When Fairmount’s former Belgian Cafe reopens, it’ll mark the latest transformation in a once-established restaurant scene that’s going through something of a shakeup.
The neighborhood has lost five stalwarts over the past two years, creating a void that’s been difficult to fill. How can the newcomers replicate the decades of success seen by their predecessors? Industry insiders say the key to survival is appealing to surrounding residents while keeping in mind the preferences of Gen Z.
The Fairview is the new name for the tavern on the corner of 21st and Green, which had served the neighborhood for a decade as the Belgian, sister bar to Center City’s Monk’s Cafe. When cofounder Tom Peters bowed out last August, owner Fergus Carey found new partners and set about revamping the spot.
After four months and spending more than expected on renovations, the new ownership team is ready to go with a whole new style — one that’s brighter and more approachable.
A few blocks east, another recent ownership shift played out in another way. On Dec. 6, St. Stephen’s Green reopened under the management of James Stephens. A onetime owner from long ago, he took over the bar after its proprietor died last March.
Changes are minimal but notable. Brunch, once offered only on Sundays, will now be available on Saturdays too. A cocktail menu is new, and there are plans to introduce GrubHub delivery and open the basement bar for private parties.
Overall, St. Stephen’s Green will feel familiar, since the interior and concept are unchanged. “I like the brand and I trust it,” Stephens told Billy Penn.
The Fairview, on the other hand, will feel totally reinvented. “We are going for that light and airy feel,” said new co-owner Shane Dodd, a longtime Philly bartender.
Dodd, with partners Carey and David Dollinger, dropped the Belgian beer bar concept in favor of a vegetarian-friendly pub with a focus on local crafts and a commitment to accessible price points. (Initial plans to rebrand as The Ambassador were shifted when a tap room opened at 635 Girard Ave. with that name.)
“Nothing over $12,” Dodd said. “We are obsessed with keeping our prices reasonable.”
Outside still has picnic tables, but the dining room now has booths and a more modern style, with the dark wood and dim interior replaced by lighter furniture and lots of window light. The Fairview will also have four TVs — something the Belgian always eschewed.
Beth Fox, who ran the kitchen at now-closed St. Benjamin’s Brewing Co., designed the Fairview’s new menu, which includes a pork shoulder sandwich, salmon skewers, seitan wings and cheeseburger empanadas, alongside kids’ options like chicken fingers and grilled cheese. On the beverage side, expect 10 taps and a handful of more consumer-friendly brews like (gasp) Corona and Miller Lite.
“We were really preoccupied with creating a place where people feel really comfortable to go,” Dodd said. “A quintessential neighborhood place that people could come to three times a week.”
Big plates to fill
While the Fairway and St. Stephen’s are back and raring to go, Fairmount’s established bar exodus has left many holes.
Bad Brother debuted in September in the former Bridgid’s, a nearly 30-year mainstay that shut down in early 2018 and was originally replaced by a different bar that quickly folded. Another neighborhood icon, Rembrandt’s, also proved difficult to reinvent — Frankie Ann’s lasted less than a year there, and the spot known for its U-shaped bar and neon sign has been empty since July. Craft beer pioneer London Grill closed over the summer and also remains vacant.
Former London Grill owner Terry Berch-McNally said Fairmount’s cachet as a dining destination has faded as other sections of the city blossomed. “The destination neighborhoods became South Philly and Fishtown.”
Which means neighborhood friendliness is key to success, said Ben Fileccia, now local operations director for the Pa. Restaurant and Lodging Association and a 20-year hospitality veteran. “Fairmount restaurants,” he said, “are supported by Fairmount residents.”
The restaurants do get an influx of outside customers each October when people flock to Eastern State Penitentiary for the annual Terror Behind the Walls haunted house, Fileccia said, but those few weeks aren’t enough to shift their focus away from neighborhood regulars.
Fairmount locals can be a tough group to win over. Noise complaints have hindered spots that are situated on predominantly residential blocks — like the erstwhile Frankie Ann’s.
Price is a big stickler, per Berch-McNally. “They have kids, all their money is tied up in mortgages and schools,” she said.
Diversifying cuisine is also vital, Fileccia said, since “Gen Z explores and does their travel through food.”
Will the lightened, veg-friendly Fairview and the Grubhub-outfitted St. Stephen’s Green fit the bill? Time will tell.