Urban-chic River Wards Cafe is now serving old-school Port Richmond

A string of recent restaurant and bar openings makes a case that Port Richmond, the long-quiet neighborhood hugging the Delaware River as it curves east above Petty Island, is on the cusp of a food and drink renaissance.

Over the past nine months, the area has seen the launch of River Wards Cafe (a modern-style coffeehouse), Bait & Switch (a seafood bar from the folks behind Fishtown’s Loco Pez), Gaul & Co. Malt House (an urban-chic replacement for a former dive) and Bonks, a revamp of a forgotten corner tavern by the owner of legendary beer destination Grey Lodge Pub. This spring, the empty shell of Yesterday’s Tavern is due to become The Pineville, which promises “‘elevated tavern fare.” That’s not likely to be the end of it.

“If history is correct and the rumors I hear are accurate,” says Chris Lyons, the neighborhood resident who runs the @PortRichmondPHL Twitter account, “I do think more are on the way.”

Breaking the chains

It’s a lot of new independent food and drink for a part of the city that for the past few decades has welcomed mostly chain stores.

“When all of the strip malls started opening on Aramingo Avenue, all the mom-and-pop places on Richmond Street started closing,” explains Joe Livewell, co-owner of River Wards Cafe.

He’d love for more neighborhood folks to pick up their morning cup at his shop, which opened its doors on Richmond last spring, but “there’s definitely a complacency with going to the strip malls and Dunkin Donuts. That’s all people have known for a while.”

Joe Livewell at his Richmond Street cafe
Joe Livewell at his Richmond Street cafe Credit: Facebook/River Wards Cafe

Still, Livewell is excited that his clientele is growing, and also getting more varied. He serves pourover coffee to younger couples who’ve recently moved in — people who tell him “I’ve been waiting for something like this!” — but also pulls plenty of espressos for older Polish folks who’ve lived in the area since their parents immigrated there a century ago.

This strong stock of families with deep neighborhood roots means that even if there is a surge of new openings, it may not come with the kind of gentrification backlash that’s brought some upheaval to nearby Fishtown.

Port Richmond rents and home prices have been rising, but not nearly on as steep a trajectory. Per Livewell, whose business partner in the cafe also runs economic development company Riverwards Group, a one-bedroom apartment can be leased for around $600 to $950 a month, and those with two or three bedrooms hover around $1,500. Slide southwest into Fishtown and the average rent jumps by nearly 50 percent, according to Zillow.

Evolution, not revolution

“I don’t think Port Richmond is going to necessarily experience such a boom because of the core families who are still here,” says Port Richmond Business Alliance president Sandra Tomaszewski.

The PRBA, which was revived in 2014 after 25 years in abeyance, has both old and new businesses as members. All of them now come together to participate in the alliance’s annual fundraiser, the Taste of Port Richmond block party/night market, which this year raised $5,500 to support local parochial schools.

“I feel like the mesh of old and new is being embraced,” Tomaszewski says.

“Port Richmond is not ‘up-and-coming,’ because we were never ‘down and out,’” she adds, relaying a favorite line of her real estate broker uncle Jim Skowronski.

The sentiment is echoed by Mike “Scoats” Scotese, one of the barmen involved in bringing new life to former crab joint Bonks.

“It feels more like evolution than revolution,” Scotese says. “At the moment, development is happening at a pace that is reassuring rather than highly dramatic. Port Richmond has homes from every decade. Continual, gradual change has been the norm in Port Richmond since forever.” As for Bonks specifically: “We do not intend to over-upgrade.”

Gaul & Co. Malt House is a newcomer that wants to appeal to everyone
Gaul & Co. Malt House is a newcomer that wants to appeal to everyone Credit: Facebook/Gaul & Co. Malt House

Likewise at Gaul & Co., whose four 30- and 40-something partners include two who grew up in the neighborhood.

“Our whole thought was creating a community space, a social hall that appealed to everyone,” explains co-owner Joe Forkin, a native of Fox Chase who has for years watched Port Richmond carefully from his nearby Delaware River Waterfront Corporation office.

“I sit in our place and people watch, and you see some of the old folks that came to the bar when it was Shennanigans, and also some of the new people. I get a kick out of jamming together the age differences,” he says, adding, “Whether everyone else loves it, I don’t know.”

‘Bring it,’ says the old guard

It seems that most neighborhood folks are enjoying the changes — even those who’ve run food businesses there for what seems like eons.

“We are thrilled with the restaurant boom in Port Richmond,” says Roseann Tacconelli, matriarch of the famous pizzeria that’s been serving brick-oven pies since 1946. “Rejuvenation is a positive thing for sure! We love our neighborhood and hope to see everyone prosper.”

John Czerw, whose grandfather opened the family’s namesake butcher and kielbasa shop in 1938, feels the same.

“It is nice to have other options besides the ‘chain’ restaurants,” he says. “I think the development of the new bars/restaurants in the area is great.”

He’s honored that his family’s Polish sausage is featured in several of the newcomers’ menu items, and is glad for the new retail traffic they’re bringing to the neighborhood.

“I believe it also draws people in from other areas who will like to seek out ‘old-school’ establishments like ours. I believe it benefits the area as a whole.”

Danya Henninger is a Philadelphia-based journalist who believes local news is essential for thriving communities, and that its format will continue to evolve. She spent six years overseeing both editorial...