With Don Draper and Co. back on television and a nationwide cocktail renaissance that shows no signs of slowing down, the time couldn’t be riper for a restaurant like the Walnut Street Supper Club. Housed in the space that was known for 38 years as Portofino, this self-consciously swanky dinner spot aims to transport guests back to what we’re told are the good old days: Frankie and Dean-O crooning onstage, a thick-cut steak or heaping helping of pasta on every plate and starry-eyed diners taking it all in as suave waiters ferry icy martinis to and fro.
The effect, however, is disappointingly incomplete.
Much of the charm of 1960s supper clubs came from the machismo of the performers, the swagger of the men and the hip-sway of the women through dimly lit, smoky rooms, where an illicit affair seemed ever imminent. The Walnut Street Supper Club is a well-lit, bi-level dining hall with no smoke, no discernible swagger and very little sex appeal. Effete—but charming!—servers tend to guests between turns at the microphone, where an able pianist accompanies them through song choices that run the gamut from Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” to standards like “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The effect is less that of a smoky supper club than it is audition season at the nearby University of the Arts.
It should be noted that this is not meant to be a restaurant that appeals to everyone; those who groan at the thought of attending an off-Broadway revue or roll their eyes at themed parties would find little to love about this throwback affair. The problem is that even diners with a soft spot for the crooners—and for simple, classic Italian-American fare—are never quite swept away by the disjointed fantasy on display.
Service, at times affable, tends toward overbearing. An overzealous floor manager makes it a point to approach every table in the house and offer his business card, intoning flatly about the restaurant’s private dining facilities and happy-hour offerings. My mother—emboldened and perhaps inspired by a “Dean Martin” Manhattan with applejack, Cherry Heering and Dubonnet—exclaimed, “What a boob!” as soon as he was out of earshot.
Other house specialty cocktails are similarly named: the “Barbra Streisand” features prosecco, St. Germain and pineapple juice, while the “Rat Pack” Old Fashion is Knob Creek muddled with strawberries, in lieu of cherries. None is particularly noteworthy, but none is offensive. Wines by the glass are aggressively basic (yes, that’s Beringer white zinfandel representing rose), though on both my visits the service team paired them ably with the food.
That food, though, was largely uninspired and frequently poorly executed. The pan-seared goat cheese is a puck, breaded and fried, served with scarcely a drizzle of the lingonberry compote promised on the menu. A seafood medley martini is, in fact, a doughy seafood cake, served hot (and in a martini glass, for no obvious reason) and accompanied by saffron aioli that more closely resembles tartar sauce and cocktail sauce that is, effectively, ketchup. Beef carpaccio overpowers delicate petals of meat with a greasy mess that included the texture of capers and artichokes but none of their vinegary bite. The flavor is dominated by waxy Parmigiano and a dearth of olive oil.
Entrees were occasionally more successful. Pork tenderloin is, well, tender, and sauced with a brandy-Dijon demi that is a welcome compliment; the side of “risotto” that is, in fact, mac ’n’ cheese with rice marauding as mac, is not as welcome. A New York strip steak is similarly tasty, though cooked to a definite medium and not the medium rare my guest requested.
Herb-crusted grouper lacks flavor, though the lemon-caper sauce helps. Lobster ravioli is dense and over-sauced. The chef’s reason for leaving the baby lobster tail on top in its shell is difficult to dissect and yielded flecks of calcified crunch that rendered the sauce inedible. And the standard-bearer of Italian-American cuisine, fettucine alfredo, is a cheese-less disappointment; the pasta is properly cooked, but the sauce is miserably bland.
Desserts, presented on a tray rather than a menu, are the stuff of diner-cake cases: tiramisu that is light and tasty but not made in-house, and chocolate-topped cheesecake that would be at home in your grocer’s freezer aisle. Sharing a slice while our server gamely performed a frothy, little-known Kander and Ebb tune, “Sara Lee,” my dinner guests and I felt less like the Drapers and more like the audience at “Dinner! The Musical,” not quite able to suspend our disbelief far or long enough to enjoy the show.
1227 Walnut St. 215.923.8208. 1227walnut.com
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 4-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 4pm-midnight.
Price range: $7-$35.
Atmosphere: Aims for Mad Men; lands somewhere between likeable kitsch and amateur-ish community-theater auditions.
Food: Overwhelmingly underwhelming.
Service: Sometimes over-the-top in a good way; others painfully intrusive and awkward.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014