There are a few routes through the narrow old cluster of Center City streets to find your way to the hidden refuge of the funky new Franky Bradley's. And none of them are pretty.
From trendy 13th Street, you can stroll west down the forlorn Dumpster alley that is Chancellor Street, though a jaunt north from Locust past the backside of a parking garage may be your best approach. That's because the Juniper Street route south from Walnut takes you past a porn shop and a fetid recliner chair left out on the sidewalk steaming over a manhole - unsavory reminders of the red-light district that once defined this neighborhood just southeast of City Hall before it was reinvented into the nightlife nexus now known as "Midtown Village."
It's worth the detour here if finding an off-the-grid hideaway bar with antler-framed dining nooks and an upstairs nightclub (with the country's preeminent Star Trek-theme band jamming like Klingons on our night) and a surprisingly ambitious menu is your kind of fun. The pure in-the-know unexpectedness of it all - at Juniper and Chancellor, especially - heightens the effect.
Of course, Franky Bradley's - or "Frankie" Bradley's, as it was spelled for its first 50-plus years - is the resurrected ghost of another heyday. It was founded in the 1930s by a Jewish prizefighter named Frank who'd changed his surname to Bradley from Bloch to sound Irish, and it was a legendary midcentury haunt for celebs (Lucille Ball! Henny Youngman! Dr. J!) who came for the kreplach soup, the braised short ribs and garlicky rib steak, the table-side Caesar and chopped liver.
It later became Hesch's, then Sisters nightclub. But the half-timber and stone facade bones still feel original. And in this year of the throwback homage, new owner Mark Bee couldn't have found a more genuine relic of "American Medieval" to resurrect as a showcase for his quirky collection of Americana.
From the velvet painting of a Doberman to the 3D fiberglass medieval knights, needlepoint nudes, Pam Grier "money art," seashell paintings, taxidermy, vintage cigarette machine, and even the lacquered-over calendar girls that wallpaper the bathroom along with old Philly restaurant ads (Arthur's, Hoffmann House), Bee's embrace of the genre is both eclectic and epic. The low lights and old-school votives set a naturally moody vibe but also happen to soothe the vertigo that has leveled Bee lately.
The well-rounded drink program is what you'd expect from the team behind Silk City and N. 3rd. There's a solid beer list (Founders, Rogue, Einstock), and some good international value wines by the glass (Effet Papillon from Roussillon, Portuguese Pinhal da Torre, Macedonian pinot noir). There are simple but fun turns on classic cocktails, such as the Old American twist on an Old Cuban made with rye and black IPA instead of rum and champagne, the Scorpio's smoky mezcal riff on Penicillin, or the irresistible cranberry blush of the sparkly Velvet Goldmine take on a French 75.
But chef David Kane's kitchen is what elevates Franky Bradley's from just another hip and hidden cocktail bar to a worthy eating prospect. An alum of Pif, Pumpkin, Kanella, and Bar Ferdinand, Kane has a menu deftly encompassing a wide range of options that rise on good ingredients and scratch techniques, whether it's bar food or more ambitious plates.
The smoker is particularly well-featured here, with hickory-scented wings that come in a sweet shine of bourbon BBQ sauce edged with ancho chile heat. The house-smoked salmon adds delicacy and depth as dill-flecked rillettes for crispy potato latkes threaded with celery root over tangy apple butter.
Pink slices of smoked duck breast are at the heart of a pressed Cuban sandwich, plumped with tender duck confit and tart house pickles inside its fontina-and-butter-crisped crust. Tender slow-smoked brisket is also a highlight. I enjoyed it layered with celery-root slaw and BBQ sauce as a hearty sandwich. But there was something about that brisket, moistened with veal stock and mounded into hollowed-out potato skins with Cabot cheddar and a creamy drizzle of horseradish sauce, that persuasively evoked an old-school aesthetic while updating it at the same time, as though crystallizing Franky Bradley's weird hybrid as a sort of offbeat modern-day Steak & Ale.
Of course, Steak & Ale was really never this good, or as strange. But the Pif-style French onion soup, with long-caramelized onions, a backbeat of thyme and bay, and subtle, sweet undertow of port and balsamic beneath its oozy lid of molten Comté reinforced the reference.
Kane's menu really encompasses much broader influences, though, including some pan-crisped lobster pierogi with a vivid oceanic punch that comes from meat plus roe in the stuffing, and an intense sauce tuned with bisquey richness. A superb roast chicken gets a Mediterranean dusting of za'atar and sumac before it's served over a vividly herbed risotto with grilled spring onions, pickled ramps, and a red pepper-almond romesco sauce tinged with smoked paprika. As a brandade-aholic, I was delighted by the fluffy-centered salt cod fritters with saffron-tinted aioli and tangy piquillo pepper relish. A creamy smoked Gouda mac-n-cheese hit full-throttle indulgence with the addition of ham hocks.
A bowl of steamed clams over creamy New England-style chowder sauce would have been perfect if big nuggets of bacon hadn't tipped the briny dish just a shade into the realm of salty.
Likewise, the overly thick blades of crispy bacon were too heavy-handed for the delicacy of those sweet head-on shrimp with an otherwise light garnish of tomatoes and avocado puree. A smoked link of spicy housemade sausage was the other near miss, its bourbon-splashed pork and beef stuffing flavorful, but too finely ground and dry.
I had no such quibbles with the wine-poached lamb sausage that added heft to the pink little lamb chops over Japanese eggplant and a watercress salad dotted with creamy Bulgarian feta - one of several entrées that showed cheffy finesse. A crisp filet of striped bass tanged with herby chermoula over heirloom carrots was another, as were the melt-away semolina gnocchi enriched with Vidalia onion cream scattered with spring ramps, peas, and maitake mushrooms. A mound of fresh pappardelle tossed with a soulful duck ragù was pure rustic goodness, even if Kane says it hasn't been a popular choice.
The house burger, on the contrary, will be an automatic hit. But Franky's kitchen still does it justice, with a signature brisket-chuck blend that gets with a perfectly griddled crust, sweet onions, shredded lettuce, and a melty layer of Muenster cheese beneath a zippy pink "comeback" sauce that immediately triggered the words "better Big Mac" when we took a bite.
If Bee's Americana is on the walls, Kane's pop references are on the plate. So if that burger is his velvet Doberman, his homemade take on Mickey D's apple pie is his 3D knight in a triangular puff of Crisco-flakey, golden-brown armor. Wrapped around a boozy heart of caramel sweet apples, with a scoop of housemade vanilla ice cream melting over top, it's proof the new Franky Bradley's has sweet rewards for those who dare to find it.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Dana Mandi in West Philadelphia.