Can it survive on Broad and Locust?
Like a love connection on an online dating site, the perfect pairing of a restaurant and its neighborhood requires either the magical touch of a leprechaun or an oracle’s ability to see the future. A quick walk down East Passyunk Avenue, or along the block that’s increasingly (and deliciously) being converted into the personal culinary fiefdom of Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, demonstrates how wide-ranging the options are even in short physical distances. Also how the restaurateurs responsible for these gauntlets of gluttony saw an opening and filled it with what even the people who lived there didn’t necessarily know they needed.
I bring this up because the conversion of Upstares at Varalli to Perch Pub is a curious one. On a stretch of Broad Street whose most successful restaurants are more glamorous and chef-driven (10 Arts at the Ritz, XIX at the Bellevue), a spot like Perch seems risky. Its predecessor, on first blush, seemed better suited to the ’hood.
Still, great food and service rise above any issues of geographical curiosity, and I was hoping Perch Pub would do so. In all fairness—and stripped of any sort of critical artifice—Perch isn’t bad. And for the city’s ever-growing legion of devotees of the suds, its selection of more than 100 bottles and a dozen rotating taps, all from within 151 miles of the city, is another jewel in our collective cap.
No, the problem is that the bar for bar food has been raised in this city, and even at watering holes that would never dream of advertising themselves as “gastropubs,” the food has become a collective point of pride. I couldn’t help but think about this around the third bite of my Franklin burger, an overcooked, underseasoned and surprisingly inelegant construct that wasn’t helped any by the too-sweet bacon jam spread on top. Like over-oaked wine or the hyper-produced music of Milli Vanilli, this was a case of the accouterments being used to cover up an essentially hollow main ingredient: Mushy, generic-tasting ground beef.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only defeat I faced at the Perch. Pig Latin tacos, with their meaty pork-belly-like richness amped up by achiote and cut by a vivid tomatillo salsa, were so salty they proved difficult to get more than halfway through. The fruitiness of a gorgeous draft of New Holland Golden Cap Saison went some way toward attenuating the salinity, but not quite enough.
Garlic mussels, plump and perfectly jiggly in their shells, were one of the highlights, an instance of excellent execution and a brave willingness to eschew the tendency that too many places still fall victim to: Trying to out-Monk Monk’s and lard down the classic with unnecessary crap in the steaming-and-dunking liquid. No, this was simple, elegant—butter, white wine, herbs and generous sweet cloves of roasty garlic grown alternately dark brown and opalescent.
Soft shell crab, a seasonal special served here as a sandwich, showed the kitchen’s acuity with the deep-fryer, the batter lacy and tempura-like, a nice juxtaposition against the soft cushion of the bun.
Snacks also worked well. Deviled eggs were damn good: Whipping Sriracha into the yolk and dusting it with sesame seeds is a great move. Malanga sticks were addictive when dragged through a tart garlic aioli. Onion rings made up for being half a step too greasy with the meaty exuberance of their white-onion hearts.
I’m rooting for Perch Pub. But I also worry for it. In a city with plenty of great beer programs, and casual spaces that wrap you up in either the homey warmth of a beloved neighborhood destination or a brilliantly conceived room that approximates just that, there’s something sort of cold here. The brick walls are lovely, the wood floors appropriately urban, and the views down Broad Street stunning. But that ineffable quality of warmth seems to be missing. I like Perch, but want to like it more.
For all its vaunted neighbors—the Kimmel Center and the Bellevue nearby, the Ritz a few blocks away—the corner of Broad and Locust remains a tricky location for a restaurant. It’s right in the heart of where tourists and concert-goers are likely to find themselves wandering around for a meal, but in terms of neighborhood identity, it’s still searching. As such, a restaurant has to provide some unique experience that warrants a visit, and then a repeat one. The beer at Perch certainly does that; I’m still holding out hope for the rest.
1345 Locust St.
Cuisine type: Pubby.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2am; Sat.-Sun., 4pm-2am.
Price range: $1.50-$17.50
Atmosphere: Cold-ish space is compensated by the views.
Food: Decent, but could be better.
Service: Appropriately helpful; pleasant.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014