Neighborhood Watch: Fishtown

One of Philadelphia’s most dynamic areas balances the grit of the old with the hip of the new

Neighborhood Watch: Fishtown

Photography by Neal Santos. Above: Inside Cheu Fishtown/

The local press called it “the hash browns affair.” It was 2002, and Lucretia Sulimay had just secured the keys to a sleepy little luncheonette in Fishtown, a largely blue-collar residential knitting of one-way streets a short drive from Philadelphia’s historic district. The chef, a Culinary Institute of America grad, stuck her surname on the building, then completely overhauled the way things were done in the kitchen: pancake batter from scratch, not a box; frittatas with local ingredients instead of Velveeta-stuffed omelettes; and potatoes roasted in the oven and garnished with parsley—a replacement for the crisp hash browns locals had downed since the 1970s. Fishtown let her have it.

“All the old-timers were in here complaining: ‘Don’t put any of that green stuff on my potatoes!’” she recalls, smirking as she pours me a series of high-octane Vietnamese coffees at a well-worn Formica counter. The Fishtown Star outlined the spud controversy in detail—a historical artifact she’s preserved, in photocopy form, to hand out to anyone who doesn’t remember the particulars.

Fishtown has drastically changed since then, but in some ways it hasn’t changed at all. Last year, shortly after former employee Chad Todd bought the place from Sulimay (she still works there), he ran into a gaggle of local grandmas drinking beer at Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap nearby. The first thing they asked: “Did you bring back the hash browns?” In fact, he did, even as he evolved the menu for a wider audience. These days, when an order comes in on the line, he tends to ask his servers a simple question: “Old Fish or New Fish?” It’s a telling question for a neighborhood that’s gone through profound changes in the past 15 years, from its steel-toed working-class roots and unfairly downtrodden reputation to what might be Philly’s most dynamic district for food, culture, street art and nightlife.

Fishtown is called Fishtown because of fish. Right on the Delaware River waterfront, it sits about two miles north of the Liberty Bell and was the longtime headquarters of Philly’s commercial seafood industry—particularly shad, the food fish whose roe is served as a springtime delicacy in seafood houses up and down the East Coast. The neighborhood’s borders—roughly Laurel, Front and York streets, with the river to the east—form a wonky chevron populated with industrial buildings and neatly kept brick row houses that for years were mostly occupied by Irish-Catholic families. The aquatic heritage is something residents of all generations are quite fond of—see the decorative fish plaques dangling above doors, or the public trash cans crowned with cartoonish fish heads designed by local artists.

The bustling intersection of Frankford and Girard avenues serves as a de facto town center for Fishtown. I head into Johnny Brenda’s, a bar whose quirky wood paneling, beautifully worn tile floors and scarlet-cloth pool table—lit as if by David Lynch—make it feel like the correct choice. Paul Kimport and William Reed recognized this way before I did. Back in 2003, after the success of their Standard Tap in nearby Northern Liberties, the partners bought and relaunched this place, which had been a hardscrabble old-man tappie that catered to laborers finishing up the third shift at the nearby Sugar House, a refinery that closed in 1984 and is now the site of a casino.

Kimport was already living in the neighborhood, drawn here by musician friends who spoke enthusiastically of Fishtown’s compelling mix of row houses, artists and space. Methodically, he and Reed converted the tavern into a restaurant and local beer bar, later adding a top-floor music venue that books both local bands and national touring acts.

“We wanted to, stylistically, keep as much as we could that felt like [the original] Johnny Brenda’s,” says Kimport, pointing to touches like the iconic pool table. Though they were outsiders in this tight-knit community, Kimport and Reed’s deference to Fishtown’s original character earned them the approval of locals, and subsequent development around their gamble on the intersection would speed up as the years passed.

Nowadays, this corner is home to a number of new establishments. There’s Root, an elegant wine bar, and Joe’s, a cheesesteak-slinger branching out from the Torresdale neighborhood. And, in a real coup for Fishtown’s commercial viability, there are two concepts from mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr: Frankford Hall, a cavernous indoor-outdoor German biergarten, and Fette Sau, an offshoot of the acclaimed Brooklyn barbecue joint.

“Once somebody like a Stephen Starr comes into a neighborhood, it’s usually a pretty good sign that good things may be coming,” says Shawn Darragh, another Philly-bred restaurateur who recently opened a quirky pan-Asian resto-bar, Cheu Fishtown, with chef and partner Ben Puchowitz. The eatery, built inside a stunning historic building that was a horse stable in a former life, is home to their most ambitious food yet.

Just up the street sits the flagship café of La Colombe, the local coffee roaster in the midst of a national expansion. Cake Life, an award-winning bakery from Lily Fischer and Nima Etemadi, fills a space two doors down from Kensington Quarters, an elegant restaurant that espouses local, whole-animal butchery.

All these are relatively new additions. A more established name is Memphis Taproom, a neighborhood bar and restaurant publican Brendan Hartranft and several partners brought to a residential street in 2008. With its clever craft beer selection and vegan-friendly menu (check out the quinoa-chickpea burger topped with coconut smoked to mimic bacon), the bar immediately attracted the attention of what Hartranft calls “the fixed-gear crowd,” a reference to the brakeless bicycles popular with a certain subset of cool city kid. “But what kept the lights on was neighborhood people,” adds the bar owner, who has always gone out of his way to cater to longtime residents with the same hospitality he shows more trend-focused newbies.

Hopping off the El (the elevated train connecting Fishtown to the rest of Philly) at Frankford and Girard, it’s easy to follow the ever-present overhead train’s path on foot. Front Street is another thoroughfare that has emerged as a major corridor of the new boom. Dotted with corner stores, old-school machine shops, older-school bars and a lively swarm of Philadelphians commuting and running errands, this swath is also home to a growing number of newcomers, from scratch-made soup specialists Good Spoon to Evil Genius, an irreverent brewpub pouring beers like a guava-infused IPA called #Adulting.

The corner of Front and Master, in particular, juxtaposes Fishtown’s past and future. Right across from El Bar, a cash-only shot-and-beer joint, which recently made local headlines for adding air conditioning for the first time since opening in the ’60s, sits Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, a high-end Italian restaurant and boutique hotel that opened in 2016. It’s about as New Fish as you can get. This former whiskey-blending factory has only four hotel rooms, each like a unique loft apartment; one features a custom-built turntable cabinet stocked with vinyl (David Bowie, Neil Young) from creative director Dan Olsovsky’s dad’s personal collection.

Five years ago, the site “seemed almost like the edge of the world,” says developer Randy Cook. But the more time he spent in the area, the more he realized that “Mulherin’s was more the center of everything,” given the abundance of available real estate and land along Front Street at the time. “[It was] the right amount of historical neighborhood fabric, with new things that were coming together.”

 

Ariell Johnson, owner of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse

Along with the hospitality influx, entrepreneurs of all kinds have flocked to Fishtown. Farther up Frankford Avenue sits Amalgam, a converted bingo hall where proprietor Ariell Johnson runs a shop and café for geeks of all backgrounds. Johnson, who stands out as one of a growing number of African-American business owners in a historically white area, ditched an unfulfilling bookkeeping career to open a business inspired by her lifelong passion for comics. Stocked with the latest releases, apparel and board and role-playing games, it also hosts regular events and screenings. Johnson sees it as a space for outsiders, no matter what you look like.

Regardless of how much Fishtown continues to diversify, questions of identity persist, particularly pertaining to how longstanding occupants fit into the changing milieu. It’s no secret that while the area is enjoying a commercial and creative renaissance, long-term residents are experiencing increases in rent and property taxes, and many surrounding neighborhoods struggle with crime issues.

“I got news for ya—the neighborhood has changed,” says Dan Tocci, whose father opened hoagie shop Dan’s Fresh Meats on Frankford Avenue in 1947; he’s worked there since 1949. You might assume this old-timer is resistant to major cultural shifts, but the opposite is true. “Years ago in Fishtown, you had some good people. Then, you’d have some thieves,” says Tocci, bluntly detailing the times his store was burglarized. “That’s why I love the way it’s going now,” he says. “You got nice people, good people.”

For some newcomers, Fishtown begins and ends with collaboration. Tyler Akin runs the tiny Southeast Asian BYO restaurant, Stock. When he opened in 2014, he realized he didn’t have enough refrigerator real estate to fit all of his raw ingredients. Who did he look to for help? Sulimay, who offered fridge space to Akin without blinking.

Akin has paid the favor forward, both by employing local residents at Stock and taking a down-to-earth approach in sharing his cuisine. Fishtown will keep changing, and he hopes to help smooth the transition on both sides—emphasizing that Old Fish and New Fish aren’t so different after all. “Once that wall comes down,” says Akin, “you realize everyone’s just trying to pay the bills.”

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ALL-STAR PLATES

A roster of Fishtown’s best dishes

Good Deal noodle soup at Stock

A nod to his Thai mother-in-law’s kuai tiao, a soup often made with beef, Tyler Akin’s spicy and rejuvenating chicken-based version includes crispy garlic, chili jam, oyster sauce and black pepper.

stockphilly.com
 

Bubbie Chow’s sliced beef at Cheu

Chef Justin Bacharach mashes up East and West by plating marinated brisket—somewhere between char siu and corned beef—with steamed buns, pickles, spicy mustard and other toppings for a build-your-own Sino-Jewish synergy.

cheufishtown.com
 

Unicorn Poop at Cake Life Bake Shop

Bakers Lily Fischer and Nima Etemadi figured a treat named Unicorn Poop would appeal to kids, but “adults love them just as much,” says Fischer of the crispy vanilla meringues decorated with creams and pastels.

cakelifebakeshop.com

 

SLICE OF THE ACTION

Joe Beddia makes some of the best pizza in America … for now

“It was pretty under the radar,” says Joe Beddia of Fishtown when he moved here from Lancaster for a brewery job 15 years ago. He transitioned into the pizza game and came out victorious, his masterful skills earning him props as the mind behind “the best pizza in America” from Bon Appétit in 2015. The spring 2017 release of his debut cookbook, Pizza Camp, boosted his profile even more. Admirers claim that Beddia has achieved a higher plane of pizza existence, but he’s walking away in March, coinciding with the end of a five-year lease. “Pizza has become my thing, but that doesn’t define me,” he muses. “I know this sounds annoying. But it’s just something that was a hobby.” He has other interests. Winemaking, perhaps, or maybe writing a second book. But that doesn’t mean Beddia is leaving pizza behind. He can’t talk about it just yet, but he’s involved in a new restaurant partnership, and pizza will be on the menu. He confirms the as-yet-unnamed project will be in Fishtown—he already lives here.