Seven thousand, three hundred and seventy-two. That’s how many days The Plough & the Stars has been continuously open in Old City. The tavern at the corner of Second and Chestnut streets is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a big bash this weekend.
Since throwing open the doors (slightly before they felt ready) on Sept. 18, 1997, publicans Marion Ryder, Jerome Donovan and Austin McGrath have literally never closed them. Not for a single day.
At first, the idea to stay open on occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving came from a desire to host their compatriots. “There were a lot of Irish people who had nowhere to go,” said Donovan (all three co-owners are from Ireland). “Some of them couldn’t go home, because they were here illegally.”
But eventually staying open just became the norm. Through snowstorms, holidays and even hurricane threats, The Plough became known as a sure thing. The only time the practice garnered any pushback was the decision to welcome guests on Sept. 11, 2001 — a move Ryder noted was gratefully taken advantage of by people who didn’t have a TV, or had one but didn’t want to watch the horror unfold alone.
“That was an awful day, Jesus,” Ryder said, drawing a sharp breath as she remembered. “But where do you go when you have a problem? You go to the pub.”
A farm-to-table Irish pub?
Back in 2001, there weren’t many other Irish pubs in Philadelphia. But The Plough didn’t fit the stereotypical version that would soon spring up around the city.
Instead of a dark bar filled with leprechaun kitsch, the partners went for a more modern take, the kind of place they’d noticed spreading across Dublin before they emigrated to the U.S. (Donovan and Ryder married in Ireland, then met fellow expat McGrath at their first venture, The Bards on Walnut Street, which they sold a few years after launch.)
“There’s nothing wrong with shamrocks,” Donovan explained, “but we wanted to showcase that Irish food isn’t just ham and cabbage.”
Along with their opening chef, French-trained Vincent Fanari (who recently returned to lead the kitchen), they created a menu of what they call “Western European cuisine.” Before farm-to-table was a big trend, they sourced local vegetables and game from Lancaster County. They had an arrangement with a specific Amish family to get tomatoes, and most of the produce they brought in was organic.
“We never really got the recognition for it,” Ryder said, “but we just work, we’re not into glory.”
‘Reviewers were afraid’
The Plough may not have ranked high with the local media — “I think reviewers were a bit afraid,” Donovan said, “that if they came up and said an Irish restaurant was one of the best in Philly, no one would believe them” — but it did score some national attention. It was featured on the nascent Food Network and in the luxury newsletter The Robb Report, and Fanari was invited to cook at the James Beard House in NYC.
And if the Philly food cognoscenti didn’t embrace the spot, regular folks surely did. Per Donovan and Ryder, their bar was hopping from the very first day, and over two decades, business has never seriously lagged. Even the recession of 2008 didn’t do much damage.
“We came from a recession,” Ryder noted, describing the conditions in Ireland that forced so many of her generation to leave the country and seek a new life elsewhere. “So we were used to it.”
Part of The Plough’s longevity stems from its Zelig-like ability to morph into whatever customers are looking for.
There’s the folks who fill the 100 or so dining room seats because they recognize the high quality of the cooking (there’s even a weekly vegan tasting menu available), the regulars who come for pints of Guinness and pub fare (of which there is plenty) and a whole segment that visits only on weekend nights, when a DJ spins and Old City buzzes with a younger crowd.
“I think our [Yelp] ratings suffer a bit,” said Donovan, “because a lot of people who write reviews think of us just as a cocktail bar.”
A slow evolution
Ask Ryder and Donovan what The Plough will be like five years from now, and they maintain it’ll be very much similar; that their dedication to a seasonal, high-quality menu, a generally fun atmosphere and the celebration of Irish heritage won’t diminish. The Sunday tradition of a live band playing Irish music that’s been going for 20 years is likely to continue indefinitely.
But there are some transformations coming. New furniture arrives next week, and a whole new tap system — possibly even offering draft wine — is set to be installed by early next year.
“We try to keep up with the trends,” Ryder said. “We don’t go for big changes. We try different things, and it changes slowly.”
From 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2, the partners will welcome friends old and new for a celebration of the past and the future. Expect deals on beer and whiskey, plus live music throughout the evening.
As for why the party is happening now when the launch date was actually back on Sept. 18, the answer is simple.
“We’re always busy working,” explained Ryder. “We haven’t had the time!”