In Fishtown, a revival built on food and drink

See: Craig LaBan's eating and drinking guide to Fishtown and Kenzo

Before it was the trend-setting gastropub Johnny Brenda's, the Fishtown bar at the corner of Frankford and Girard was owned by a former boxer of the same name who got off early from his overnight shift at the Jack Frost sugar refinery to open the bar in time for his coworkers and the 8 a.m. rush.

The morning rush in Fishtown today is more likely to be for the city's best new bagels, boiling in a vat of salted beer, at Philly Style Bagels, which opened its tiny corner store in January off Palmer Park.

"People are crazy here for bagels," said cashier Jamie Png, warily eyeing the line of hungry customers weaving out the door.

But these hand-rolled bagels - full of a deep savor from slow fermentation - are just the latest example of an artisan food and drink movement that has fueled a culinary revolution in Fishtown. And they signal a cultural shift that is reshaping this once working-class Irish enclave - and adjacent parts of Kensington - into some of Philadelphia's most dynamic and thriving neighborhoods. With 43 building permits along Frankford Avenue, including several restaurants, according to the New Kensington Community Development Corp., the transformation has only begun.

A boom of expensive townhouses and lofts continues to draw millennials to the neighborhoods around Girard Avenue, where coffee shops, retail boutiques, and yoga studios have injected life into the vacant spaces that once lined Frankford Avenue. But the quantity and quality of food and drink establishments is impressive.

With a sudden influx of six new distilleries reviving the manufacturing spirit of an area that once embodied the city's reputation as "Workshop of the World," it has become the region's nexus of craft spirits.

There are two breweries, with more to come. ReAnimator Coffee on Master Street has been winning national accolades for its single-origin roasts. Urban farms like Greensgrow supply restaurants with fresh Kensington-grown produce. Great bread has long come from Metropolitan Bakery, a Fishtown pioneer since 1993, but also now from La Colombe's vibrant coffee hall in a former warehouse on Frankford Avenue, where Philly's best baguettes now emerge from its bakery ovens.

And does the best pizza in America really come from Pizzeria Beddia, the quirky one-man shop with no phone, no seats, and only 40 pies a night? It won that distinction last year from Bon Appétit, and after devouring the last of Joe Beddia's pizzas one recent evening at 10:30 p.m., its slow-raised dough crackling with roasty flavor, I would not dismiss the claim as hype.

A DIY ethos of handcraft infuses the restaurants, from Kensington Quarters, where locally raised whole animals are butchered into charcuterie for the restaurant and retail market, to Johnny Brenda's, which makes its own scrapple - but doesn't advertise that fact.

"People here respect when you do it yourself," says Johnny Brenda's co-owner, William Reed. "But they also take it for granted. 'You cure your own ham? Of course you do!' "

A scene built largely on casual beer-centric gastropubs and cafes tuned to the influx of cost-conscious younger residents, however, is building momentum for its next step. A new wine bar called Fishtown Social is poised to debut in March. Two veterans of the Stephen Starr universe are about to launch own their ventures. Former Il Pittore chef Chris Painter is soon to open a wood-fired Italian on North Front Street called Wm. Mulherin's Sons, and Greg Root, Starr's former director of restaurants, plans the wine-centric Root for mid-March on Frankford Avenue next door to his former boss' barbecue mecca, Fette Sau, and smash hit beer garden, Frankford Hall.

It's all falling nicely into line with Roland Kassis' grand plan. The mega-landlord has estimated his company, Domani Developers, owns a million square feet of property in old manufacturing buildings, including Frankford Hall and La Colombe. A 120-room hotel with two restaurants is also on track, and he says 10 more restaurants are planned for Frankford Avenue and Front Street. Another developer's property, the former Bike Stable, will become a larger version of Cheu Noodle Bar with an outdoor patio along Frankford by summer's end.

"My vision was to control every single property on Frankford and create something beautiful," Kassis said. "We want it to become a national destination. I knew that once Stephen [Starr] came here, the whole perception was going to change. Now it's time to take it up another notch."

The pace and scope of change have stunned even the pioneers. Reed and his partner, Paul Kimport, who helped spark Northern Liberties with Standard Tap, are widely credited with doing the same for Fishtown when they bought Johnny Brenda's in 2003 and transformed it into a hub for local beer, live indie rock, and seasonal plates.

"Every week, someone we knew was buying a house in Fishtown because it was way cheaper than any other neighborhood," he said. "But there were no bars that reflected the people buying these houses. They were all shot-and-a-beer bars from 1970. . . . There's a reason the bar was for sale. We had a handshake deal to buy it before we finished our fifth Bud."

The arrival of the mainstream masses in 2011 to Starr's Frankford Hall across the street, where as many 2,000 revelers pass through the beer garden on any given Saturday, was mind-blowing, Reed said. The locals refer to those busy nights when Frankford Hall's surplus crowd finds its way to Johnny Brenda's as the "broverflow."

The culture shock was even greater farther north in the area known as East Kensington, where Yards Brewing bought the old Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewing Co. in 2001.

"There was blatant prostitution and drug dealing, and Martha Street was so full of illegally dumped trash you couldn't drive down it," says Nancy Barton, co-owner of Philadelphia Brewing Co., which remained after a split with Yards. "I don't know how we survived it."

During one of the many neighborhood cleanups she coordinated, the cranky owner of an auto chop shop next door pulled a gun on one of her volunteers, who turned out to be a local police captain. He was promptly hauled away in handcuffs.

That building is now Martha, the new bar where a young crowd in knit caps nibble on banh mi and lacto-fermented pickles while sipping pricey local wines and cocktails with booze made down the street.

Just a block away, in the ground floor of a former caulking-gun parts factory, malt whiskey and birch-flavor liquor are being aged at the upstart Red Brick Distillery. (By comparison, Dean Browne's year-and-a-half-old Rowhouse Spirits, set in a former garage in front of Philadelphia Brewing, is East Kensington's distilling veteran.)

Martha Street echoes, meanwhile, with the wail of band saws and nail guns during the building of scores of rowhouses listing for $300,000 and up. Closer to Girard west of Front Street, in the neighborhood under the watch of the South Kensington Community Partners, there are plans for 750 new units.

The new residents will surely continue to support the growth, but the rising home prices reflect a downside of gentrification that concerns Blew Kind, who owns Franny Lou's Porch cafe at Coral and East York: "The values are increasing twentyfold, and it's hurting the neighborhood that existed. I know many families that have been pushed out."

But most retail rents in Fishtown and Kensington have remained affordable. That explains why so many independents can focus on a single handmade specialty, from the soup counter at Stock to Beddia's 40 pizzas a night and now Philly Style Bagels. And success has begun to alter at least their own early negative perceptions about the neighborhoods where they now live and work.

"As Northern Liberties became more expensive, everybody kind of migrated here to the southern part of the northern part of the city," says Philly Style Bagel co-owner Jonathon Zilber. "I don't want to say this isn't North Philly. But perspective on what the real North Philly is has changed."

One handmade beer-boiled bagel at a time.