Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn visits hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and writes about them.
It’s 11 a.m. on a week day, and dozens of people are already sipping mixed drinks served by women in bikinis and laying out in the sun at what was formerly the North Shore Beach Club. Tucked away on Germantown Avenue, surrounded by ongoing construction in the shadow of The Piazza, the place oozes exclusivity.
Residents living in the area have heard of this place, but the (previously true) rumor was always that it could be upwards of $700 to swim for the summer, a commitment only a fraction of the working population can reasonably make.
Not anymore. Under new ownership, the North Shore Beach Club is slowly being transformed into Monarch Philly, a still hidden-away amenity in Northern Liberties just steps from the El that its new owners hope will attract young people from across the city to swing by for a day or so without that steep commitment.
“We had people coming in from out of town, hotel concierges call us and say ‘four guys are in and want to use the pool,’ and they couldn’t,” owner Tim Lu, who also owns Crabby Cafe in the Piazza, said. “The previous model didn’t allow for that. [The former owner] wanted it to be exclusive. Now it’s about accessibility.”
So the model’s changing. Lu took over North Shore in January and has combined it with the adjoining restaurant, bringing in chef Tim Bennett, whose other gig was Gunner’s Run in the Piazza. Previously called King’s Oak, the restaurant space is now being branded as the Monarch Restaurant and Lounge that’s serving up sandwiches, salads and wraps, as well as a full brunch seven days a week. The theme can best be described as elevated bar fare with Southern influences.
Attached to the restaurant space is an outdoor bar area — don’t call it a beer garden; they’ve got liquor and food, too — that feels a bit more like the beach than a patio. That probably has something to do with the swings that hang at the bar, a feature Lu says has drawn the most attention of any of his physical renovations since combining both spaces.
Among the changes he’s made in the last seven months to the pool area include newer, larger cabanas and a switch to a salt water pool system so the entire place doesn’t smell like a vat of chlorine. As far as memberships go, Monarch is still honoring the full-time members who this year paid about $500 to use the pool and its poolside food and drink services for the summer. But that’s all changing moving forward.
At this point in the summer, anyone can now use the pool for the day, so long as they spend $50 — in both the restaurant and on poolside food and drink — throughout the day. For those of you doing the math at home, that’s basically a free day at the pool if you buy brunch and a few drinks. The option’s been popular for groups of young people celebrating birthdays or throwing bachelorette parties, the latter of which Monarch offers special packages for. And Lu said he hopes to have formal day passes available by the end of the season.
Moving forward, membership will still be an option. But Lu said he sees it more as a season pass like someone would purchase for a ski resort for the winter, not as the only way folks can take advantage of the space. He says it’s more parties, less country club.
“We’re not arrogant enough to believe it’s a country club,” he said. “It’s a nice adult pool that is out and it’s beyond what you would normally expect in Philadelphia.”
And sure, it is a nice adult pool. But there are challenges that Lu acknowledges. The Piazza and the area around it is dying in popularity. The area behind the hulking apartment complex where Monarch sits has very little foot traffic and is currently surrounded by construction, with portable toilets outside to boot.
Lu says it’s about education and marketing that’ll draw young people in the surrounding neighborhoods to a poolside oasis right in the city — no $500, four-month commitment attached.
“Compared to other venues with a different location, we have brunch and we have a pool,” he said, “and it is definitely more to offer.”