We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
On April 18, 1998, Jim Caiola and David Salama opened Philadelphia's first authentic Breton-style creperie at the corner of Sixth and Bainbridge Streets. An independent filmmaker and fine-art painter by trade, the couple had never run a restaurant before, but Creperie Beau Monde was successful from the start.
No fluke, that strong launch was the result of months of intense culinary research and some dedicated bureaucratic perseverance.
Development of the menu was the pair's first challenge, which they met by traveling the globe to discover the secrets of the best crepes in the world and then returning home to tweak those recipes over the course of a year.
Location was another, as a Bella Vista neighborhood group ran a campaign to stop them from turning what had been a furniture store into a restaurant, even though the area was rougher around the edges at the time.
Beau Monde managed to prevail, and in 2003 Caiola and Salama added L'Etage, the cabaret bar that takes up the building's second floor. Eleven years later, the pair of sister establishments continue to thrive, even though they have a new, attention-grabbing sibling 90 miles to the north.
In 2012, Caiola and Salama won a bid to take over Central Park's iconic Tavern on the Green, which — after investing nearly $18 million — they reopened in April 2014. Though they've since relocated to NYC to focus on their new baby, the two men are Philadelphians at heart, and were glad to make an extra visit last week to reminisce about their original venture.
Seated next to a stage-left bay window in the second-floor lounge, we discussed David's initial resistance to doing crepes, the travels that allowed Jim to convince him otherwise, how adopting kids made restaurant life more manageable, and why they think it's easier to eat well in Philly than in New York.
How did you decide to open a restaurant?
Jim Caiola: In the 1990s, we both had been doing a lot of work in NYC — me on small promotional film stuff, and David painting rich people's foyers on Fifth Avenue — and we were trying to make a decision: either move to New York and be artists, or stay in Philly and open a restaurant. So then there was this blizzard...
David Salama: The blizzard of '96. My dad was visiting and he and I were locked in my house in West Philly for days. I had no choice but to cook him every meal. At the end he said, "You're wasting your calling. You should be a chef!" and offered to help out, financially.
Jim: I had a restaurant background. My uncle ran a creperie in Chicago, where I worked from when I was 11 until I was 21; I went from dishwasher to manager. So the offer of help from David's dad - that made up our minds.
Did you also have a restaurant background, David? How did you learn to cook?
David: I had no food background except that my mom was an amazing cook. I'm from Bolivia, and when I landed in North Philadelphia at age 18, it was like, "Help, this food sucks." And it did. In 1982, the food here was terrible. You couldn't get a good cappuccino, nobody knew what a basil leaf was. There was no restaurant scene at all.
I came here because I won an arts scholarship to Temple, and I ended up going to Rome as part of Temple's program. Italy taught me so much about food. That's where I really learned to cook.
When Jim and I were struggling artists, we threw great parties. I did the food and Jim would DJ. We were just naturals at entertaining. So it seemed like a restaurant made sense, like: "Let's play restaurant! I'll be the chef and you be the waiter!"
Was the concept always crepes?
Jim: David was anti-crepes.
David: All of Jim's experience had been in a creperie, so that's what he wanted to do. But I was like, "Absolutely no way. Who wants to eat a crepe?" I didn't think it was bankable.
So we made it a mission to visit as many creperies as we could. We went to his uncle's place in Chicago (I wasn't that impressed). We went to San Francisco, which is where I found the first creperie that I loved. Then we went to to Brittany, in France, and vowed to eat only crepes for five days.
Jim: It was tough, because only three kinds of crepes are served there: ham, ham and cheese and a "complete" (ham and cheese and egg). After a week of that, we were desperate for vegetables. We were like, "Do you have any grass in the back yard that you could mow for us to chew on?"
We did find one of the great creperies of the world in a town called Nantes, in one of the old medieval wall towers. There were around four levels, six seats per level, and the waiter would come down the spiral staircase at the center. They had these mushroom crepes that were dreamy. I would kill to have one today.
David: In Quebec we also found a creperie that was amazing. So I thought, OK, if we take the best things about these three places — the one in San Francisco, the one in Brittany and the one in Canada — we can make a great restaurant.
So it took a little while, but you were convinced.
Jim: Yeah, 45 countries later...
David: I had to be sure. What I did like about the concept was that it was simple, since I had no experience in a commercial kitchen.
Jim: Ironically, though, we wanted to offer so many diverse fillings that our menu ended up requiring more savory prep than most restaurants.
How did you prepare to run your first kitchen, David? Did you study?
David: We imported a commercial crepe grill from France and installed it in my house. Every Thursday for a year I made two different batters, and we invited all our friends over to taste. By the time we found our location, I had developed a dream menu.
How did you find the location?
Jim: That's an interesting story. We originally wanted the spot that was Three Threes (in this little alley between 15th and 16th, Pine and Spruce). No one had made any moves on the space for years, so we weren't worried about losing it. But on the 91st day of our 90-day contract, our Realtor called us and said, "You're not going to believe it, but you lost the property."
So we started looking outside of Philadelphia. We looked in D.C., where I grew up. We looked in New Orleans, Asheville, New York, even Key West.
David: We really loved what we saw in New Orleans, but all the old pros there warned us we were going to lose our shirts: "You have no experience and you're not from around here. Get out." It was great advice.
So you returned to search in Philly.
David: The problem with Philly was all the buildings we could afford were barrel buildings. Small storefront, narrow rooms, very dark.
Jim: Then we came upon this spot by accident.
What kind of accident?
Jim: At this point we were desperate. We were in our second year of planning and we still had no location. A friend's real estate agent had told her about a building right across the street from here. We thought it might be too small, but wanted to check it out, so we called our Realtor and asked, "What about that building on Sixth and Bainbridge?"
He goes, "What? How did you know about that building? It's not even on the market yet."
David: When we met him on the corner and he took us into this place, we knew there had been a misunderstanding — our friend had been talking about the building across the street. But I whispered to Jim, "Don't say anything!" because this spot was so absolutely perfect. Big and open, with sunlight on two sides.
Jim: We told our Realtor we weren't leaving his side until the paperwork was done. The property had basically just come onto the market that day.
What was in this space before?
David: It was a furniture store. Three stories of furniture.
Jim: It turned out the neighbors on either side had been waiting for this building to come onto the market for years. One owned a Chinese furniture store and wanted to expand. And the other was a woman who was just buying up the whole neighborhood. So they were already bidding against each other, but I guess they weren't bidding through the right people.
And you swooped in.
Jim: We swooped in, and it ended up making them really go against us. They led a crusade against us.
David: They really resented us. We had to fight to get our liquor license. It didn't actually get approved until a month after we opened.
Jim: At the liquor license hearing there were like three people on our side and the whole neighborhood pouring out of the courthouse supporting the other side. They had passed out flyers on the street, "Creperie today, strip club tomorrow!"
But you prevailed.
Jim: It was a silly campaign, because this neighborhood was horrible back then. I remember when we first got the keys from the title company, it was around 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and when got to this corner, we just kept on driving, because there were gangs that hung out on this block. Seriously, all those neighbors who were against us, it's like they each owe us $100,000 now [for increasing their property values].
Was the restaurant busy from the start?
David: It was. We had hired a restaurant consultant, a professional restaurant opener, and she was phenomenal. You hired her for six weeks — three weeks before opening and three weeks after — and she gave you the system, the patterns, the methods to make it work. She also trashed all my recipes, explaining that they were great for cooking for friends, but too expensive for a restaurant. I eventually changed them back, after I got confident.
Were there any ups and downs?
David: Not really. I mean, there are always staffing issues. I remember in the very first month, this one cook gave his notice in the middle of the shift. This was the guy who knew a lot; he was my right-hand man. But I was so proud I said, "Why don't you just leave right now, then? Just go. I don't need you anymore." He begged me to let him finish the night, but I refused. So he walked out, and the dining room was full. That was the first night I ever experienced angry customers.
And you had to deal with those customers, Jim?
Jim: Oh yeah. There was one guest here that night, I won't say who, but he was a well-known chef. He called me at the host station —
David: This is before most people had cell phones, only doctors had cell phones —
Jim: So the phone rings and I pick up, "Beau Monde, how can I help you?" And I hear from the middle of the room, "Can I please have my f- dessert now?"
Has the menu changed since you opened?
David: Very, very little. It has evolved, but it doesn't change all that often. There's always new food coming out of the kitchen, since we have four specials each week, but the basic core of the creperie has stayed the same. That said, you can eat here every day for a year and not have the same dish, because of all the different ingredients you can combine.
Did the clientele change, over the years?
Jim: The walk-in business increased as the neighborhood got better. When we first opened, we were a destination. There were only like five restaurants around here. And just a handful in West Philly, like White Dog Cafe. And maybe three in Old City.
David: Stephen Starr had just opened Continental, he only had a couple of places back then.
What about the decor, has it stayed the same?
Jim: Yes it has. We had a fight about it, around three or five years in, because we were bored — maintaining a restaurant isn't as exciting as opening one. David says, "I'm going to change the panels, repaint them!" and I was like, "Are you out of your mind?" Those panels look better every year. We have to have a project or we get anxious. That's just the way we are, as a couple and as people.
David: So first we did Beau Monde, then L'Etage, then we renovated the apartment upstairs.
And then you adopted kids.
Jim: It was funny, because we did the apartment upstairs so we could live here, close to the restaurant. And the minute we moved in, we started adopting children, because we felt like we had too much time.
How many kids do you have?
Jim: Two. Adopting them felt like such a gift. The greatest thing about kids, and our life with them, is that stuff gets rounded out at the end of the night. You go to tuck them in for bed, and whatever the drama of the day was, you're like, "Ok, whatever. It doesn't matter that much."
David: It's like, thank God for kids.
So, after the kids, the next project was Tavern on the Green?
David: Jim had been obsessed with Tavern on the Green his whole life. When the opportunity to offer a bid to take it over came up, I was like, what's the worst that could happen? We'll lose a little money spent to create the proposal. Oh well, no big deal.
Then your proposal was accepted and you moved to New York. Who's been running Beau Monde?
Jim: My dad! I asked him to come live in the apartment upstairs for just a couple of months, to make sure everything was going to work out. He agreed and within six weeks he was totally running this place, doing everything. Between him and my stepmother and our manager [Peg Curtin], all we need to do is a monthly visit.
Who's in charge in the kitchen?
David: Donna Fitzgerald. She worked here years ago. She was well known from her cooking at Judy's, a legendary neighborhood restaurant [at] Third and Bainbridge. She originally left us to open Cresheim Cottage Cafe in Mount Airy, which has since closed. When she suggested working here again, we were thrilled, because she knows Beau Monde very well.
How is the NY dining scene different from the Philly dining scene?
Jim: I think Philly food is unbelievable. Philly has a clearer culinary identity. In New York, you have your favorites, but Philly is much easier to get a handle on. We're just beginning to understand the New York scene, the vastness. It's definitely been pushed out of Manhattan. Unless you're in Brooklyn or the West Village, you're not exposed to the cool, new stuff. Living on the Upper West Side, we struggle to find places to eat.
David: I think the restaurant scene in Philly is amazing. It's much less diluted than in New York. The restaurants in general tend to be much better. It's hard to find bad food in Philly. It's very vibrant.
Jim: Beau Monde opened at the very beginning of the current restaurant renaissance.
David: We were very lucky with timing, because there was a need for this restaurant. Today, I don't know if we would open a restaurant. Back then, there weren't any good places to eat. Now it's the opposite.
What's your favorite thing about Beau Monde?
Jim: That I can still come back from wherever I am in the world and love being here. I love the energy, I love the food, I love the entertainment upstairs. And the consistency. You order the tuna salad here, it's the same tuna salad you got 16 years ago.
David: I love that people love this restaurant. There's an affinity they have for it. It's not forced, it's just natural. Philadelphians are so nice. I think Philly is actually a really friendly town.
Creperie Beau Monde
624 S. Sixth St., 215-592-0656