We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments.
Even if you haven’t visited for lunch or dinner, you know the building. Just down the block from Pizzeria Vetri and across from Kite & Key, Rose Tattoo Cafe has presided over the corner of 19th and Callowhill in an old Victorian since 1983. On the eve of the American bistro’s silver anniversary under Helene and Michael Weinberg, we spoke with them about how things in their slice of the Logan Square neighborhood have changed, how they’ve stayed the same, and what it’s like to work side-by-side with your spouse for more than a quarter-century.
How did the two of you meet? Was it working in restaurants?
We met when we were 14 and 15 years old, growing up in Northeast Philly. That’s when we started our first business together. Michael mowed lawns, and Helene would set up the appointments with the customers, plus she took care of all the money.
At age 17, Michael started cooking at his father’s restaurant — it was called the Lodge, at 17th and Sansom. Helene would come and work the register. Michael got really interested in cooking, and told his dad he wanted to go to culinary school. His dad said, “Look in the kitchen. You see Sam back there, the guy you work with? That’s your culinary school. Just do everything he says.” And it worked! He really taught us the business.
How did you decide to open Rose Tattoo?
It was already open when we bought it, actually. We had just sold Maggio’s, our Italian restaurant in Southampton, and while we were searching for a new place, Michael came to work here. One day he told the owner he had to leave early to check out a restaurant location, and the owner said, “Why don’t you buy this place?” It had been just a little corner bar, but he built on this huge dining room addition, and then couldn’t handle running a big, full-service restaurant. So Michael came home and and said, “Why don’t we buy it? We’ll keep it for five years and then get rid of it!”
So, five years passed, and...?
So five years passed, and he wouldn’t give us a new lease, so we had to buy the building. Then it took us another five years to pay back the loans. When we finally got out of debt, our son was working for us and wanted to open his own place, so we went into debt again to help him. [Sean Weinberg runs the highly acclaimed Restaurant Alba in Malvern.] By the time we got out of debt again, it was the middle of a recession! We got hit really bad. Plus, during the recession, the whole neighborhood changed.
The Granary building across the street, which had 250 people working in it, closed up. The Philadelphia juvenile detention center closed up to make way for the Barnes. All those office workers and lawyers and judges used to come here to drink and eat.
What was the neighborhood like when you bought the place in 1989?
It was bad. People’s cars were getting broken into all the time. Every Saturday or Sunday, one customer or another would come back and say, “My car is missing!” because someone had stolen it. Our car was even stolen. So we were the only business here, except for a restaurant across the street, which changed hands every five years. If you weren’t coming to us, you weren’t coming to this neighborhood. There was nothing else to bring you here. Over the years, things settled down and the area got better...and now there’s eight restaurants in two blocks.
Has the restaurant business in general changed over the past 25 years, do you think?
The bar business has; it’s half of what is used to be. We used to sell 30 martinis at lunch, now we don’t even have a bartender at lunch. Happy hour has changed, too. People don’t want to come in and drink for an hour before driving home; it’s taboo. So the liquor business has taken a big hit. Now it’s all about wine. We sell a lot of wine; bottle sales have taken off.
Back to food, what are your most popular dishes?
Definitely the salmon with Chardonnay lemon beurre blanc and jumbo lump crabmeat. And the jambalaya, which has been on the menu since we opened. We run specials every week, and when one is really popular, we’ll put it on the menu. We change the whole thing three times a year, seasonally.
What do you like to eat when you go out?
We don’t really go out anymore! We live in the suburbs, so we don’t come in to town. We used to, when we were younger.
Where did you go?
We liked The Saloon, and went to The Prime Rib quite often. But it’s hard to dine out as a restaurant owner. You notice all the details, and you get critical about everything. You can’t help it.
If you did dine out these days, is there anywhere you’d really want to go?
Rose Tattoo Cafe! Seriously. We would love to come in on a Saturday night, sit on the balcony...but not as owners. Just as customers. We still have so many regulars who say they love the food, love the service, love the atmosphere, and just keep coming back.
That table on the balcony we’d want to sit at is called the “engagement table” — it’s been the site of a ton of wedding proposals. And then people return to celebrate their anniversaries there.
Rose Tattoo Cafe
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday to Friday; 4 to 10 p.m., Saturday (Sunday hours resume after Labor Day)
1847 Callowhill St.; 215-569-8983