Of Dirty Drugs and White Dogs
The evolution of dining -- fine and otherwise -- at Penn. By Jon Caroulis
AS MUCH AS ANYONE could at age nineteen Bill Hoffman, C'81, had his life planned out in 1979, when he was a sophomore at Penn. He was studying English and thought he'd be a high school teacher. Then, one Sunday, he had brunch with some friends at a restaurant called LaTerrasse -- and his life would never be the same. Before the meal was finished, Hoffman had decided he wanted to work there. "There was a quirky enthusiasm, a warm feeling and quality to it," he says. "I loved the variety of people who worked there -- all different kinds, a real melting pot."
Within days he was working there as a busboy, later becoming a bartender, waiter, assistant general manager, and then manager. Until it closed in 1986, the result of competition and bad blood between partners, LaTerrasse was one of the most popular restaurants in Philadelphia, known for its French food, its cultivated Left Bank atmosphere, its pianists, and its remarkable wines. Hoffman left in 1983 to start a catering business with his wife, Nancy Phillips, then the restaurant's executive chef, and later opened his own restaurant, Carolina's, in Center City Philadelphia. But he never forgot LaTerrasse -- and now he's reopening it, hoping to keep the best of the old place while adding touches of his own to make it new.
Since last fall, construction has been under way to renovate and expand the restaurant's former quarters on the 3400 block of Sansom Street, which have been vacant for the past decade, to the regret of many in the Penn community. When Dr. Nina Auerbach, professor of English, passed by the construction site recently, she says she began "cheering on the workers -- they must have thought I was crazy." Plans call for a May 1 opening (just in time for Alumni Weekend, May 16-17).
A few doors down, another alumna of the restaurant, Judy Wicks, presides over the establishment that has taken over LaTerrasse's mantle as the place to dine on campus, the White Dog Cafe. The earthy, high-spirited Wicks likes to say she got into the restaurant business "by accident," literally and figuratively. In 1971, she left her first husband and her first business, Urban Outfitters, but had only gone a block when she got into a traffic accident. Unwilling to turn back, and in desperate need of money to repair her car, she took the advice of a sympathetic passerby and got a job as a waitress at LaTerrasse.
Thirteen years later, by then the restaurant's general manager, she left and started her own restaurant -- the White Dog Cafe -- on the first floor of her house down the block. In the beginning, the cafe sold take-out muffins and coffee; later, Wicks added a charcoal grill in the backyard. Today, the White Dog is cited by national magazines as among the best in the country and is one of the few on campus that draws people from Center City, the suburbs, even Manhattan.
Such drawing power is all too rare in West Philadelphia -- which is why the reopening of LaTerrasse could mean more than just the return of an old landmark. Last fall's rash of armed robberies raised serious questions about the viability of University City as a neighborhood, and the administration of President Judith Rodin, CW'66, hopes to make Penn safer by making it more livable, more vibrant, thus encouraging students and faculty to live in University City instead of Center City or the suburbs. A Penn campus with more shopping, dining, and entertainment would mean more people walking the streets, providing safety in numbers.
Restaurants are a key part of that plan. An increase in the traditional downscale campus hangouts -- where students can gather, drink, flirt, and nosh -- can make the area a more attractive place to live and socialize. But no one is going to make a special trip to 34th and Sansom to eat at Denny's or TGIFriday's. That is where the upscale restaurants fit in. And right now, only a handful of Penn-area restaurants have the menu and reputation to draw from outside the campus: the White Dog; its Sansom Street neighbor, LeBus; the Palladium on Locust Walk; the creatively Mexican Zocalo; and the once-and-future LaTerrasse.
BEFORE PENN expanded during the 1960s and 1970s to become more of a residential school, restaurants catering to students were short on decor and long on an atmosphere that might best be described as "basic grunge" -- places like Smokey Joe's, Pagano's, Kelly and Cohen, Grand's, and the Penn Luncheonette, better known as the Dirty Drug.
"I always ate lunch at the Dirty Drug [at 34th and Walnut]," says Elsie Sterling Howard, CW'68, now a Penn trustee and president of the General Alumni Society. "You either had grilled cheese or tunafish. It was always squashed full of people. But it was a great place, a great hangout."
Howard, a native Philadelphian, lived at home for her first three years at Penn; for her and other commuters, food needed to be fast and fun. And that's what they got. "In those days, nobody knew anything about fat intake or cholesterol," she says. "All we ate were french fries and Coca-Cola, beer, vodka, and hamburgers."
"All the student places were dives because we couldn't afford anything else," says Alan Richman, C'65, now the food and wine columnist for GQ magazine. Richman's favorite was a small eatery on Locust Street run by its namesake, "Pops," who was "the single most disgusting food person I've ever met in the food business. He always had a cigar in his mouth." All the same, he adds, "I've never tasted sandwiches that good in my life."
Campus hangouts could be short on decor, ambience, cleanliness, and just about everything else, says Richman, because they offered students freedom: "Freedom to eat whatever you wanted, freedom from institutional food" of the dorms. The decor at Pagano's, for example, bordered on "disgusting," according to Howard, while Richman says he went all the time -- not because the pizza was great, but because he could eat there as often as he liked.
Many students got their first beer or drink -- legal or otherwise -- at Smokey Joe's, which calls itself "The Pennstitution" and has been at the University at one site or another since 1951. Its first two locations, on 36th Street near Walnut, and below street level at 38th and Walnut, were not fancy, but that was its charm. In fact, when the owners moved to the present location along South 40th Street, they brought some of the original fixtures and wood paneling with them.
As a senior, Howard joined a sorority, and for "evening" dining, she recalls, "There was Smokes, and for late, late stuff there was a diner at the corner of 40th and Spruce."
A different type of hangout was -- and still is -- Koch's delicatessen at 4309 Locust Street, which students moving into off-campus apartments or Greek houses have been discovering since 1966. It takes a while to get your order, so the owners pass along free samples of food to those waiting in line, making it a kind of "stand-up" restaurant.
Alan Schwarz, C'90, has fond memories of those samples and sandwiches. Now a columnist for Baseball America, Schwarz, in Baltimore for the 1993 All-Star game, persuaded other scribes to drive with him to Philadelphia the day before the game to sample Koch's wares. Later that year, he told another out-of-town writer, who was in Phildelphia for a baseball game, to eat there. That writer was so impressed with Koch's that he quoted an employee and mentioned the store in a feature for Baseball America about the Florida Marlins.
Bob Koch now runs the store, succeeding his parents; his brother Lou, famous for his welcoming manner and Borscht Belt-style humor, passed away last March, an event marked by a front-page obit in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Koch still hears from alums -- they'll call to ask him to send sandwiches via overnight delivery to them at hotels at Superbowl or World Series sites.
At one point, the Koch family considered expanding into a sit-down place, but attempts to purchase an adjoining property fell though. In retrospect, Bob Koch says, he's glad they did: "I like talking to people. I don't just make them their sandwiches." But sticking with the deli counter has also made his store less vulnerable to the troubles of West Philadelphia. "I close at seven P.M.," he says. "If I stayed open until nine, my customers would be afraid to walk the streets."
THREE INDEPENDENT but interrelated developments in the 1960s and 1970s changed what and where it meant to eat on campus. The first came when the University moved in the mid-1960s to acquire and demolish all properties in the 3400-3700 blocks of Walnut and Sansom Streets. In 1973, angry merchants filed suit to block the demolition, but after a temporary injunction, the federal judge in the case issued a compromise ruling that, in the words of Wicks, "cut the baby in half": The University could demolish and develop the north side of Walnut, while merchants in the 3400 block of Sansom were spared the wrecking ball.
In September 1974, the Walnut Street demolition began, forcing Smokey Joe's, Pagano's, the Dirty Drug, Grand's, and Kelly and Cohen to move to new locations. Some went to a new mall along South 40th Street built by the owners of Smokey Joe's, who later sold it to Penn. Others went into a "temporary" mall that housed the school bookstore and storefronts bordering Walnut, 38th, and Locust. Though it's still standing today, it has been marked for demolition to make way for a Wharton School MBA facility ("Gazetteer," December 1996).
Finally, in 1988, the complex known as 3401 Walnut Street went up, with its sandblasted walls and smoky windows. Besides academic departments, University offices, and retail spaces, the building includes a ground floor food court. But with places like Philly Steak & Gyro, Cosimo's Pizza, Bain's Deli, Bassett's Original Turkey, and Everything Yogurt, the ambience is closer to a suburban mall than to the student hangouts of yore.
The second development was a decision by Penn's Dining Service to offer meal plans instead of a la carte dining, depriving faculty and staff of that option for a quick, inexpensive meal. To fill the void thus created came the trucks that now line the streets around campus. The quality of the trucks' wares may be questioned, but there is no doubt that they provide the Penn community with an unprecedented variety of food to choose from: Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian, pizza, vegetarian entrees, cheesesteaks, hoagies, fruit salad, and more can be found -- often in the same block.
Dr. Stephen Roth was a biology professor at Penn for fourteen years until he left to run a bio-tech business, Neose Technologies ("Gazetteer," November 1996), whose offices are in a "sterile" corporate park in Horsham, Pa., north of Philadelphia. Roth recalls fondly how at Penn he could leave Leidy Labs, walk in any direction, and find a truck with great food.
The trucks provide variety, convenience, color -- and drive some of the restaurant owners crazy. According to Paul Ryan, co-owner of Smokey Joe's, not having to pay rent or taxes means that trucks can undercut many of the sit-down eateries. "You get what you pay for -- that's why you don't have a nice Italian restaurant on campus," he says. "In a couple of years, all you're going to have are trucks. They drove Kelly and Cohen out of business."
It was in the winter of 1977-78 that David Braverman started his "truck" -- actually, an old bus that he bought from a suburban school district for $500. He added a propane stove, parked it at 34th and Sansom Streets, and called it LeBus. At first, LeBus served burgers and sandwiches, but then Braverman got into baking: muffins, then breads and rolls and pies. His business grew so much that in 1984 he moved the operation into a Sansom Street house across the street from his old parking spot.
He's since opened two more LeBus restaurants in the city, and supplies baked goods to a number of prominent hotels and restaurants. LeBus is not cheap -- at least not compared to the trucks -- but its Thai Turkey salad, homemade soups, and vegetarian chili and lasagna have earned it a devoted following. One Penn alumna recalls having friends mail her LeBus muffins and other baked goodies while she was in London.
Don't tell Braverman that trucks detract from the restaurant scene at Penn, by the way. "[Ryan] can say whatever he wants; Kelly and Cohen went out of business because they served [lousy] food," he says bluntly.
Braverman also worked with his father, Cy -- who operated the Dirty Drug for many years -- at a bus on Temple University's campus in North Philadelphia. "It's a brutal life," he says of truck work. "The hours are long and the working conditions difficult."
THE THIRD development that changed the face of campus dining was the opening of a restaurant called Moravian, in a house that faced Moravian Street, parallel to Sansom. It featured an offbeat menu: onion soup, brown bread, burgers topped with ratatouille. "It was like a Left Bank place," says Karen Gaines, editor of the Almanac, the University's faculty/staff newsletter, and a Penn employee since 1965. "Fine-arts students flocked there. Dining at Penn was never the same." As the Moravian grew in popularity, owner Elliott Cook expanded and changed the name to LaTerrasse. For the first time in memory, Penn had what could legitimately be called "fine dining." The restaurant served regional French cuisine and reeked of the kind of sophisticated Bohemian atmosphere that so appealed to Hoffman.
"It was the kind of place where on a Friday afternoon you'd take an extra half hour for lunch and stay and talk and even have a glass of wine with your meal," recalls Dr. Solomon Katz, Gr'67 professor of anthropology. "I remember distinctly that it had good food. You'd go there and you always saw people you knew. You didn't hesitate to take a colleague from out of town there."
Roth was teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when Dr. John Cebra, chairman of the Department of Biology, and Dr. Vartan Gregorian, then-dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, told him they were interested in bringing him to Penn. They invited him to Philadelphia for dinner and told him to meet them at LaTerrasse.
Gregorian was late -- "I think he was somewhere else entertaining the French Ambassador to the United States," Roth recalls -- so he and Cebra ate and drank and drank some more. "It was a wonderful night," says Roth. "I loved LaTerrasse. The ambiance was excellent: you'd sit outside in the summer; in the winter, it had heaters blowing down on you." (There was also a tree in the glassed-in terrace; Hoffman says he plans to plant another in the new incarnation.)
"It was an escape from time and place," recalls Elissa Sklaroff, G'65, who went there on special occasions. "Once you were in there, it felt very European -- certainly not West Philadelphia."
But after Cook moved to Massachusetts, he entrusted the shop to Wicks -- and, she says, promised to make her a partner. Later, he reneged on the deal, she says -- an account confirmed by Hoffman -- whereupon she left; in 1986, the restaurant closed. Wicks got the last laugh, however, as she expanded her coffee and muffin shop. Today, her adjoining enterprises on Sansom Street -- which include the White Dog and the Black Cat boutique -- employ more than 100 people and have annual sales of more than $4 million.
The White Dog got its name from a 19th-century mystic and founder of the Theosophical Society named Madame Helena Blavatsky, who once resided in the Sansom Street building and claimed to have been cured of a serious illness by having a white dog lie on her. The restaurant has a wry, informally sophisticated ambience, and under chef/partner Kevin von Klause, the menu changes daily (to take advantage of fresh offerings from area farmers, Wicks says) -- though there might be a campus revolt if she took the salmon burger off the lunch menu. At night, you can order swordfish with peppercorn sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and warm greens. Desserts are gorgeous. Wicks felt that diners had had their fill of French and Italian cuisines, and wanted the White Dog to offer an "American" menu with American wines.
The White Dog is a bit pricey for most students, and while Wicks has considered opening a second restaurant catering to students, with lower-priced entrees and a more casual atmosphere, she concluded that she'd have "no life at all" if she did. The bar area of the White Dog does serve a separate, less expensive grill menu from 2:30 P.M. to 1 A.M., but it will soon be facing competition for its modest student crowd, since LaTerrasse's Hoffman says its lunch menu will be affordable for undergraduates.
For a while, the White Dog succeeded LaTerrasse as the only fine
dining establishment on campus -- although LeBus's Braverman might disagree. But in 1983, the Palladium moved into the handsome Gothic building at 36th and Locust Walk owned by the Christian Association and began serving above-average eclectic fare. And in 1989, Michele Leff and her husband, David Fetkewicz, whose fresh Mexican food in the Reading Terminal Market had earned them a devoted following in Philadelphia, opened a highly successful upscale Mexican restaurant named Zocalo at the corner of 36th Street and Lancaster Avenue.
Leff estimates that during the week 30 percent of her clientele comes from Penn and another 15 percent from Drexel University. During the weekend, however, people cross state lines to sample the city's only hand-made corn tortillas, swordfish tacos, glazed duck, Mexican rice pudding, and killer margaritas. Leff, who is hoping to put together an expo of all the area's restaurants next fall, thinks there is a great future for both retail businesses and restaurants in West Philadelphia.
"Look at all the cultural attractions we have here -- the museum, the ICA, the Community Education Center, the [Philadelphia] Zoo," she says. "People like to come here. Penn is aware of the shortcomings of the area, and is doing its best to counteract them. Penn needs to focus on this. Taking the University and shrinking its campus and becoming insular will only create a bigger problem down the road, because the fringe areas are where most of the problems come from. If we create enough energy and positive experiences along the fringes, then Penn and the merchants here will end up having a better environment for everybody."
The reopening of LaTerrasse can be seen as a small but important symbol of that better environment. But Hoffman's objectives are quite straightforward. "I'm out to have a great restaurant -- a wonderful addition to Sansom Street and Philadelphia," he says. "I couldn't have a simpler objective."
Jon Caroulis is a writer living in Philadelphia. He hopes the many fine establishments in University City not mentioned in this article won't hold it against him.
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/30/97