Anatomy of a Philly Neighborhood Restaurant

Kurt Evans of Down North Pizza. | Gab Bonghi

How the city’s restaurants are reinvesting and responding to the needs of their communities

When the Southern Italian restaurant Irwin’s first debuted in the spring of 2021 at the Bok Building in South Philly, I was a regular at the bar who’d sit and chat with staff for hours. In Philadelphia, where the “Come as you are” hospitality spirit is strong, diners from the neighborhood are the most significant restaurant cheerleaders, and I was one of them. But less than a year later, both Esquire and Bon Appétit named Irwin’s to their best new restaurants in America lists. Suddenly, those bar seats became reservation-only, along with the rest of the dining room — the tables filled by affluent (mostly white) suburbanites and curious New Yorkers. In what felt like an instant, that restaurant I considered to be my neighborhood restaurant became a media darling where I no longer could get in.

We should be happy when our favorite places get recognized, but one can’t help but wonder what’s lost when that success also means that walk-in seats and neighborhood vibes go away. What do neighborhood guests, the communities where restaurants reside, and the restaurants themselves lose when a spot suddenly becomes “hot” in the eyes of national media, drawing in more tourists and outgrowing the neighborhood? And conversely, how do neighborhood restaurants benefit from the dedication and solidarity of their neighborhood regulars?

Naomieh Jovin
Cybille St.Aude-Tate and Omar Tate of Honey Suckle Provisions.

For nearly 40 years, Mexican restaurant and bar Tequila’s in Rittenhouse was constantly buzzing with servers flying to and from the kitchen, attending to guests chatting and laughing over shared plates of enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and antojitos. The shaking of margaritas and coco loco drinks behind the long bar up front played a rhythm over the Spanish music that filled the dining room. Even more than this, it was a home away from home: Regulars claimed their weekly bar seat; neighbors knew each staff member’s name. Staff memorized their customers’ orders, and industry friends of the Suro family visited for post-shift drinks and agave-tasting lessons.

Then a fire ripped through the restaurant in February 2023, affecting the community and raising questions about the future of the restaurant in the now-popular dining neighborhood. What would happen to this long-standing Suro family institution, which had witnessed and been part of the transformation of downtown Philadelphia, and emerged as a leader in the neighborhood’s restaurant renaissance?

As it turned out, the Suro family saw their investment in their community repaid with dividends. A reopening at the same address with a new food and drink experience is in the works thanks to industry peers, tenured customers who joined fundraising efforts via donations, guest bartender nights at multiple bars in Philadelphia, New York, and Mexico, plus agave classes and special events.

“I strongly believe the overwhelming response [to the fire] from friends of the Suro family and the Tequila’s family transcend community,” says co-owner David Suro-Piñera. “The Latino community has been incredibly supportive in endless ways — economically, morally, and professionally. There is an honest reciprocal relationship with our clientele, with coworkers interacting with so many of our customers, that the bonding goes above and beyond the conventional ‘service.’”

His son and Tequila’s co-owner Dan Suro adds that the fire showed them how much they can count on their community and friends. “It gave a strong sense of meaning and incredible motivation to keep doing what we can do,” he says. “It was great to work together again, raise some money, and learn from other bartenders in New York and other places in Philly.”

Gab Bonghi
Chef Kurt Evans and chef Michael Carter of Down North Pizza.

For restaurant owners like Muhammad Abdul-Hadi of Down North Pizza in Strawberry Mansion, establishing a lasting community business like the one built over decades by the Suro family is part of the goal. Down North initially garnered recognition for its founders’ efforts to employ formerly incarcerated people and draw attention to mass incarceration, but has broadened its vision and influence over time through expanded community relationship building and programming in Northwest Philly.

“You have a responsibility to the neighborhood when you bring your business. You’re supposed to serve the neighborhood, not just take,” he says. The Black-owned pizza shop is focused on establishing reciprocal community relationships within Northwest Philly through efforts like its summertime free lunch program, which has been giving away pizza to dozens of people since July 2021. The restaurant also makes an effort to offer vegan options, and recently added personal pan combos based on customer feedback.

“I have a guy who lives around the corner and gets a pie daily until payday on credit. That’s community involvement,” adds Michael Carter, Down North Pizza’s executive chef.

The pizza shop’s mission is furthered through the Down North Foundation, which supports initiatives like the food sovereignty program Growing Freedom Project, the Our City, Your Orchestra partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the development of a tech education hub called the Down North Treehouse that aims to add value — not just monetarily, but culturally — to the neighborhood and break the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a business-meets-activism effort that’s earned Down North attention from local and national media. While that kind of praise might put pressure on a business to evolve for a broader audience, Abdul-Hadi has used it to his advantage, spreading information about the prison pipeline.

“Garnering all this national attention has helped us amplify the voices of the individuals most impacted by this unjust [prison] system and bring awareness to Strawberry Mansion’s decades-long neglect,” says Abdul-Hadi. “We sincerely want to help this neighborhood but we know we only put a tiny dent into the plethora of issues that plague this community. Furthermore, we choose to keep the media out of some of our most impactful work behind the scene[s] so as to not exploit people’s hardships — we simply want to help and inspire others to do more.”

Ted Nghiem
Càphê Roasters in Kensington opened in 2021 serving Vietnamese coffee and banh mi.

Thu Pham, of the all-day cafe Càphê Roasters in Kensington, also ties in educational nonprofit work with her food business. Pham employs local high school students from the 12PLUS mentorship program, which provides resources to students, showing them various pathways after high school and even post-graduation. Pham was a mentor there for several years and designed the cafe in the same layout of 12PLUS student hubs, with seating, tables, service hours, and free wifi access. Most days, the restaurant is filled with alumni, students, artists and creators, and young professionals looking for a third space to work and hang out. It’s about “progress and outcomes this community deserves,” she says.

In speaking to restaurateurs around the city about their strategies for successful neighborhood restaurants, it’s clear that it’s more than just vibes. It can be as simple as greeting everyone when they walk in and killing them with kindness, whether they’re a patron or not, as co-owner Nate Irish does at Local 44 in West Philly. Others such as West Philly restaurateurs Cybille St.Aude-Tate and Omar Tate of Honeysuckle Provisions focus on hiring customers from the neighborhood and offering above-minimum wages while providing residents what they deserve, like quality culturally relevant food using fresh ingredients. Honeysuckle’s customers include employees living within walking distance, allowing them to have direct connections. “It was always part of our mission from the very beginning to pay our team members a living wage well above the city’s minimum requirements but we’re grateful to be able to pour back into West Philly in that way,” notes St.Aude-Tate.

Gab Bonghi
A chicory salad from Mish Mish.

That commitment to serving neighborhood hospitality is an ethos carried through nationally recognized restaurants like Vernick Food & Drink and the Good King Tavern. James Smith, Vernick’s general manager, says, “Service is what we have to do, hospitality is what we get to do.” He and chef-owner Greg Vernick imagine the next decade that keeps the restaurant feeling the same while being affordable, nimble, and consistent. For Chloe Grigri, a neighborhood restaurant mission statement was part of the Good King Tavern’s opening back in 2013. There’s both a cultural and business perspective to consider as part of being a true neighborhood restaurant, she says: one that feels part of your family, is a place to frequent more than once a week, feels comfortable, yet is dynamic in food and beverage offerings. Over in East Passyunk, Alex Tewfik, a former food editor at Philly Mag and Eater Philly, says that intentionality, deliberate choices, neighborly hospitality, and affordability are part of the vision for his restaurant, Mish Mish. For him, disarming guests and making them feel seen are ways to bring in a “people first, money second” approach.

Kyle Horne of Forîn Cafe welcomes partnerships with the larger Kensington neighborhood, a predominantly Hispanic population. He worked with designer friends to supply free printed shirts for Kensington High School’s student-athletes and raised awareness for Norris Square Neighborhood Project’s garden fundraiser campaign.

“Beyond supporting us through the fundraiser, Forîn has connected us with people, resources, and opportunities,” says Cesali Morales, NSNP’s business and development director. “I am a neighbor and it’s my personal hope that while they connect with people neighbor to neighbor, new food businesses also advocate for policy protections for long-time residents. That they seek ways to be courageous and compassionate in their work.”

James Beard award-winning outstanding restaurateur Ellen Yin of High Street Hospitality Group agrees:

“Maintaining relationships with the neighborhood is the most important,” she says.

  • August 7, 2023
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