In an effort to bridge the psychic chasm between the University and its western neighbors, Penn began focusing on 40th Street as a key, east-meets-west, town-meets-gown retail corridor. As part of the Bridge Cinema at 40th and Walnut (across the street from the Fresh Grocer supermarket, which opened in 2001), Penn brought in the Marathon Grill, which has several restaurant locations in Philadelphia. Though Marathon’s fare is not in the same league as Pod’s or Distrito’s, the restaurant and its upstairs MarBar played an important role as an attractive, reliable place for lunch or dinner. (“There were probably 15 moments when that deal was dead,” says Paul Sehnert. “Now you can say it’s a no-brainer, but it’s easy to forget how incredibly risky it was and how brave the entrepreneurs were who shelled out half a million dollars for kitchen equipment and made a bet that they would show up every day and there would be people in their restaurant.”)

At 40th and Chestnut, the northeast corner was dominated by a vacant bank building and a series of run-down storefronts heading north. Penn selected Teres Holdings to be the developer on a ground lease, and Teres put together $23 million to develop the Hub, a mixed-use building with 101 high-end apartments. At some point they realized that they needed a serious, high-profile chef to open a restaurant.

“I remember when the Hub was being developed, and we were dealing with the guys on zoning issues,” says Barry Grossbach. “Every time I met with them I kept saying, ‘We’ve really got to get a first-class restaurant out here. You guys have an opportunity to really do something dramatic, because you have a restaurant that’s going to occupy a second floor, that’s going to be enclosed by glass, and it could be a real destination spot.’ So we really encouraged them to seek a top-flight restaurateur. And they got Jose Garces out here.”

“When they brought up Jose, we were thrilled,” says Ed Datz, executive director of Penn’s real-estate division. “Collectively, their team and our team really looked to go ahead and secure him. And it was a great marriage, and a tipping point for the neighborhood.”

As it turned out, Garces didn’t need much persuading.

“I’d thought about opening a restaurant in University City for a long time,” he says. “The area’s cultural diversity is amazing, and there is already a thriving dining scene that encompasses a vast array of different cuisines.”

In his view, University City had become a destination even before he opened Distrito. “From the ethnic restaurants to the top-notch BYOBs to the fun food trucks scattered across the neighborhood, it’s a great place to go eat any time of the day,” he says. “I often found myself there even before I had a kitchen to oversee.” Asked if he had a university audience in mind when he was dreaming up Distrito, Garces responds: “I think part of the restaurant’s appeal is the fun, youthful energy of the space, which we definitely created to engage the students and young professionals living in the area. That said, as with any of my restaurants, the food is the real focus.”

Datz says that he and his colleagues speak to “approximately 200 restaurateurs a year” in an effort to find the right ones for the right locations (their efforts are often aided by the firm Madison Marquette). He stresses the importance of “staying in touch with what the market is asking.”

“One of the lessons we’ve learned is, we do a lot of research in our client base,” says Anne Papageorge. “We do focus groups—a lot. We continually loop back and revisit assumptions. There was a retail study that was done before I arrived, and we go back and revisit the recommendations we’ve added to see if they’re still accurate. We really look to see what is successful.”

When the possibility arose of bringing in Bobby Flay, another Iron Chef and the owner of the Bobby’s Burger Palace chain, the reaction from students made the Penn group realize they were on to something.

“We mistakenly let slip into the DP a rumor that he might be coming to the Radian, and we started getting blog citations that would have made you think we had just cured cancer,” says Paul Sehnert, who admits that he hadn’t even known who Bobby Flay was before that. “We realized that what he represents is really, really important to students.” The latest Bobby’s Burger Palace will open this spring in the Radian, the massive apartment and retail complex at 3925 Walnut St., whose retail offerings also include the sumptuous gelatos of Capogiro and a vast array of beers at the soon-to-open City Tap House.

 

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The Omnivore’s New Dilemma (Which exotic University City restaurant should we try tonight?) By Samuel Hughes
Photography by Greg Benson

 

 

 

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