Restaurants may come and go, but a good meal, fine atmosphere and welcoming service can transcend decades.
I tend to wax nostalgic whenever I think of restaurants long gone. They were the places of my childhood, places where I learned about good manners and tasted many different foods for the first time.
Palumbo's is the most famous shuttered restaurant in South Philadelphia. It was more than a restaurant. It was a showplace for Italian food, movie stars and entertainers. Owner Frank Palumbo presented the finest entertainers in the country, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin.
It was the place my husband, Edward, sipped his first martini at age 21. The food was pure Italian American and Palumbo's heyday was before the Italian food revolution. So, let's talk pasta. Of course, it wasn't called pasta then. It was spaghetti or macaroni.
Palumbo's spaghetti and meatballs were famous -- so famous there's a classic photo that ran in newspapers throughout the country -- and is even on this page -- of the two Franks, Palumbo and Sinatra, tucking into a bowl. You could order ravioli or lasagna, all covered in homemade gravy. Mussels arrived in homemade gravy, as well. Veal parm, chicken parm or a thick steak rounded out dinners.
I recall two other Italian restaurants that have disappeared: Tarello's on the 1600 block of Chestnut Street and DaVinci's on Walnut Street, which is now the home of the Irish Pub.
My family or friends and I would often enjoy dinner at Tarello's after catching a movie at the now torn down Fox Theater. Tarello's had a colorful mosaic of a bull and matador at the entrance. I could never understand this salute to Spain because the food was pure Italian. Tarello's was slightly dark inside; I guess the owners thought it made for a romantic atmosphere. Like Palumbo's, Tarello's served Italian-American food.
DaVinci's was more kitschy. The entrance and interior had
knock-offs of Da Vinci and Michelangelo artworks. The tables were covered in red- and-white checked cloths that, during the '50s and '60s, meant you were dining in a "real" Italian restaurant. It was at DaVinci's that I tasted my first lasagna.
Sometimes memory plays funny tricks on us. I can't remember whether Philadelphia had a Schraft's restaurant, but I do remember Stouffer's. Today, Stouffer's is known for its Lean Cuisine, spinach soufflé and macaroni and cheese. But when I was a girl, Stouffer's was a genteel place where ladies wearing suits, gloves and hats lunched on dainty fare. There were two locations -- one on Chestnut Street and one near the now-shuttered ice-skating rink at Penn Center. (Oh, do I miss that skating rink!)
Stouffer's offered American food, like chicken a la king, Waldorf salad, tea sandwiches, creamy homemade soups, chicken pot pies and, for dessert, hot fudge sundaes.
The Pub was just steps away from Stouffer's on Chestnut. The location now houses a clothing store, but the tiled "welcome mat" at the door still says "The Pub." At lunchtime, my friends and I loved their burgers and hot brisket sandwiches on rye topped with gravy.
Then there was the Pub Tiki. Talk about kitsch. The place was on the corner of 18th and Walnut streets at the entrance to Rittenhouse Square. It was a Polynesian nightmare inside with over-the-top atmosphere, as if a person wanted to recreate "Mutiny on the Bounty" indoors. Drinks were served in carved ceramic tiki glasses complete with small colorful paper umbrellas. We shared the infamous pu pu platter, a large round plate with a sterno in the center in which you "cooked" already cooked food, such as miniature egg rolls, spareribs, chicken and pineapple on wooden skewers and chicken livers wrapped in bacon. Although the food was sort of Chinese, the addition of cherries and pineapples made it "Polynesian." Fruit was tossed into any stir fry from chicken to shrimp.
Whenever I think of burgers, The Harvey House immediately springs to mind. It was on South Broad Street, near the then-Shubert Theatre, now the Merriam. The Harvey House was open for lunch, dinner and late-night supper. I can still see the wooden booths lining the wall in the backroom. I can still taste the famous Harvey burger, topped with grilled bacon and cheddar cheese. The ice cream sodas and milkshakes were second to none.
STEAKHOUSES WERE BIG when I was growing up. Frankie Bradley's on Juniper Street was famous for its rib steak with garlic served on a plank. It drew politicians for lunch and dinner who went to eat and be seen. Arthur's Steak House on Walnut Street, where Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine is now, was more upscale and formal than Frankie Bradley's. Arthur's always served voluptuous oysters.
Kelly's on Mole Street, owned and operated by Sam Mink, was famous for its raw bar and fresh fish. His son David later opened the Sansom Street Oyster House in 1976. To me, the latter still serves the finest cherrystone clams and oysters in the city.
But I really miss Horn & Hardart. It was the original fast-food emporium -- the automat. You were given a handful of nickels, you placed them in a slot, opened a glass door and pulled out sandwiches, salads, cakes and pies. Hot food was served from a steam table and contained everything from the best Salisbury steak I have ever eaten -- and today no one can make it taste like Horn & Hardart's -- to creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, Harvard beets, whipped turnips and homemade baked beans, piping hot in their brown ceramic ramekins, topped with a slice of crisp bacon. The coconut custard pie floods me with memories as does the vanilla cupcakes topped with a rich thick chocolate frosting.
I enjoyed Chinese food at Harry Chin's in Chinatown and the Cathay Tea Garden on Chestnut Street, right near the John Wanamaker store, which is now Lord & Taylor. Harry was a friendly guy who always doted on me and my sister. He always brought us a Shirley Temple topped with a paper umbrella. These were the days when you ordered from Column A and Column B. Won-ton soup, egg rolls, chicken chow mein, shrimp in lobster sauce, chocolate
ice cream and fortune cookies were theorder of the day.
The Cathay Tea Garden opened duringthe 1920s and I believe it was once a speakeasy, but I'm not sure. My mom Berthe, who is 90, would go to lunch there with friends. My friends and I would lunch there as well, until it closed in the 1960s. The funniest thing about this place -- it was a Chinese restaurant that served a loaf of Italian bread to all its customers.