Construction cranes tower overhead. The sidewalk across the way is blocked off by bulldozers. There’s scaffolding hiding the entrance. But once you make it inside James, newly open on the corner of 19th and Arch, the atmosphere shifts to cool, classy and calm.
There’s 40-foot ceilings, a long marble bar, a dining area with accents of subtle tartan and wood — and quite possibly the city’s best new burger.
Chef Michael Suminski, who is also a partner in the biz, went for the happy medium. His burger uses a high-end blend of brisket and short rib, sourced from Pat LaFrieda Meats, the same supplier as Village Whiskey. The texture is similar to that famous patty, too: Loosely packed, so the center is super soft in contrast to the char around the edges.
But instead of tricking out that meat with fancy toppings, Suminski goes classic. A thick slice each of tomato and red onion. A hearty layer of Vermont cheddar. A large leaf of butter lettuce and a quad of double-cut pepper bacon strips to finish it off, inside a grilled LeBus brioche bun. On the side: Somewhere between Belgian frites and potato sticks, a tangle of excellent matchstick fries.
Granted, it costs $15. The James Burger is not the Fountain Porter burger. But this isn’t a quiet corner of South Philly. It’s downtown Center City, the part that’s experiencing a huge construction boom.
First and foremost: The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center (aka Comcast II), which is directly across the street. Behind that is the under-renovation Sterling Apartment Homes, and just down the block is 1900 Arch, a brand new condo tower now leasing 300 units. The residences above the restaurant, the Lofts at 1835, are also being renovated. In other words, in a few years, this dusty corner will be buzzing with people.
So the question is, can James stick it out until then?
“That’s the plan,” confirms Eric Vesotsky, another one of the restaurant partners. He mentions that he has immediate hopes for a strong happy hour and lunch (launching soon), since there are several offices already in the area. It’s just a matter of people finding the place.
James was almost in Rittenhouse. When Vesotsky, Ben Haney and Ronald Donatucci Jr. — who are also behind Mac’s Tavern in Old City — were looking around for their sophomore venture, the first spot they chose was at 19th and Chestnut. The deal fell through. But the concept there would have been totally different, by necessity. It wouldn’t have had the soaring ceilings of the current space, highlighted by the Ed Eimer design, or the giant, spacious bar, which serves a potent signature cocktail of Bulleit and fresh blackberries for $10.
Cheap drinks (the kind that give you a hangover) were a calling card of the location’s previous tenant, the forgettable Tex-Mex Mission Grill. Used to be that was par for the course in that little wedge between JFK and Logan Square. Not anymore. In the past couple years, those blocks have welcomed City Tap House Logan, Misconduct Tavern II, bao-logy, Matt & Marie’s, Urban Farmer and Assembly rooftop lounge.
Where does James fit in? It’s not cheap — bar plates hover around $13 and entrees shoot into the $30s — but Suminski, who started under Mario Batali and since cooked at Mac’s, Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus and Azure, knows how to get good ingredients and what to do with them. Drinks are less expensive, including a half-dozen drafts and a handful of wines.
James feels like the halfway point between a pub and a steakhouse. Go there with friends, go on a date, go on a meeting or book one of the two private rooms for a party. Then, in a few years, when the neighborhood is hopping, you’ll already be a regular.