The evening of Insatiable’s soft opening was such a busy blur, chef-owner Denise Gesek never got around to popping the celebratory champagne bottle from her daughter to mark the launch of her first restaurant.
“It was just amazing — then it was overwhelming,” Gesek said of the night’s unexpected turnout.
Opening its doors two weeks ago, Insatiable brings another change to the restaurant space at 21st and Federal in Point Breeze. It follows the “neo-bistro” Buckminster’s, the tiki-lite Burg’s Hideaway, and, most recently, Community, a charitable, neighborhood-focused bar that closed in February after a 2.5-year run.
The concept, Gesek explained, is a “lounge vibe” with “sexy cocktails,” and a food menu that combines creativity with affordability to offer “something for everyone.”
There are plenty of small plates, like gruyere-topped French onion soup dumplings and grilled octopus with fava beans. There are salads with dirty martini dressing, and farro or tuna bowls. Larger dishes include steak frites, miso butter fish en papillote, and grilled chicken with mango.
The restaurant’s burger, a “very rich” Angus and short rib blend, comes with a bacon jam that takes four hours to make, Gesek said.
Most of the items range from $13 to $29, but for those so inclined there are glitzier options, mostly in the form of caviar — either served with Rhode Island Johnny cakes and vodka crème fraiche ($45) or as $15 “bumps” to go with Insatiable’s take on the martini, the Bite Me.
It’s the most aggressively named of the cocktails, thought up by Gesek and fine-tuned by bartender Luis Sebastian. The Insatiable Kiss, combining Irvine’s vodka with dragonfruit syrup and rose water, is currently most popular, alongside the Shhhh… which adds Aperol, cinnamon, and thyme to Redemption wheated bourbon. Cocktails cost $15 each while beers, seven on tap and six bottled, are $8. There are also 10 wines to choose from.
Corner-mounted above the bar, the restaurant’s only TV will be on for certain events, like Eagles games and World Cup matches. Insatiable is not a sports bar, Gesek said, “but I am a sports fan.”
Besides the 14-stool counter and banquettes and tables to accommodate approximately 20, there’s also seating for 14 across five outdoor tables.
Insatiable gets its name, Gesek said, from her own constant hunger for food as well as culinary knowledge.
Coming from a Spanish-Italian family, she developed a passion for cooking growing up with her grandmother in South Philly, absorbing all she could from time spent in the family kitchen and watching Julia Child on TV. Graduating from Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales with a culinary degree, she moved to Boston and worked under James Beard Award–winning chefs Jasper White and Lydia Shire.
She later found work with Boston restaurateur Frank DePasquale. The chefs were mostly hired from Italy and spoke little English, Gesek said. In her down time, she would delight them with American food. They in turn taught her about pastas and sauces from around the world.
“I learned an amazing amount,” she said. “And you didn’t have to speak a word. It was all about food.”
Gesek moved back to Pennsylvania, running Bryn Mawr catering company Blush before working as executive chef at Isabella’s in Conshohocken and, more recently, Brittingham’s in Lafayette Hill.
‘Cute and small’ can still be a challenge
The search for the right location took about six months, Gesek settling on the Point Breeze corner because she liked the neighborhood as well as the size of the venue. “It was cute and small,” she said. “I could handle it.”
It proved a larger task than expected, however, especially after the initial contractors “didn’t work out.” Though it had been a restaurant prior, the site required costly changes mandated by the board of health. Her daughter, an attorney, assisted with the paperwork and licensing.
The location also came with an unexpected challenge in the form of a community fridge outside the restaurant, an outlet of the South Philadelphia Community Fridge organization, previously overseen by the corner’s preceding tenants, Community Bar.
Gesek said a minor controversy erupted when she ordered its removal, but she stands by her reasoning. The cable connecting the outdoor fridge to its power source in the restaurant’s basement was “a definite tripping hazard,” Gesek said, and she worried about a lack of adequate grounding surrounding the outlet.
Fundamentally, she said, an outdoor community fridge didn’t fit with her idea for the restaurant, or a venue with al fresco seating.
“I just spent my whole life trying to open this business,” Gesek explained. “I chose this building because of the neighborhood. I did not choose it because it had a refrigerator in front of it.”
She told Billy Penn the issue has since been resolved, members of the SPCF coming into Insatiable last Saturday evening to welcome her to the community and express their support for her establishment.
“It’s been a challenge,” Gesek said. “I can only hope people enjoy it.”
In a statement via email, the SPCF said, “We wish all small businesses in South Philadelphia the best of luck, and we hope we’ll have the opportunity to partner with Insatiable as a food donor or fundraising partner in the future.” They encourage neighbors to visit their new food pantry, hosted by Church of the Redeemer Baptist, on 2550 Reed St.
The food menu at Insatiable will be seasonal, with an upcoming change in October planned to draw in fall flavors like pumpkin and pomegranate. There are also tentative plans for events, like bourbon dinners and kid-friendly breakfasts with Santa. For now, though, Gesek is focused on a grand opening in the first weeks of October, and finally popping that bottle of Veuve Clicquot from her daughter.
“This has been my dream since I was a kid,” Gesek said. “It took me a while to do it, but hey, it’s never too late, right? There are a lot of obstacles in life.”
1200 S. 21st St. | 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Bar closes 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday | insatiablephilly.com.
This article has been updated with comment from the South Philadelphia Community Fridge.