THESE DAYS, "dinner and a show" invokes images of takeout sushi and an on-demand movie. But there was a time when it meant an elegant evening at a restaurant with a decidedly grown-up atmosphere, where folks seated at linen-covered tables were entertained as they dined.
That's the bygone realm that's been revived - with a modern twist - at Walnut Street Supper Club, which opened right before New Year's at 1227 Walnut St., for 35 years the site of the landmark Portofino Italian restaurant.
The Supper Club's format isn't quite the same as those at the ultraglamorous establishments portrayed in films of the 1930s and '40s. Ermine and pearls for women and tuxedos for men have given way to the kind of casual dress found in most establishments today. And there are neither lavish floor shows nor big-time headliners.
Instead, the entertainment is provided by the young staff that, when not crooning from the bi-level eatery's raised platform (to call it a "stage" is probably too generous), does everything from bus tables to check coats. During a recent visit, our waitress, Alison Weisberg, a 21-year-old musical theater major at Temple University, came to the table moments after she had turned in a solid reading of the Judy Garland signature, "The Man That Got Away."
Nonetheless, the Walnut Street Supper Club provides a taste of what Philly nightlife was like at such bygone hot spots as the Roof Garden at the Hotel Walton, at Broad and Locust streets, or the original Latin Casino, that was just steps west of the Supper Club across 13th Street. Patrons can avail themselves of a full Italian menu while hearing a variety of pop tunes by composers running the gamut from George Gershwin and Harold Arlen to Elton John and Paul McCartney.
The Supper Club sprang to life from the soggy remains of Portofino, which suffered severe water damage from Hurricane Irene last August.
"So much water came down, the pipes couldn't absorb it," recalled owner Ralph Berarducci. After some four decades here, he still carries the accent and old-world courtliness of his home in the Abruzzo region of north-central Italy.
The easy response would have been simply to clean up the mess and continue as Portofino, a favorite not just of locals but of celebrities. That included Frank Sinatra, whose portrait hangs prominently on the wall adjacent to the small performance area where pianist/emcee Jeremiah Downes backs the singers on a baby grand piano.
"But I wanted to offer the Delaware Valley something unique, something special," offered Berarducci, a former owner of such restaurants as Gaetano, in Center City, and Marco Polo, in Elkins Park. "I think about it and think about it, and then it came to my mind to have music."
Having his front-of-the-house employees double as entertainers during dinner and the daily 5-7 p.m. happy hour was the key to being able to offer live entertainment seven nights a week. The staff wear matching, gold-patterned vests, white formal shirts and red bow ties.
"I find some places in New York that have [staffers] sing. I went in the same direction. If I have professional singers, the place would cost too much money," Berarducci said. He's also providing a venue for young people "who need someplace to prove themselves."
That's certainly fine with Weisberg, who is thrilled to be earning money while preparing for a performing career. "It's cool," enthused the aspiring Broadway star. "As a performer, it's different. You're singing the same songs, but it's a different experience every time. People take different experiences from it, and from what a new and fun idea it is."
The strategy is so cost-effective that, in a move that runs counter to prevailing conditions in just about every industry, Berarducci said he reduced entrée prices by $6 to $7 from the Portofino menu.
Appetizers, in the $8-to-$10 range, include such offerings as pan-seared goat cheese and a wild mushroom ensemble with risotto, Gorgonzola, and white truffle oil.
The entrée list includes breast of chicken with spinach, prosciutto and mozzarella with a white wine sauce ($19), Veal Gamberetti (sautéed medallions and shrimp with sundried tomatoes and brandy cream, $22) and, at the top of the price list, a 10-ounce filet mignon. There's also a selection of pastas.
The Sinatra portrait isn't the only thing contributing to the Supper Club's "Rat Pack" vibe. There are hardwood floors, flocked wallpaper and, along one wall of the main dining room, a row of half-moon banquettes, each named in honor of the legendary entertainer whose portrait is hung over the booth (e.g., Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong).
It all adds up to a night out that could appeal to multiple generations.
"The idea is very good," said Gerry Berkowitz, 74, who, along with her friend and fellow Center City resident, Annerose Walcoff, recently made her first visit. "We haven't had this in Philadelphia for a long time. I'm going to make a reservation for next week with another friend."
For Walcoff, the trip back in time is the big draw. "I love the ambience - the '40s, the old-time supper club." As for the talent, Walcoff's review was mixed: "Some [singers] are great, some are so-so."
Another pair of first-timers was FBI agent Percy Giles, 29, and his fiancee, Lisa Catterson, also 29.
"It was phenomenal," said Giles, a Richmond, Va., native now living in South Philly. "My favorite part was when my waitress [Weisberg] got up and sang Judy Garland."
Catterson, a social worker from Alexandria, Va., was especially impressed by the staff's nonmusical talents. "The service was excellent," she said. "Everyone here was very friendly and made sure we enjoyed our visit."
Catterson was likewise wowed by the dinner-and-show concept. "This is a good idea, to be entertained while you're eating. It's like a two-for-one."