Don't count out chef Paul Roller, even with shaky knees

Paul Roller at Roller’s Express-O, 8341 Germantown Ave.

Stroll down Memory Lane in Chestnut Hill. As your thoughts turn to restaurants, head up Germantown Avenue to the Top of the Hill, at Bethlehem Pike. Look through the windows at what is now Thai Kuu, and you’ll surely remember Paul Roller – an intense, bearded fellow – orchestrating dinner from an open kitchen night after night in a noisy, jam-packed dining room.

Roller, who grew up in the neighborhood, had left the Center City landmarks Frog and the Commissary in 1982 to open his BYOB. Over the years, Roller’s empire expanded. In 2006, he and his then-wife, Becky, consolidated operations and moved Roller’s restaurant into his seafood restaurant, Flying Fish, at 8142 Germantown Ave. Roller also has a more casual spot, Roller’s Express-O (which he had opened as Noodles+), at 8341 Germantown, at the corner of Gravers Lane.

But then in April, both restaurants closed. Is Roller’s gone forever?

Last week, I found Roller, who is 65. We sat at Express-O to catch up.

A place like Chestnut Hill is a rumor mill. What is happening?

It’s my knee. It went when I was 40. Started to have pain. So it was really time for a replacement. I can’t keep the places open [without me]. Express-O will be the first to reopen. We may do a couple pop-ups, just for fun. I’m talking to a couple of young guys who are interested in testing the area. I don’t necessarily have to do the food. I’m thinking fall for Express-O, because I still have to cook some soft-shells. I’d be open Friday, Saturday, Sunday to start.

How about Flying Fish?

That’ll be after this. It’s also for rent. That would be an ideal situation to me, if I was only working one place, and I have the rent because I own the building. But who knows if that will happen.

Fair enough. Have you thought of retirement?

Oh, God, yeah! What would I like to do? I would like to consult. I want to get back to playing my guitar a little more, which is like, nothing for 40 years. I went to a local grade school here, and we all graduated in ’66, and we had our little bands even in ’66, in grade school. We got together for the reunion. I said, ‘It was so much fun.’

But you still want to work.

Yes. Not 90 hours a week, because this knee needs to be done at some point. [My daughter] Elizabeth has some ideas for me. Maybe like a Jacques Pepin thing with his daughter, teaching and so forth. We did a class at the Flower Show and she assisted me. And it was actually well-received. I was amazed. Like, 200 people actually came. She said: ‘Dad. That was really good. You were funny.’

How did you get into the business?

Summer of ’74. I was at the University of Pennsylvania, English major, graduated in ’74. My girlfriend at the time saw an ad in the Daily Pennsylvanian. I walked into Frog on 16th Street, which is now Monk’s, and I didn’t get hired. The lunch chef was a wonderful woman named Cindy Ayers. The interview was with her and with [owner] Steven [Poses]. Steven liked this other fellow, but about four weeks later, she knew where I worked on Chestnut Street. She came up there and said, ‘Are you still interested?’ I said, ‘You bet.’ That was the beginning. School of hard knocks, man. Salads, $1.60 an hour.

Tell me about the first Roller’s.

It was 1,050 square feet, and [my then-wife, Becky, and I] did everything in that space. It was crazy. But it was efficient. The street was crazy busy. And it wasn’t just us, but Under the Blue Moon. Campbell’s right next door. McNally’s. So I opened Flying Fish in ’84. Express-O in ’86. Opened Flying Fish because the property was available. One of the reasons I opened a restaurant out here is I didn’t do coke and was thinking of having children. There was a macrobiotic restaurant called George’s where Flying Fish is. So we bought that, and then [the Express-O space] became available.

You still own the buildings?

Oh, God, yeah. That’s the only reason to do it.