The Palm in April 2017

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When The Palm Philadelphia shut down for renovations in March 2016, there was a lot of skepticism about whether it would actually reopen.

“I can’t tell you how many calls and emails I got,” said Palm Restaurant Group COO Jeff Phillips. “People were sure we were closing for good.”

Not so. A visit to the under-construction space in the ground floor of the Bellevue — where Palm officials are handing out “faces” to the 540 or so people whose caricatures adorned the original walls this week — shows encouraging signs of progress. The newly designed interiors will have a much more modern look, with lighter cherrywood instead of mahogany throughout, but in many ways, what’s old will be new again.

Major work over the past 13 months has returned the Center City steakhouse to its original footprint in the lobby of the Bellevue. The entrance, which was brought forward in 2005 to accommodate a new bar area, has been pushed back behind the sweeping marble staircase on the lobby’s south side. And Phillips, who was general manager at the Philly restaurant when it first launched in 1989, will be helping the new edition for a few months as it gets back into a groove.

Quite a few of the regular customers filtering through the lobby to pick up their portraits, including local celebs like Jerry Blavat, recognized Phillips right away.

“I’ll sell mine back to you,” joked Philadelphia attorney Ben Shein, gladhanding his old friend. “Wait, get this: I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but…how is your daughter, Morgan?”

Phillips, who left for Chicago in 1996 and then worked his way up to chief operating officer, is thrilled to be back, and is equally excited about how the revamped restaurant will look and feel. All 188 seats will be in one open room, backed by a series of curved, tufted leather booths along the far wall. Instead of being segregated, the bar will be adjacent to the dining area — “separating it really sucked the life out of the dining room.” A large, glass wine cabinet that doubles as a private dining area is being built, the ceiling has been elevated so light can come in through the full panes of the Broad Street windows, and the floors have been rebuilt after modernized plumbing and wiring were installed.

“It’s a very old building,” Phillips explained. “That’s part of what took so long.”

In another return to how things used to be, all the new portraits that go up will be painted directly on the walls. That’s how the tradition started, when owners, themselves lacking money to decorate, traded meals to struggling cartoonists in return for the sketches. Imagery at The Palm Philadelphia will be by local artist Zack Bird, whose family has drawn for the company for decades.

As for when the new digs will open to the public, Phillips is relatively confident in stating early July as launch date.

“We’re on track to open just after the July Fourth festivities,” he said. “The construction folks assured me twice this morning.”

Ornate column capitals were hiding above the old dining room ceiling Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...