by Alex Bartlett, Archivist, Chestnut Hill Conservancy
With Center City (Philadelphia) Restaurant Week taking place September 18-30, it’s a great time to reflect on the history of our restaurants, whether it’s restaurants, taverns, lunches, tea rooms, cafes and cafes in our community. This is a particularly important time to do so, given the challenges our local restaurants have experienced following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Chestnut Hill and other communities along Germantown Avenue, the earliest dining establishments were inns and taverns, which provided food and rest for weary travelers commuting between Philadelphia and the north and west points, notably Reading, Bethlehem and Easton. At the time, meals would have been available at places like the Mermaid’s Inn (the original inn may be from 1734 and was demolished in the early 1900s; the building that replaces it was built in 1913) and the Cress Hotel (now the home of Robertson’s Flowers and Events). Those along Wissahickon Creek would serve catfish and waffles, which, as Dan Macey, president of the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley notes in his Wissahickon’s waffle dinner: the cheesesteak of the day: âThe fish was poached and not fried then cooked in a creamy sauce made with mushrooms, Madeira wine and capers, then served on very thin waffles.
Inns and taverns continued to flourish along the avenue until the 19e century. However, with the arrival of railways from what are now SEPTA’s regional rail lines to Chestnut Hill East in 1854 and Chestnut Hill West 30 years later, the attention of local restaurants began to shift, to those who live in Chestnut Hill and those who visit our area as a seaside resort, with the opening of bars and taverns like the James McGlone Saloon, which was near the southeast corner of Germantown and Evergreen avenues, where is now finds Wells Fargo bank. The arrival of the âtop of the Hillâ streetcar loop in 1927 seems to have brought opportunities to serve a new audience: those who operate streetcars. Across Germantown Avenue from the loop, Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT) streetcar operator Hugh McNally recently opened his McNally’s Light Lunch at 8634 Germantown Avenue, now celebrating his 100e birthday. His lunch served to those who worked with the PRT, and is known as one of the few restaurants serving members of the African American community at the time.
With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920, restaurants along the avenue could no longer serve alcoholic beverages. This situation was made even more difficult by the onset of the Depression. As many families in the area ran out of extra pocket money, they could forgo going to the local restaurant as these expenses were not considered necessary, an event that certainly happened throughout the region. country. Eleanor Ward Altemus notes in her Shopping on the main street of Chestnut Hill 1930-1935 that after reviewing the Philadelphia city directories, she discovered that there were only four restaurants listed on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, including those by Lawrence Devita (8407), James H. Fowler (7707) , Rose McNally (8634) and Nicholas Rallis (8639). The Ye Olde Stone House Coffee Shoppe has also been listed, at 8316 Germantown Avenue.
You could argue that the modern Chestnut Hill restaurant scene didn’t arrive until the early 1950s, when local store owner Lloyd Wells and the Chestnut Hill Development Group began their series of initiatives to modernize Chestnut Hill in a âhorizontal department storeâ. Many buildings were renovated and a few opened as full-scale restaurants (as opposed to lunches), such as Hearth and Cricket, which opened at 8515 Germantown Avenue around 1956. This would later become the home. from The Depot, a beloved well-pub that stayed at the location for perhaps 25 years before finally closing in 1994. The 1970s saw a proliferation of restaurants, from the intimate Under the Blue Moon to 8042 Germantown Avenue which opened in 1976, to the international cuisine of chef Tell Erhardt, who opened a year later at the Chestnut Hill Hotel as an exclusive ‘upscale’ restaurant that has only survived a few years. Despite this failure, others will follow this trend in opening âupscaleâ restaurants. Among them, Chatauqua, which opened in the then newly constructed extension of the Chestnut Hill Hotel in the early 1980s. It quickly became a place to ‘see and be seen’ and was a hit for 10 years. years.
Since then, the trend has been to open restaurants representing a wider variety of ethnic foods, such as: Osaka (Japanese), Hokka Hokka (Japanese) El Poquito (Mexican), CinCin (Franco-Chinese fusion), Paris ( French), Yu Hsiang Garden (Chinese) and King’s Garden (Chinese). The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of these restaurants to “pivot” toward operating street-side “streets” to allow for social distancing and good ventilation. One can only wonder if and to what extent these changes to the restaurant “scene” will last beyond the pandemic. Only time will tell.
For more information on Historic Foodways of Philadelphia, visit the Historic Foodways of the Delaware Valley website at historicfoodways.org. Learn about the roles played by various foods and drinks in our local history, including snapper and pepperpot soups, scrapple, root beer, soft pretzels and more! And don’t forget to visit the Chestnut Hill Conservancy Night of Lights from 8 to 17 Octobere. During the exhibition, restaurants will feature historic local food products on their menus.