Manayunk, on way back up

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Bruce Cooper awoke Oct. 19, 1987, eagerly anticipating that evening's opening of Jake's, his stylish bar-restaurant on Main Street in Manayunk.

Though the real estate was relatively inexpensive, the venture was a huge gamble for Cooper, a former chef at Lankenau Hospital. "There was pretty much nothing here," he said. Main Street in Manayunk was a series of boarded-up storefronts punctuated by a few restaurants.

By that afternoon, anticipation had turned to worry.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed off more than 22 percent that Black Monday, at the time the largest one-day loss in history.

But 25 years later, Jake's is thriving. And like its neighborhood - which has seen ups and downs in the quarter-century - it is reinventing itself. Thanks to a series of new restaurants (including a new branch of Han Dynasty, a Mexican taqueria from Tim Spinner and Brian Sirhal, a new sushi restaurant, Yanako, and Clark Gilbert's Gemelli on Main), as well as impending civic projects and a new level of cooperation between businesses and residents, Manayunk seems to be on an upswing.

Manayunk's dining glory days were in the 1990s, but friction between business owners and residents led the area's then-city councilman, Michael Nutter, to push in the late 1990s for a five-year moratorium on new restaurants. Action then shifted elsewhere, particularly to Old City.

When the moratorium was lifted, Manayunk's reputation suffered. The belief began spreading that Manayunk was little more than a series of college bars.

But two years ago, Jane Lipton joined Manayunk Development Corp. as its executive director. "We've been working with restaurants to figure out what their best demographic is," Lipton said. "The business model of serving 21- to 24-year-olds who come in with $15 or $20 in their pockets? That's two, three beers and a slice of pizza. If I'm charging $2.50 for a beer, by the time I'm taking into account my expenses, I'm not making any money." Without naming names, she said her group persuaded several bars to raise their prices and to "elevate the clientele."

The business group's biggest victory is the peace it has brokered with the Manayunk Neighborhood Council. The council's president, Kevin Smith, said prospective restaurateurs must sign an agreement with the property owner, Manayunk Development Corp., and Manayunk Neighborhood Council. It calls for 1 a.m. last alcohol service and 1:30 a.m. closing times - an hour earlier than state law. "This doesn't impede business at all," Smith said.

The rapprochement comes at a pivotal time as major civic projects move forward, including new apartments planned for Venice Island, a filling-in of the Venice Canal, a "highline"-type bridge linking Lower Merion and Manayunk, an underground water tank intended to alleviate flooding, additional parking, and a new performing arts center.

A recent two-week restaurant week, the area's first, was a success, said Cooper.

At Jake's, the latest renovation has yielded a glassed-in wine room at the back of the dining room; an enlarged wine list; and floor-to-ceiling French doors along the front. More telling is what Jake's no longer uses: tablecloths.

Jake's had them at the outset to impart a casual but smart look, Cooper said. But now tablecloths say something else: a forced formality. "Going without them sends a message to people under 30," Cooper said. "These people are reluctant to go into a restaurant with tablecloths."

Jake's bar stood along the front window for many years. It shrank as Jake's grew because Cooper needed room for more tables. That was when "people didn't want to eat at a bar," Cooper said. Four years ago, the bar went away when Cooper opened Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar next door, a casual counterpoint to Jake's. The renovation ties the two restaurants more closely together.

Jake's had a large role in the development of Manayunk as a retail, restaurant, and residential destination.

Shortly after the restaurant's opening, entrepreneur Dan Neducsin went there to celebrate the sale of Mr. Goodbuys, the chain of home-improvement stores he cofounded.

Neducsin said he was not only impressed with Jake's casual elegance, he was also taken with Manayunk's Main Street, visible across the Schuylkill from the expressway and the Main Line. Neducsin and a partner began buying properties. He is the neighborhood's largest developer, owning by his count 40 properties, including 400 apartments and 12 restaurants. Neducsin and Cooper are friendly competitors; Cooper is president of the business association, Manayunk Development Corp., and Neducsin's son Rob is treasurer.

Dan Neducsin is behind some recent activity, including the openings of Gemelli on Main, from chef Clark Gilbert, a branch Han Dynasty, from Han Chiang, and Yanako, from restaurateur Moon Krapugthong. He also is converting a former shoe store on Main Street into a Mexican restaurant, Taqueria Feliz, from Spinner and Sirhal, who own Cantina Feliz and La Calaca Feliz.

It's not all rosy. Belvedere Restaurant Group opened Agiato, a restaurant and bakery, and Main Street Market, which closed over the summer and is being renovated. But that group's other projects seem to be on hold, leaving empty storefronts.

Still, with the $75 million in new projects on the way, said Neducsin, the developer, "things can only get better."

 


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.