In rapidly gentrifying stretches of Philadelphia's Kensington section, I find it's sometimes possible to return to a place I haven't visited in a couple of years -- and feel like I've stepped into a parallel universe.
Where there were vacant lots, new homes have appeared. Where old industrial buildings loomed in various states of decay, there’s an ax-throwing club and a distillery. And in a 19th-century brewery building turned auto chop shop, Philly restaurant veteran Jon Medlinsky has opened a stylish bar called Martha.
Did I say “bar”? Make that “microbiome.” Martha is, in part, a giant science project where everything from pickles to beer to kombucha could be fermenting on any given day. It’s the kind of place where the bar manager, Mike Landers, is also the house pickle maker -- and where, if you ask him about the barrels stacked in one corner, he will confirm they are not merely decorative, but are sour beers being tended by nearby Philadelphia Brewing Co. (There have been no successful batches yet, though there has been a failed one. “Now, we have a malt vinegar that no one else has,” said Landers, a shot-glass-half-full kind of guy.)
Of course, Martha is more inviting than your typical biology lab, with its cavernous, bilevel space and quirky decor, including a snare-drum chandelier, a bit of faux taxidermy, and a galaxy of twinkle lights illuminating a black fabric scrim above the bar. Bartenders in knit hats, vintage T-shirts, and plug earrings don't so much sling drinks as craft them, from locally brewed, distilled, and fermented ingredients.
“On draft” is a big thing here -- not just for beers, but also for wines, cocktails, and kombucha. It’s an efficiency that brings benefits for customers, too: I asked about the Junipepper, ($8) a cocktail made with gin, soda, and house-made habanero tincture and red-pepper shrub, and was offered a taste of the sweet, vegetal concoction.
Most of the menu, which is heavy on hoagies, cheeses, and charcuterie, is projected on a screen above the bar, so items may be added or 86ed in real time. The rest is online, a semisecret menu that includes a wider assortment of pickles, extra drinks, like a celery shrub soda on draft, and the house shot, a mixture of Cynar and bourbon.
There’s so much happening at Martha, it can take a couple of visits to figure it all out. But the result is that, once they've decoded it, regulars tend to treat this year-old establishment like their clubhouse.
There's a group of self-described cheese nerds that meets here (unofficial club name: Rennet Roughriders). There’s a record player for general use; sometimes, customers stop in on the way home from a record store to spin a new purchase. There’s often a movie playing silently, projected on a high wall. (“School of Rock?” I guessed after a glance. No, a bartender said over his shoulder. Little Rascals. The '90s version.) There’s also a bocce court in the outdoor seating area, because, of course there is.
Somehow, it all comes together -- a process that's less biology, I suppose, than chemistry.
2113 E. York St., Philadelphia, 215-867-8881
When to go: It’s open Wednesday-Monday, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. (food until 1 a.m.), and for Sunday brunch. But check the Instagram or Twitter for a steady stream of pop-ups, movie nights, and other events.
Who to bring: Your homebrew club. Someone whose microbiota you're willing to get to know better. Your South Philly nonno who just wants to eat an Italian hoagie and play bocce.
What to order: The Martha Mule ($8), on draft, is a popular choice, made with Quakertown's Faber vodka, lime cordial, jalapeño, and ginger. Avondale's Va La Vineyards' naturally produced wines are a house favorite: Splurge on the La Prima Donna ($18), a blended white wine that Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan called complex and fascinating. Or, go really local, with a Kenzinger ($3), made just feet away at Philadelphia Brewing.
Bathroom situation: Single stalls that may well be nicer than your bathroom at home.
Sounds like: On a recent night, I walked in to the sounds of “Killing Me Softly” – Fugees, not Flack – at a pleasant 85 decibels. On a weekend, it can get pretty raucous, though not deafening.