A homey one of a kind

Before BYOBs proliferated, there was cozy Dmitri's, with its grilled-octopus reward for the wait.

To understand the particular affection with which certain longer-term (but not necessarily old-time) Philadelphians regard Dmitri's, it is useful to step back 20 years to its debut at the corner of Third and Catharine.

It is still right there, a bite-sized, big-windowed Greek cafe, its faded teak benches set out on the sidewalk. These were an important feature; waits for one of the 38 seats could stretch on toward an hour, and a plate of hummus and grilled pita, and a few glasses of white wine from your wine tote made the wait tolerable. No, almost preferable. Inside, Dmitri's eating required sharp elbows and good ears; it was not for the faint of heart.

At the time, the city wasn't dotted with neighborhood BYOBs. No Meme. No Audrey Claire. No Bibou. No Modo Mio. No Cochon. No Etc.

To get a plate of simply grilled octopus - another rarity - or whatever whole fish they were serving with lemon, or mussels or fried smelts, the grill flaring up, the room alive, the waiters threading the tight lanes, hip-checking, ah, that was an evening.

"Magical" would be overstating things. But it was special, all right. Many evenings, and not just on weekends, Dmitri's would serve 200 dinners - shrimp pil pil, beet salad, baba ghanoush - the tables turning over five times.

Dmitri Chimes, the founder and still the owner, doesn't spend a lot of time there these days. Ten years ago, he opened a second Dmitri's on Fitler Square, and he maintains his office there. And now, just like clockwork - 10 years later - he has opened his third branch, not out of an overriding compulsion, but to hear him tell it, out of a sort of harmonic convergence involving a real-estate broker who said he'd found a vacant coffee shop on Second Street in Northern Liberties that "looked like a Dmitri's," and then a wrong turn that Chimes made on his way to get rye bread at Kaplan's that sent him past said property.

Indeed, the spot in question - just south of the brawny gray fortress of apartments that flank the Piazza at Schmidts - did (does) look like a Dmitri's, outdoor panels of varnished wood, big sunny windows, hardwood floor, a fish grill behind the counter and, well, 10 more seats and more space between them than the Queen Village old original. (Plus, room for outdoor tables on the quiet Laurel Street side.)

Chimes noticed something, patroling the neighborhood - spiffed-up houses up and down the skinny side streets, young families with kids, just the crowd he's after, graduates of Standard Tap.

It has been open just over a week. And, yes, the menu is precisely the same - toothsome (a little chewy, actually) oil-and-vinegared grilled octopus, and thin-crusted shrimp pil pil (shrimp dipped in water, dusted with flour, sauteed in oil with garlic and cherry peppers), and a mild (not overly fishy) Greek-style bluefish, swimming under tender chunks of sauteed green pepper, tomato, and onion.

Key staff are veterans, too. Hmong cooks on loan from Dmitri I, and Chakawarn Sirirathasuk, one of six brothers of Hmong-Thai descent, most of whom have worked for Chimes in other ventures, and who are known as "the Chucks." Chakawarn is, in fact, "Chuck 4."

Of course, everything else is not quite the same. Forty-year-olds who thrilled to the first Dmitri's are 60-year-olds now.

The economy and the competition have taken a bite out of the original's bottom line; it still powers up on weekends, but winter was very tough sledding.

And Dmitri's long ago lost its monopoly on Greek grilled fish and trademark octopus, which today you can find in a salad of tomato and cucumber at Effie's on Pine Street, or at Estia, or Kanella, or any number of places.

The sophistication of comfort food has been dialed up, as well. So Dmitri's plain accompaniments of rice and escarole are best consumed with a chaser of nostalgia. And the medallions of leg of lamb, last week at least, were an argument to stick with the seafood.

But for alumni in particular it is special still (as it is at Vietnam Restaurant's new cafe in West Philadelphia, or the recast Oyster House on Sansom Street) to find an old shoe in a new size; to go home again - or for a moment at dinner to feel like you have.

 


Dmitri's

944 N. Second St.

215-592-4550


 


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols