In the bipolar world that is Northern Liberties these days, you can stroll past a stable and a shaded paddock where the carriage horses are munching (at George and Bodine), and a minute later be in the monochromatic Piazza at Schmidts, its flanks surrounded by boxy apartments right out of the playbook of some prewar modernist housing project in Warsaw.
It's not news that things aren't what they used to be in NoLibs, which was pretty bleak. But with the influx of new blood (and lots of reinforced concrete) has come a new eatscape of jarringly divergent sensibilities. Updated old-school haunts on the order of Honey's Sit N Eat and Standard Tap now sit just south of the Piazza's fresh-out-of-the-box Darling's Diner, the Swift Half Pub, and a sleek wine bar called Vino, mandated to open in unison recently by developer Bart Blatstein.
Perhaps the starkest contrast, though, to the Piazza's shiny eateries (laid out beneath the city's largest outdoor digital TV screen) is the Silk City Diner on Spring Garden Street, the playground of Mark Bee, a recovering plumber and part-time party animal. His outpost of a dance lounge with nightly DJs and music acts and a vintage diner has just added a cheerful sprawl of a beer garden.
"Beer garden" doesn't quite capture it. The 2,600-square-foot patio is part Caribbean beachfront tiki bar, part White Horse Pike roadside lawn-ornament museum, part picnic grove stocked with Amish benches and tables painted in kindergarten-esque primary colors.
The last time I happened by, a coed indoor soccer team called the Fornicators was hanging out in trademark yellow team shirts. No one gave them a second look.
In short, the space is the goofball fantasy of one man's imagination - old tubas on the wall stuffed with flowers, wrought ironwork (by metal worker Jason Roberts) shaped into rickety bones for the stair rail and spiky webs over portholes in the curvy walls, beer kegs as seats: the slaphappy anti-design, in other words, of an anarchic anti-developer. The unapologetically unhinged Piazza on Spring Garden.
Did I mention the sense of contentment and otherworldliness that descends beneath the strings of lights, the birdbath-size fountains dribbling, the potted plants riffling in the breeze? There are few spots in the city more laid back to drink beer or sip a Negroni, or, have I mentioned the stylings of the chef, Jay Henson, back in town (where he once headed the kitchen at the Happy Rooster) after a five-year hiatus at the Shore (the Inlet at Somers Point, Bobby Flay's place at the Borgata, etc.)?
Henson runs the usual meat loaf and mashed, buttermilk fried chicken, and hot dogs and beans (with goat-cheese-fingerling-potato salad). But on a given night you may encounter half a roasted free-range chicken, grilled first, then slathered with oreganata butter and lemon zest before it goes into a 500-degree oven, rendering it one of the juiciest birds in town. Or if Bee and Henson get a deal at the Lawrence Street fish market, you might find a blackened (but not over-spiced) swordfish sandwich or, if you're lucky, fresh-harvest halibut for $17 - $10 less than in Center City.
Or a chicken-fried steak sandwich, or pulled barbecued-pork sliders (with cheddar Whiz), and for dessert, a brownie - or a house-made Meyer lemon meringue tart, the meringue spiraling crazily up toward the strings of lights.
The Piazza on Spring Garden is surrounded, too. But in its case by the airy back balconies of brick rowhouses, a garage whose windows have been painted with stained-glass paint, and a wall behind which resides the global headquarters of Bee Mechanical, the family plumbing and heating business.
No giant digital TV yet.
Praise the Lord.
435 Spring Garden St.