When Avram Hornik talks about his eating and drinking venues, he rarely talks about restaurants in a traditional sense. The destinations he creates are massive riverside beer gardens, performance venues, ball pit "dance bars," and a nomadic pop-up barbecue smoker and beer truck that roam each week to a different corner of Fairmount Park with 250 seats in tow.
"What interests me most are two things: public spaces and the way people socialize," says the man behind Morgan's Pier, Concourse and Parks on Tap, among other venues, who's come a long way since the rowdy bro-bar days of Drinker's Tavern (which he no longer owns).
So it's no surprise that Harper's Garden, the latest from Hornik's company, FCM Hospitality, is an unusual hybrid of its own, melding aspects of beer garden and craft cocktail culture to sophisticated small-plate restaurant ambitions in a lush indoor-outdoor space that has transformed a long-dead office building plaza into a verdant al fresco oasis for the thirsty young corporate set.
"Who?! What?! Where?! When?! How?!" shouted a woman at the next table over, gripping an Aperol spritz as she wedged her way into the post-work mosh pit of conversation. "Shots fired!" cried another, insinuating some juicy detail.
I tried hard to listen in, acting natural as I dipped some tiny smashed potatoes into a creamy froth of warm goat cheese sauce. But no luck. It's crazy loud at Harper's Garden if you end up next to the wrong office party, both inside its 75-seat dining room, where the red-velvet booths, brass lights, and weathered plank walls suggest something of an urban saloon, and outdoors on the 100-seat veranda, where the open air thrums with a pumped-up pop soundtrack and is surprisingly chilled by air-conditioning pouring through the restaurant's open cafe windows.
Decibel levels are not the only drawbacks at Harper's Garden. The friendly but overwhelmed service here struggled with tasks as basic as filling water and bringing menus: "Are you a visual learner?" our server asked, hoping I wouldn't trouble her to go get one.
And yet there's a magnetic glow of urban garden magic to the gorgeous trellis patio designed by Karen Regan of Tallulah and Bird, its wooden pergola wrapped in lush planters of blooming herbs and twinkling light strings that wind through the rafters and orb-shaped vines that dangle like chandeliers from the Ewok forest.
Set back off 18th Street just enough to feel secluded, it's an irresistible refuge of naturalistic life for this glassy canyon of skyscrapers between Market Street and Rittenhouse Square, where, for as long as I can remember, this plaza in front of the Duane Morris building was barren and cold. A previous restaurant called Brodo didn't last long. And in a city that now reflexively swarms pretty much any outdoor space with alcohol and seats, it's no shock that handsome Harper's is often cruising to capacity, with 500-plus people passing through for a nibble and sip on a busy Friday.
Considering that ready-made audience, the food is far better that it needs to be, with stylish New American small plates built on handcrafted ingredients that go well beyond the usual beer garden fare. Chef Benjamin Moore, who cooked at Wister and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse before that, has created a menu that's suitable for crowds, but still layered with fresh touches.
Cool white slices of raw "white tuna" (a.k.a. escolar) are shingled into a citrusy crudo over onyx dots of black olive puree scattered with tiny bits of lemon confit. Milky chunks of still-warm mozzarella play against the sweet and savory of ripe figs and fried capers, a hint of dusky chipotle also infusing the hand-pulled curds. Delicate round ravioli stuffed with lemony pea puree are topped with wilted cress and crispy nuggets of rendered pancetta.
The drink program overseen by Jesse Cornell, a veteran of Sbraga, SkyGarten and Neuf, also goes well beyond the beer-garden template, with a broader and well-chosen array of options. A collection of simple-but-bright summer cocktails bursts with citrus, bitters and garden flavors. There is also a range of 14 interesting wines on draft (Txakoli; dry New York Riesling; sparkling crémant from Burgundy) to complement a dozen solid craft brews, Baba's kombucha, a cold-brew coffee from Herman's, and a pair of excellent dry ciders.
(Cornell is married to Inquirer and Daily News Arts & Lifestyle editor Molly Eichel, who did not assign or edit this review.)
The food menu was created with shareability in mind, and Moore has two memorable gifts for spud-lovers. Those crispy smashed baby potatoes are fantastic. But the herbed rösti fries are irresistible, the shredded potato sticks stacked like chive-flecked Lincoln logs over oniony crème fraîche dip. Moore's talent for salads offers a healthy contrast worth seeking. I was especially impressed by the dual fruit shades of not one but two kinds of strawberries (fresh and dehydrated) paired with earthy rye croutons and pomegranate molasses. Savory almond brittle added snap to the candied beets. Even the side salads show a rare attention to subtle detail, with a lovely honey walnut vinaigrette and tiny puffed sorghum scattered over top like crunchy snow.
The Moroccan meatballs, however, are a dish that disappointed. I appreciated the aromatic North African spice, but the balls were so dense they were bouncy (not to mention burned on one side). The crab spaghetti was another unexpected letdown. Mine was all spice and bread crumbs, but short on saucy crab gravy. The sausage flatbread with clam sauce was also missing something: clams! True, their flavor is steeped into the sauce. But a lack of shellfish meat on the flatbread was overshadowed by the meat and greens.
Had it simply been called a sausage flatbread, I would have enjoyed it without complaint, in no small part because that crust, like all the breads at Harper's Garden, comes from the Lost Bread Co., the new Kensington bakery from Alex Bois (ex-High Street on Market) that's also co-owned by FCM Hospitality. Those breads will be featured at Craft Hall, yet another Hornik project, which will debut in November with a new brewery and barbecue kitchen in the former Yards facility on Delaware Avenue.
At Harper's Garden, those crusty, super-flavorful breads are a secret weapon, adding extra substance to simple shares such as a seedy toast topped with feta-tahini spread and dehydrated heirloom tomatoes dusted with Moroccan spice and chermoula. Or the soft but sturdy milk bread bun that stands up to the juiciness of Moore's double-decker 'Merica burger, whose patties are left in free-form shapes to prevent overworking the meat.
Bois' breads are so good, I didn't even mind that his focaccia is the completely wrong bread for a muffuletta, the iconic New Orleans sandwich usually made with a broad, sesame-speckled round roll. I've had many bad muffuletta impostors on what appeared to be the right bread over the years. But the flavors of Harper's rendition were right (perhaps thanks to Louisiana-born sous-chef Lizz Seiberlich), its stack of excellent Italian cold cuts (mortadella, coppa and ham) ribboned with sharp provolone, then topped with so much fresh olive salad, minced with good pickled giardiniera, that it lent the focaccia an extra-crackly olive oil crust.
There are a handful of entree-like larger plates, too, including a moist $20 dish of swordfish chunks that was at least as interesting for its summery produce garnishes — a sultry smoked yellow tomato sauce; chewy sheets of tangy dehydrated watermelon "jerky"; buttermilk-fried green tomatoes — as it was for the za'atar-dusted fish. An early entrée of cumin-crusted monkfish in dashi and bonito butter was also worthwhile.
For the most part, though, this menu centers on relatively inexpensive plates of shareables (almost entirely under $16) that encourage the kind of communal eating and custom meal-building that Hornik believes defines the more casual "social dining" to which he aspires.
As much as the food, drinks and setting exceeded my beer-garden expectations, the service too often lived down to them, from the moment I approached the hostess stand, where the woman there in oversize sunglasses briefly looked up from her nails and sent me to the bar without the slightest flicker of a smile. The food runners are so harried that one literally reached across the table beside us to drop off my plate of mozzarella as he passed by. The details of Moore's dishes can also sometimes be elusive, with one server mistaking wood ears on the mushroom flatbread for radicchio, among other things.
And although the server at our first dinner was personable enough, she was clearly also overwhelmed by the crowd, disappearing for 20-minute stretches between cleared courses (think of all the booze we could have ordered!) and so rushed that her solution to refreshing our water glasses began with dumping them out in the herb planters behind us. And then we asked to see menus to check some details on the intriguing turmeric custard sundae for dessert. She replied: "Can I just tell you what they are or … do you need me to actually get a menu?"