In September 2004, as South Street west of Broad saw the flicker of a revival, Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor turned a shuttered deli into a BYOB with celery-green walls, salvaged antique window frames and shutters on the walls, and a cheery name: Pumpkin.
Pumpkin was their pet name for each other. The two had met two years before at Little Fish, the BYOB at Sixth and Fitzwater that Moroney’s father owned at the time. From the window one day, Moroney saw Bor walk by. She had just moved back to Philly from San Francisco. Moroney, who had made a batch of clam chowder, flagged her down with a friendly, “Here, try this.”
It was the era of the mom-and-pop BYOBs, when eager couples were trading in their corporate jobs for a taste of entrepreneurship that for many soured during the 2008 recession. Pumpkin has managed to thrive, shifting the menu here and there. And so have Moroney and Bor. They recently switched the dinner menu approach from the rigid “appetizer, entree” coursing to one that is a collection of dishes that can create a meal.
Moroney: It’s funny. We don’t share a lot of similarities in a lot of ways, but there’s one fundamental thing that we both share. We’re both a little bit on the outside looking in.
Bor: We’re renegade.
Moroney: It’s the truth. I was a punk rock kid who never dressed up. I would wear a T-shirt and jeans.
Bor: I was never a punk rock kid!
Moroney: But that’s how she is, in a different way. We’ve always wanted to just create something for ourselves.
Bor: From the heart.
Moroney: Even before we knew each other. I think that’s why this worked, even though it maybe shouldn’t have. I mean, possibly, on paper. When we opened, we had no experience. I’d worked for my father [John Tiplitz] for, what, three years? Something ridiculous.
Bor: I think that what was popular was small, mom-and-pop BYOBs when we opened. I don’t think people had large budgets. I don’t think people had investors. I don’t think Philadelphia was ready for large restaurants. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have social media. People will show up at your door when you open on the first day now, because you could have a thousand followers.
Moroney: When we started here, who had the big restaurants? Stephen Starr restaurants. I think his restaurants are great, but it’s a very different dynamic. Now it’s not just solely the big restaurants that get all the talent. You have a lot more of these smaller restaurants that have really talented people and really interesting ideas. When we first started, I had a very clear vision of what we were going to do. It was basically Mediterranean food. Not by definition of specific place, but lots of vegetables, olive oil, fish-dominant. Essentially, it was “clean.” As the years went on, lots of things filter in. Different people, different ideas. I always wanted this place to be not just exclusively for the neighborhood, but I always wanted this to be an approachable restaurant. I never wanted this to be precious. I never wanted this to be ...
Moroney: We’re kind of goofy as a rule, anyway.
Moroney: That’s a good question. And we’ve been talking about what is it that we want out of this place. What is it that we’re trying to communicate to other people? And I saw a quote. It was, “Follow your bliss.” It’s a guy named Joseph Campbell. I read his little thing about that. And it really hit me. And we started to talk about when we were at Little Fish and when we opened here, and how it felt. We felt alive. We were scared to death. We didn’t know what to expect. And after all these years, you go through literally peaks and valleys. Sometimes we get along, sometimes we don’t. Often times we don’t see eye to eye on things, but you have to respect your partner and you have to trust each other. But, essentially, one of the things that we both agreed on is we want to feel connected to the people that come here.
Moroney: I’d like to think that we’re better at what we do than when we first started 15 years ago. But I think it’s actually going back to where I started, which is, essentially, simple ingredients done simply. Get really good ingredients and don’t [mess] with them. We just got some cod from Local 130 [a wholesaler]. And we crust it in dehydrated potatoes, put it in the pan, serve it with tasty mayonnaise and a celery salad. It’s tasty. That’s all that it really needs. And one of the things that I always struggled with, with the a la carte menu, was you have to give someone value for dollar. You need X amount of stuff on a plate so somebody doesn’t look at it and be like, “What the [heck] is this?” And at the same time, you have to make it cohesive. What I’m trying to accomplish now, and I see this as a positive trend in food, is really putting on the plate what something needs. There’s a focal point, and then there’s counterpoints to it. And you really just try and put on something it needs. It’s like writing a really good song. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is real catchy. If you put a bunch of other words to it or different melodies to it. [Shakes head] I’m not going to go into the musical reasons, but the point is, that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with food.
Bor: And how we like to eat.
Moroney: I like to eat small things. I always want to eat vegetables. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but when I go out to eat, I genuinely want to eat vegetables, mostly because I find it interesting what people do with them.
Bor: It’s more limiting for us to have appetizer, entree. Some things are smaller than appetizers, some things are in the middle of the two, or we couldn’t really put it into any categories. Now we can.
Moroney: We feel free [referring to his kitchen team of Allen Walski and Ben Suib]. There’s a certain amount of shackle that’s come off.