bird. The smoked salmon was fine, but the potato pancakes it came on were virtually unseasoned. The house-cut French fries would seem to be a good bet, especially with that addictive curried ketchup. But on one visit, they were limp and lifeless.
The sauerkraut is supposedly cooked in Riesling wine with juniper-but ours was one-dimensionally salty, as if it had been reheated without a rinse straight from the bag. The red cabbage was far superior, buttery rich with allspice and the sweetness of onions. A mixed-to-order cucumber salad, tossed in dilled sour cream and mayo, was a perfect respite from the summer heat. There was more culinary energy here spent on the mixed green salad, with its delicate cider vinaigrette and trio of special radishes (black, watermelon, breakfast), than anything else on the menu. A beer and salad garden? Now that's a novel concept.
For dessert, the prepackaged frozen treats, a Jack & Jill ice cream cup and an Astro Pop so frostbitten I couldn't bite through it, seemed like one corny touch too much. They made me wish I'd just stopped at the Mister Softee idling near where I parked up the street at Day and Thompson, and bought them at a direct-from-the-truck discount. That's one neighborhood perk, folks, you'll miss out on if you do valet.
Craig LaBan talks with a Fishtowner about the changes there at www.philly.com/fishtownscene