Who will save the great Philadelphia diner?
We've watched our classics wither over the last few years as, one by one, the Mayfair, Country Club, and Melrose were gobbled up like old croquettes into the maw of mediocrity that is the Michael's Diner chain.
So what would become of Silk City in Northern Liberties? It was sold in the spring of 2006 to Mark Bee, the plumber-turned-gastropublican owner of one of my personal favorites, N. 3rd. So already there was hope. But, of course, Silk City has always been a different kind of diner from those other time-capsule chestnuts. In its heyday, in the mid-'90s, it was the great neo-diner update, a funky spot that combined homemade comfort food with a hipster aesthetic, and a dance lounge on the side that was once the nexus of Philly's DJ scene.
But Silk City had visibly declined over the last half-decade, with spotty cooking, occasionally surly service, and a layer of filth that, according to Bee, had preserved the diner's disco ball and quilted metal walls beneath a solid lacquer of grease.
With a lot of cleaning, some edgy new mosaic murals, and plenty of Day-Glo-painted black velvet, Bee has once again given Silk City a pulse. Although it only still beats at dinner (forsaking a true diner's breakfast-lunch DNA), the pink-and-gray-tiled diner car radiates a warm red glow through its stainless steel-framed windows. And the energy swells into the night, when the lower-level nightclub rolls to the beats of legendary MCs like King Britt with Back 2 Basics. I can only imagine the merriment if Bee opens his planned backyard beer garden here next spring.
As for the food, well, Silk City's revolving-door kitchen may only just be starting to find its groove. "What's old is new again" reads the illuminated chalkboard beside the pink Formica counter. Nice sentiment, except this kitchen seems to be "new again" every few weeks.
It got off to a solid start in June under Peter Dunmire, who essentially extended the New American comforts he'd mastered over at N. 3rd, with some killer wings-by-the-pound, a hot roast beef sandwich, and addictive chocolate-banana bread pudding. But when Dunmire returned in September to restabilize a wobbling N. 3rd, his Silk City successor, David Katz, set off an insurgency in the dining room and kitchen.
I'm all in favor of serious culinary ambition at this diner - but this transition simply bristled. Katz is a talented fine-dining chef (formerly at M), but his menu was too small and too sudden for the diner. The previously expansive and hearty selections were pared down to a few tasty but precious plates, like seared scallops with green tomato marmalade. The retro thin burger was served with one set of toppings and an edict from the chef (conveyed by our clearly frustrated waitress): No Substitutions.
"I had 90 tables walk out in a week," says Bee, who suddenly found himself breaking up near fisticuffs in the kitchen between remnants of his old and new crews.
So it was back to chicken wings-by-the-pound on Oct. 1 with a brand-new chef, Matt Ball, formerly of Deuce. He has largely taken his cues from Dunmire's earlier menu - and those plump and crispy wings, glazed in a buttery hot sauce that tickles your nose with vinegary heat, are worth the encore. But Ball has also added his own nice twists.
His "ultimate BLT" is exactly the kind of comfort-food upgrade that Silk City needs - true in spirit to classic Americana, but amplified by a clever touch and better ingredients. From the boar bacon and rustic bread to the layer of fried green tomatoes with spicy sriracha mayonnaise, every element recalls the original but delivers a deeper, more savory resonance.
Silk City's best dishes are the starters, like the quesadillas stuffed with tender pulled BBQ pork and crunchy pickles(!), empanadas stuffed with chipotle-braised chicken, heartily spiced chili, and excellent calamari and rock shrimp fried in a cornmeal crust. The Thai-styled baby back ribs were also great, slicked with a sweet chile sauce and peanuts.
Less successful were the too-sweet coconut fried shrimp. The Buffalo chicken salad brought strips of meat so fried, they were nearly black.
The buttermilk fried chicken entree was more appealing, posed over mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach, though the jalapeno-honey corn bread stole the plate. As a whole, though, the entrees were less inspired.
The meat loaf was decent, but it was just meat loaf. The thick burger was a clear improvement over its skinny predecessor, but it wasn't ballad-worthy. The Thai shrimp over Himalayan red rice was a lively stab at some non-diner flavors, its coconut milk sauce flickering with curry heat. But the promising Shanghai-braised short rib lost its grip on exotic seasonings with far too much wasabi in the mashed potatoes, and a salty finish.
The much-talked-about hot beef and Gruyere sandwich was also a slightly dry and chewy letdown. I'd choose the BLT as Silk City's official new poster sandwich.
It already has a few catchy desserts worth sticking around for: the amazingly moist and deeply flavored chocolate-banana bread pudding; the brulee-topped Key lime pie streaked with pomegranate; a throwback root beer float that geysers up when you pour the bottle of Hank's on.
My surprise favorite, though, was the cannoli piped with Butterfinger ricotta cheesecake filling. Sure, it's a sacrilegious candy-bar twist on a Philadelphia institution. But in a desperate time for diners, a little fluff of peanut-butter comfort could do us good.
On December 9, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews City Grange at the Westin Hotel in Center City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.