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Last week, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook sprung their vegan falafel shop on unsuspecting Philadelphians. Unsuspecting, but hungrily grateful; there were lines out the door from the start. The successful surprise launch was unusual in today’s restaurant-bewitched society, especially from a pair of chefs who run brands as renowned and beloved as Zahav, Dizengoff and Federal Donuts. To most people, Goldie seemed to come out of nowhere.
But the CookNSolo falafel shop was nearly a decade in the making.
In advance of Zahav’s 2008 debut, Mike and Steve took their opening staff on a trip to Israel. The idea was to give everyone an authentic experience of the cuisine they’d soon be translating to Philadelphia, and the group traveled all over the country, sampling and tasting their way through its best restaurants, cafes, street markets and bazaars.
On the list was Falafel Devorah. Set in the Northern Israeli town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, the petite shop has been in operation for decades. Founded by the eponymous Devorah — “a mortician by day and a falafel artist by night”— and now run by her son, it was one of Solomonov’s favorites when he was a teen attending boarding school just up the road. So to Devorah the Zahav crew went, and fell promptly in love. Everyone was bowled over by the crisp and tender chickpea fritters, meticulously layered in fluffy pita pockets with just enough crunchy salad and sauce.
Right then and there, Cook and Solomonov decided they wanted to open a falafel shop.
There was even some talk of putting falafel on the menu at Zahav. But the idea was soon dismissed. Falafel wasn’t representative enough of new Israeli cuisine in the way they wanted to present it; Americans already associated falafel with various other cultures. Instead, they opted to focus on hummus.
A legend was born. The Society Hill restaurant’s hummus and hearth-baked laffa bread became famous, helping solidify Zahav’s status as one of Philly’s top restaurants and carrying Solomonov to a James Beard award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.
Dizengoff was also almost a falafel joint. When it came time to put together another restaurant — one carefully conceived for a Center City locale, not just tossed together on a whim for a South Philly hole-in-the-wall like FedNuts had been — it seemed like falafel would finally have its moment. But after much debate, it was again shot down.
“There were a lot of places in Philly for people to get falafel already,” Cook recalled. “Hummus was more interesting.”
The argument against doing a counter-service hummusiya was also strong — but turned out to be unfounded.
“We thought people wouldn’t come to Zahav anymore!”
Yeah, no. As a look at the impossible-to-book, full-every-night dining room shows, Dizengoff did not cannibalize the Zahav clientele. Moreover, it became a big hit in its own right. Once the system was streamlined and opening chef Emily Seaman got a handle on how to keep up with the demand for fresh-baked pita, it made sense for CookNSolo to focus on expanding Diz. They concentrated on opening outposts in NYC and in the Fairmount Whole Foods, and also worked on taking Federal Donuts to other cities. There wasn’t any time to worry about falafel.
Rooster Soup Co., however, was a worthy distraction. The philanthropic FedNuts spinoff created in partnership with Broad Street Ministry was something all partners were determined to pull off, no matter what it took.
It wasn’t easy, especially after the concept expanded from “a soup stand that uses leftover chicken” into a full-service diner with a liquor license serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Finding the right real estate was one of the early hurdles. Solomonov had spotted the below-ground locale next to Oscar’s Tavern and fallen in love with it — but there was a problem. The landlord refused to lease it alone. Anyone who took the bottom spot, formerly Sansom Street Kabob House, would also have to sign for the vacant one above it, which was also previously a restaurant. All or nothing deal.
Cook and Solomonov were on the fence. They badly needed to get Rooster’s location settled, so other work could continue. But what were they going to do with an extra restaurant space?
The aha moment came over steaming bowls of broth at Pho 75.
The two restaurateurs have worked together for so many years that they almost share a mind. You can tell when you talk with them — they use similar intonation and phrases — and also by the way they come up with ideas. Neither one will take individual credit for making this decision, but all of a sudden, as they slurped noodles and pondered their next move, the answer came to them. Their falafel concept, in a serendipitous way, finally had a home.
So in late 2015, CookNSolo inked the lease for both spaces, and Goldie inched closer to reality.
Other details worked themselves out relatively easily. They decided the store would not be like many other American falafel shops, where a salad bar allows customers to pile on condiments and end up with a sandwich as unwieldy and haphazard as a sloppy joe from an army mess hall. Instead, they’d base theirs on the Falafel Devorah model — each pita comes already put together, perfectly layered and dressed. Unlike Devorah, they would also serve fries and shakes. It was the shakes that led to the final piece in the puzzle of Goldie’s identity: It would be vegan.
“We were thinking about the shakes, and we thought of tehina,” said Cook, naming the roasted sesame seed paste that informs much Middle Eastern cuisine. “In our cookbook, the chapter on hummus isn’t called ‘Hummus,’ it’s called ‘Tehina,’” he continued. “We write that ‘tehina really can do anything and everything.’ Well — how about shakes?”
Yep, tehina shakes. There are three on the opening menu (Turkish coffee, chocolate and coconut), along with a single falafel sandwich, a falafel salad bowl, fries and select sodas. You order at the counter, then snag one of a few seats along the wall in the narrow room — which was for a while being used as overflow storage for the restaurant below — or take your Goldie goodies to go.
So why do an ambush opening, with no notice or warning?
To let Rooster Soup Co. have its moment in the sun, per Cook: “We realized it wasn’t obvious what was going on upstairs, and didn’t want to have the pressure of opening while we were getting Rooster dialed in.”
And will more Goldies follow in the future?
“Right now there’s nothing in the plans,” Cook said. “But if it all works, sure, we might consider it.”