Originally published November 2016; updated November 2019
Gov. Tom Wolf often plans to be in Philly for the general election. But if you want to find him at lunchtime, you don’t need to bother looking in Center City. Same goes for Mayor Jim Kenney.
Both men — and likely most of the other local Dems, Dem hopefuls and key Democrat supporters — head to West Oak Lane instead. They gather at Relish, the jazz and soul food restaurant that’s become the Election Day hot spot for the Philly political class.
Used to be Famous 4th Street in Queen Village was where party leaders gathered to swap stories, pat backs, thank fundraisers and chat with media. The deli, located a block south of South Street, has been a Philadelphia Election Day locus since back in the ’70s. But times change.
Why is everyone trekking out to Ogontz Ave. instead of staying close to City Hall these days?
Basically, because of Pa. Rep. Dwight Evans — and his relationship with Relish proprietors Ben and Robert Bynum.
Evans has been hosting invitation-only Election Day buffet luncheons at Relish for more than a decade. He does it because he’s proud of his Northwest Philly neighborhood, and also because he loves the way the Bynums run restaurants.
“The governor loves the place — Governor Wolf loves that restaurant,” Evans told Billy Penn in a 2016 interview. “[The Bynum brothers] have what I call the ‘secret sauce.’ It’s a combination of the music, the food and the service.”
Evans described how hard he worked a decade ago to convince Robert Bynum to take over the restaurant, which went through a series of failed concepts when owned by the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. The OARC, which Evans founded and was investigated in 2014 for misspending funds, is still landlord for the property, but Relish is now entirely in the capable hands of the Bynums, who also own South, Warmdaddy’s, Paris Bistro and Green Soul.
“What they and their staff have been able to do it put together an experience. They have proven my theory about transforming communities [through businesses],” Evans said.
“It’s not in Center City. It’s not in the suburbs,” he continued, noting that it’s at least a 25-minute drive from downtown Philadelphia. “Yet big-name people go there. Obama’s brother in law has been there. Cornel West has been there. Kareem Abdul Jabbar. [Actress] Nia Long. The woman who will be US Senator from California, Kamala Harris.”
Relish is most well-known for its brunch — OpenTable named it one of the “100 Best Brunch Restaurants in America” — and is usually only open Wednesday through Sunday. Which, of course, creates a perfect opportunity for people to host private events on Mondays…and Tuesdays.
“We have now turned it into the spot for Election Day,” Evans said.
Robert Bynum isn’t complaining. “Yes, people come,” he said with characteristic understatement. “A lot of people come. It becomes a good day.”