20 years in Old City: An oral history of Fork Restaurant

How Ellen Yin’s Market Street bistro has withstood the test of time.

Fork co-founder Ellen Yin

Fork co-founder Ellen Yin

Danya Henninger
danya

In 1997, Wharton graduates Ellen Yin and Roberto Sella partnered to launch a new restaurant in Philadelphia. Called Fork, it would make an immediate impression in Old City, which was in the throes of a transformation from a former industrial and manufacturing hub to a loft district populated by artists and creatives. Two decades later, Fork is not only still open, it’s busier than ever.

Lasting 20 years is impressive in its own right, but Fork hasn’t just survived — it has thrived. Through various chefs and iterations, the Market Street destination has consistently outdone itself, a feat most credit to Yin’s winning combination of business acumen, willingness to take risks and passion for hospitality.

Here is the story of Fork and its evolving place in the Philly restaurant scene, as told by the people who lived it:


Following the dream

Ellen Yin (co-founder, Fork; co-owner, High Street Hospitality Group): Roberto and I were classmates at Wharton. I found out he was really into wine. He would have dinner parties and invite me and we became friends. I would say, “Oh I really want to open a restaurant,” and he would say, “Great because I really want a place to drink my wine.”

Roberto Sella (co-founder, Fork): She told me while were still in school that it was her dream to open a restaurant, but then Ellen went to work in healthcare consulting. Finally one day she said, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m done with this. I’m gonna open a restaurant.” I think she expected me to say, “Oh, that’s really risky,” but instead I said, “Ok, I’m in.”

Ellen Yin: I loved the warehouse feel of Old City, the downtown feel. It was an area of town I felt was still part of Center City but kind of on the edge.

Roberto Sella: When she found the location, she said, “I want to you look at something, but you have to keep an open mind.” She must have said “keep an open mind” eight times.

Ellen Yin: The space for Fork was unique because it was a double-wide building. A lot of old properties are narrow and long, especially in Old City.

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Amy Murphy (managing director and co-founder, Arden Theatre Co.): In the ‘90s Old City was dark at night. We had Snow White Diner and Panorama was open. It was a big artist’s studio area because real estate was cheap.

Barry Gutin (co-owner, Cuba Libre): Old City was just emerging as a neighborhood. In 1995, The Continental [from Stephen Starr] started to pave the way for places that came after it.

Stephen Starr (owner, Starr Restaurants): I had heard [Ellen’s place] was going to be more of a fine dining restaurant. I thought that was great for Old City.

Amy Murphy: I think she picked that spot because she knew there weren’t other restaurants there.

Ellen Yin: There was not a lot of competition. On the east side of Philly there was nothing between Broad and the river other than maybe Panorama, La Famiglia, La Buca, Caribou Cafe. There was nothing between Second and Third.

Roberto Sella: So we end up in front of 306 Market. At the time it looked like a street that was — all the storefronts had those metal doors that you pull down. I think she thought I was going to say she was crazy, but it had that vibe of transformation.

Craig LaBan (restaurant critic, Philadelphia Inquirer): Old City was just starting to percolate as an exciting cosmopolitan new place that was kind of being reinvented.

Sebastian McCall (owner and denim designer, Charlie’s Jeans): It was starting to be vibrant. They had just done construction on the streets, put the brick on the sidewalks.

Roberto Sella: Standing there on Market Street, I said, “Let’s go for it.”

Meg Rodgers (principal, Marguerite Rodgers Interior Design): The project didn’t have a name when I first heard of it. I suspect it was 1996. They called me and asked for services, asked to set up an interview to talk about it.

Ellen Yin: Somebody had asked me, “Well, whose work do you admire most?” I said I really liked Striped Bass, so they said, “Then you should call Meg Rodgers.” I was like, no way. But I called her up anyway, out of the blue.

Meg Rodgers: One of the things that was immediately obvious to me was that unlike my other restaurant clients, they actually had a business plan. They were organized, really smart. That had not been my experience. My clients knew the restaurant business, sure, but I never saw a business plan.

Roberto Sella: Ellen drove the whole process. When we met with Meg, I said to her, “I’m not a designer by any stretch and I won’t be able to opine.” My thing was just coming in on budget.

Meg Rodgers: Part of her directive to me was, “We have all these friends who are artists, I want them to have a role.” They definitely had a concept that it should be a place people in the neighborhood would come to several times a week. That’s why I put the bar right in the middle at front, so artists and people who work in the restaurant industry could sit at the bar and eat.

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A successful start

Ellen Yin: We did a soft opening. We invited lots of our friends to come check it out. The response was positive, but it wasn’t easy. Not many people ventured to Old City to eat at that time, and a lot of people thought I was a little nutty.

Joey Baldino (chef-owner, Zeppoli and Palizzi Social Club): I met Ellen when she was a customer at Mr. Martino’s, bussing tables there when I was 13. I went to Fork with the owners of Mr. Martino’s during the first year it was open. I thought it was so cool, it was the coolest thing in the world. The bar — you kind of felt like you were in New York.

Marc Farnese (co-owner, Mr. Martino’s Trattoria): My wife and I walked in, and it just blew us away, it was just so beautiful. Ellen almost brought a little Madison Avenue to that part of Market Street.

Ellen Yin: I had no budget when we first opened — we opened Fork with $300,000. It was definitely meant to be simple, not “Madison Avenue” at all. I do feel it reflected the neighborhood.

Craig LaBan: In the early days the food wasn’t amazing, but you could almost always reliably get a very good meal at Fork. This new American bistro cooking — it was very solid.

Ellen Yin: We were trying to be very middle of the road. There had been kind of an economic slump for a while and there hadn’t been a lot of restaurants opening. It was way more successful than we imagined. Within a month we were booked on Saturdays. Anne-Marie Lasher was our opening chef. Her thing was brunch, brunch really took off. Her omelets were perfect.

Amy Murphy: When Fork came it was so great because now we had a nice place to take people to. We had Panorama, but this really upped the ante. The two of those high-end restaurants in our neighborhood drew people’s attention.

Luca Sena (owner, Panorama): Fork was a great addition to the neighborhood. One thing we didn’t need was somebody who’s not involved with the community. Ellen lives and breathes it. I sensed that from the first day I met her.

Stephen Starr: I think Fork legitimized Old City as a real culinary destination.

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Parade of chefs

Ellen Yin: Anne-Marie was an amazingly hard worker, but after three years it just became apparent that what she wanted and I wanted were moving in different directions. She decided to move on and open Picnic, which just recently closed. David Ballentine was the next chef. We had worked together at La Terrasse. He was there very briefly.

David Kane (chef, Franky Bradley’s): I got hired at Fork [in 2001] by a chef named Dave, who I don’t think worked there very long. My first day off, Ellen took us to a restaurant show up in New York and then we went to Gramercy Tavern for cocktails. I feel that’s what she was and still is trying to do. It’s the Gramercy Tavern of Philadelphia.

Ellen Yin: Chef Thien Ngo came in and stayed for seven years. We expanded to Fork:etc in 2004. The dollar store next door was closing. People were scouting Old City to open nightclubs and word on the street was somebody was really interested in that space.

Christina Wilson (executive chef, US Division for the Gordon Ramsey Group): Fork:etc had just launched when I replied to a job listing for a server. I was not really qualified for the position — I was a bike messenger and I’m sure I padded my resume. I was on the serving team, but the way Ellen ran the front of the house made me fall in love with food. That’s where I realized I wanted to make it my life. I started my transition to the back of the house by doing some [apprenticeships] with chef Thien.

Ellen Yin: Thien was ahead of his time. He did these Wednesday night dinners — no one was doing tasting menus in Philadelphia at that time except Le Bec-Fin.

Meg Rodgers: I used to love those chef’s dinners at the big center table at Fork:etc because you’d just meet lots of people.

Seith Heitzenrater (co-organizer, Outstanding in the Field): When I moved to Philadelphia is right when Ellen had published her cookbook, which I read and loved. After living in the city for a little while, I saw a post online for a job, and applied for a server position. I was there when chef Thien transitioned out and chef Terence came [in 2009].

Ellen Yin: By the time Thien left it was clear he didn’t want to be the chef anymore. So I was looking for somebody and Clare Pelino [of Profile PR] introduced me to Terence [Feury]. I always feel this connection with Terry because we’re from the same area [in North Jersey] and his father was my sixth-grade teacher.

Terence Feury (chef, 41 North): Fork definitely needed a boost in the kitchen. Sort of a revitalization, really. I was fortunate to have a really good following of cooks and sous chefs who followed me from Maia [in Villanova], because we had built a dream team for that place before it closed.

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Andrew Wood (co-owner, Russet): I came from Maia with Terence. Ellen had already built so much and put together so many moving parts, so jumping in when it was already moving made for a very hectic transition.

Terence Feury: It was hard work, but when you go to a restaurant with good atmosphere and good service, you’re three-quarters of the way there.

Seith Heitzenrater: The menu changed, we had changed the interior, the clientele was changing a little bit. But it worked. That was when the restaurant received three bells from LaBan.

Stepping up despite the scene

Craig LaBan: When they brought in Terry it was clear to me for the first time that Ellen’s ambitions were to continuously get better. Terence was really one of the great chefs in the Philadelphia culinary progression. He really took it to the next level, everything being made in house.

Carolyn Nguyen (co-owner, Revolution Taco): I came in with Terry from Maia. During the week for lunch there were a lot of businesspeople. At dinner, I feel l like there were a lot of regulars. Fridays and Saturdays, we’d get a lot of suburban people.

Andrew Wood: She always had a good balance, I thought, of tourists versus locals versus destination types.

Cynthia McCloud (superintendent, Independence National Historical Park): Tourists come to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but it’s not the park’s job to provide dining experiences, except for City Tavern. So it’s great that the private sector stepped up and offered this.

Craig LaBan: All the while Old City is swirling around them, becoming something different. For many years, I think, something less than it hoped to be. It got caught up in the martini bars.

Luca Sena: For whatever reason Old CIty became more like a nightspot, they came to drink. Thank God for people like Ellen, Stephen Starr and Jose Garces.

Mark Squilla (Philadelphia City Councilman, District 1): We would have police details at night because of parking and pedestrian concerns when the bars discharged at 2 a.m. It became a place where, after 10 p.m. at night, people started to feel a little uncomfortable.

Amy Murphy: It was always so funny to watch these women running down the street in heels and a halter top in February.

Seth Heitzenrater: I remember working on Friday nights and feeling like we were the odd man out in the neighborhood. We’d be finishing up service and the energy outside went from being a nice, quiet tourist district into high heels, short skirts and bottle service.

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Meg Rodgers: Over the years, we did tweaks [to Fork’s design]. Maybe replacing the carpet, or adding acoustical tile, or change some paint colors. Ellen would say, “What can we do to give it a refresh so we remain relevant?”

Andrew Wood: Ellen was always persistently monitoring details. Like, there’s almost 250 light bulbs in that place, and it dawned on me one day that somebody needs to know where they all are and what they do. I picture her in my mind all the time. I certainly know how many lightbulbs there are in Russet.

Marc Farnese: She’s so exacting about her staff and food. You see her on a Saturday night and her eyes are everywhere.

Terence Feury: I’ve never seen a human work as hard as she does, in my entire career. She put so much heart and soul into that restaurant. I’ve never seen anything like it, will never see anything like it again.

Enter Eli Kulp

Ellen Yin: Terence announced he was going to move on to Tavro 13 [in Swedesboro, N.J.]. I was in denial for at least two weeks. Roberto came in and we had a meeting with Terence where we weren’t exactly begging him but trying to say maybe we had missed something, how could we change his mind? He said basically that he wanted his own space.

Terence Feury: Fork was great, but you have to take opportunities to grow. I left to become an equity partner in the real estate and liquor license [at Tavro 13]. I’m still a partner there.

Ellen Yin: I said to myself, whatever happens, I’m going to blow people out of the water. I’m going to make it a really nice restaurant. I ran a Craigslist ad — a blind ad — that gave me confidence because of who applied. I was like, “Wow, that person is looking?”

Eli Kulp (co-owner, High Street Hospitality Group): I first heard of Fork when a mutual friend put me in touch with Ellen. I hadn’t really spent any time in Philadelphia up to that point. Once Ellen and I started talking, I researched it and came down to get a sense of what she wanted to do.

Ellen Yin: I think what appealed to him was the opportunity to take a restaurant and reinvent it.

Eli Kulp: I saw there was an owner who wanted to continue the vision and continue its relevancy in the restaurant scene. At 15 years it would be easy to just say, let’s continue on. But no, she wanted to double down.

A glimpse of Eli Kulp (with striped apron) in the Fork kitchen, November 2012

A glimpse of Eli Kulp (with striped apron) in the Fork kitchen, Nov. 2012

Danya Henninger

Meg Rodgers: That was when we did the biggest design change, when Eli came in. We added murals, and switched out tablecloths for these beautiful wood tables instead.

Eli Kulp: It was exciting, this was my first real chef job. I had led the kitchens of a few restaurants in New York, but this was going to be my name.

Amy Falkenstein (community outreach program manager, Vetri Community Partnership): I arrived just a couple weeks after Eli took over. It was pretty grueling to start — everyone learning a brand new menu, new cooking techniques. It was a pretty monumental transformation from what it was before.

Roberto Sella: Ellen gets really concerned if a chef leaves or didn’t work out, but I realized over time that each time, it would end up making the restaurant better. Because she has this drive to improve.

Amy Falkenstein: This was really a different way of presenting food. All of our dishes told a story. I remember just being really excited by going to work. Then we moved into creating the High Street on Market brand.

High Street transformation

Eli Kulp: When it was Fork:etc, the space was not being used to its fullest capacity. It was basically just a daytime program and it didn’t get the full attention of the chefs. We wanted to see the space be used to its full potential.

Ellen Yin: I didn’t think that it would be so contentious when I closed Fork:etc [in 2013]. But then everyone was like, “I can’t believe you’re changing it!”

Eli Kulp: I had just come from working at Torrisi and there was a model we had used there, which was a lunch sandwich place which then would turn into more of an upscale dinner program at night. Here, we one-upped it with the breakfast component. Now you see chef-driven all-day restaurants and cafes all over the place, but back then the trend was in its infancy.

Pastrami sandwich at High Street on Market, Sept. 2013

Pastrami sandwich at High Street on Market, Sept. 2013

Danya Henninger

Michael Griffiths (co-owner, Helm): Eli had been there for around four months when I got to Fork. It was really intense, really busy, the first time I was at a restaurant at that level. It was like every day Eli was winning an award.

Ellen Yin: Eli and I always talked about having, like, four or five different concepts. Not 20, but just a few. Certainly, [taking over the kitchen at] a.kitchen was an experiment to prove we could manage something off-site. After High Street got all those accolades it seemed like a no-brainer that would be the concept to expand.

Eli Kulp: We noticed a tremendous number of people coming down to Philly from New York City and enjoying it, saying how the experience was unique, even for a place with as many restaurants as New York. So it made sense when the opportunity came, because somebody approached us, to open [High Street on Hudson] there [in 2015].

Ellen Yin: I can’t say I did ever expect to have a restaurant in New York. But it made sense because I had worked in New York in my old healthcare days, and of course Eli had worked there. Probably what is unknown is the number of times I’ve tried to grow and it just ended up being not the right time.

Sebastian McCall: Even though Fork is mainstream now and she has a place in New York, it still has a very comfortable feel. That’s why I go. I’m from this area, so for me, I’m just supporting my neighborhood’s businesses.

Growing with Old City

Barry Gutin: The good news is that the wave of nightlife popularity has left Old City, and what it’s left in its wake is real estate that is really primed for young chefs with smaller budgets to move in. I think they’re going to start populating those shuttered spaces and the neighborhood will become even more vibrant than it was.

Mark Squilla: Ellen is a model for others coming in. She believes in the city and believes in the neighborhood. She’s very forthright, and tells you what she thinks. But she’s not only there to complain about issues — she’s actually there to do the work. If we had all business owners like Ellen in Old City, we wouldn’t have a care in the world.

Meg Rodgers: The major thing is her style of hospitality. She’s almost always there, she’s present, she’s involved in every aspect of her restaurants, but not in an overbearing way at all.

Ellen Yin: I’m actually not always at the restaurants. But I don’t ever get tired of it. I love it. When I walk in, whether it’s Hudson Street, Fork, a.kitchen or High Street, I never get tired of seeing people enjoying themselves. And we have an amazing team of people — seeing people develop and grow and watching them take on more responsibility and do more is really fulfilling.

Cooks Michael Griffiths, John Patterson and Samantha Kincaid at Fork in April 2014

Cooks Michael Griffiths, John Patterson and Samantha Kincaid at Fork in April 2014

Danya Henninger

Eli Kulp: I think we created an environment for people to showcase their best work. That’s what we try to do. We look at people’s strengths and say, we see that you do these really well, we trust you. That’s sort of where my role is now. For all intents and purposes, I was out of the company for a while, and now I’m playing a much more active role. But during that time, Ellen really kept things moving and not allowing the chaos that ensued after I got hurt to impede our growth.

Ellen Yin: It’s a new chapter for all of us and we’re still trying to figure it all out. Right now I can’t say [if we’ll open another restaurant]. I will say I love to be involved with the creative process and Eli enjoys the creative process, so you never know.

Eli Kulp: I see us continuing to grow organically as we are able to. I think we are looking to continue to keep the vision relevant at all of our places. Relevancy is very important to us. I will attribute a lot of that to Ellen, keeping us at that high level.

Roberto Sella: Everything good about Fork is really to Ellen’s credit. I wish I could take credit.

Craig LaBan: It’s really rare and special that the same people have been involved involved with the same level of commitment for two decades. It’s not just that Fork has lasted so long, it’s that it gets better every year, and that it’s reached an exceptional level. And that is extraordinary.