The Black Squirrel Pub & Haunt brings cocktails and English comforts to flood-weary East Falls
Since Hurricane Ida, the Black Squirrel has more taken on more significance as a neighborhood gathering spot, and as a destination for a dozen In Riva employees to continue working.
Arthur Cavaliere thought his restaurant would be safe. But the floodwaters kept coming.
“We’ll be fine,” the chef thought optimistically one early September night as he turned off the lights at In Riva, which sits on a 14-foot rise above the Schuylkill. But Hurricane Ida roared in with another fate for this well-loved Neapolitan pizzeria and pasta perch in East Falls.
The swelling waters were lapping at the base of his restaurant when he left at 1:30 a.m. By 5 a.m., the storm surge had risen four feet deep into the dining room: “Chest-high if you were standing at the bar,” said Cavaliere.
In Riva, Italian for “on the banks,” was literally in the river. And suddenly, just three months shy of its 10-year anniversary, the most popular restaurant in East Falls’ recent memory had closed for the foreseeable future, putting most of its 58 employees out of work.
That’s challenging for a neighborhood that’s scrapped for positive restaurant energy and tried to conjure the vitality one finds in neighboring Manayunk. The three-year-old LeBus and the continued trattoria BYOB charms of Fiorino have helped. It was an extra stroke of good fortune, both for East Falls and Cavaliere, that he’d opened another restaurant this summer nearby, situated 10 feet higher — and drier — up the slopes of Midvale Avenue: the Black Squirrel Pub & Haunt.
This British-themed pub — a cheerful white double house trimmed with flower boxes, a picnic table porch, and gloss black shutters — had been intended to complement the trio of East Falls restaurants owned by Cavaliere and his partner, developer Mark Sherman, also including Foghorn & Fletcher, their fried chicken and burger takeout spot.
Cavaliere wanted a cocktail-centric bar here with an accessible menu to match, so the longtime Starr alum (Parc, El Vez, Buddakan A.C.), took some gastropub cues for this intimate four-room building from one of his Starr favorites, the Dandelion. Since the flood, however, the Squirrel has since taken on more significance, both as another needed neighborhood gathering place and a destination for a dozen In Riva employees to continue working.
There are plenty of the expected pub classics, from a hearty short rib cottage pie served beneath piped clouds of cheddary mashed potatoes, to a nearly perfect fish and chips. Icelandic cod is cloaked in a greaseless tawny crust of a sheer batter made with four different flours and two kinds of beer (fizzy Bud and richer Fuller’s ESB) that Cavaliere had previously created for Michel Richard’s Central in Washington.
Paired with the salt-flecked chips, thick Idaho batons cooked three times to a fluffy crisp, the timeless combo begs for a frosty pint of Boddington’s or Bombardier to wash them down. The Black Squirrel has them on draft, along with a small but standard list of other English favorites, including the first Samuel Smith oatmeal stout I’ve drunk in decades — and it’s still a delicious beer.
But if launching a cozy cocktail bar was the true point of departure, Cavaliere has done well with both the interior renovations and landing bar manager Sean Clarke, a Ranstead Room vet and co-owner of PhailProof Cocktails. He and his team tend the marble counter that runs snug between the imported damask wall paper on one side and plush banquettes that line the bar room’s exposed brick walls. The library-like upstairs lounge is another inviting place to eat a British cheeseboard with inventive cocktails by the candlelit mantle.
I loved the hint of cardamom and chai in Clarke’s Halladay take on an old-fashioned, as well as the nutty roundness of black walnut bitters countering high-proof bourbon in the Black Walnut Manhattan. The Faith Healer was an electric blend of turmeric, lime cordial and gin, both refreshing and restorative.
One day, I’m also going to try the Marta, a peachy amaretto sour that’s the closest thing in this pub to a dessert and was created in honor of Cavaliere’s late grandmother, Marta Menke, for whom the restaurant is named. Family lore says that a black squirrel immediately ran right up to Cavaliere’s mother after Menke’s memorial service: “That was Nanna checking on us to make sure we were OK,” he says.
The motif is wittily echoed inside with a quirky series of portraits of squirrels dressed in Victorian garb painted by former employee, Valerie Hill.
Cavaliere, well-regarded among his peers as a restaurant consultant, has worked with Italian, Mexican, French and Spanish cuisines (he also helped open Amada), but never English fare. So his approach is not always strictly traditional.
Even so, I’d be hard-pressed to start a meal without the briny whiskey jolt of his Oyster Back, a raw bar twist on the popular Pickleback that floods a Cape May Salt on the half shell with pickle mignonette beside a shot of chilled Jameson Irish whiskey. Bracing!
Cavaliere’s take on scrumpets was also intriguing, but our deep-fried pork belly nuggets were far too fatty. I had more luck with the chowder bowl that brought shrimp in a bacony white sauce that was intentionally more creamy gravy than soup. The whipped ricotta with apples, dill, and capers (“a non-composed cheese plate!” says Cavaliere) and the vivid green pea soup were both nods to popular dishes from In Riva. So were the satisfying meatballs, made here with allspice-seasoned duck before they’re simmered in beer and gratinéed with cheddar.
Some of my favorites, though, were less expected. Cavaliere has a talent for composed salads, from a new variation on the warm shrimp salad he originally created for Parc, served here with artichokes and curried bread crumbs, to a mushroom salad that was essentially brothless mushroom barley soup scattered over kale with goat cheese.
Cavaliere has also deftly tapped the Indian-inspired flavors that are popular in contemporary British pubs — especially the tandoori chicken wings, whose Foghorn dredge is amped with a soft vadouvan-style curry. Sumac-dusted yogurt stands in for the usual ranch dip.
The Indian influence is equally compelling in the Black Squirrel’s branzino, butterflied and crisped over a tangy eggplant bharta stew scented with garam masala. I was less impressed by the tikka masala which had a jarring sweet-and-sour sauce for the chicken, and rice that was overpowered by saffron. The goat cheese-ricotta gnocchi, which I’d expect to be great considering In Riva’s kitchen staff is working here, was disappointingly bouncy and noticeably oversalted.
The roast chicken also traveled dangerously close to being overseasoned, but I ultimately savored the intensity of its herbes de Provence crust against the creamy richness of the cauliflower gratin on the side.
This kitchen isn’t perfect. But the infusion of extra staff from In Riva has allowed the Black Squirrel to do something many labor-short restaurants have been unable to achieve: increase hours. The restaurant has expanded to six nights a week and added brunch, when its excellent take on a bubble and squeak veggie-potato patty takes on a rasher of bacon and hollandaise sauce to become a Benedict Arnold.
Perhaps more notable, though, especially for the many neighbors still working from home, is that the Black Squirrel also serves lunch, a Philly rarity lately, even if East Falls has options with LeBus also serving lunch across the street.
There’s one item at the Black Squirrel, though, that I crave for a midday meal: the Sunday roast beef sandwich. Quality top sirloin gets dry-rubbed overnight then roasted rare. It’s then finished to order with a plunge into warm beer-and-onion broth before it sloshes onto a house-baked brioche bun with caramelized onions, Emmentaler cheese, a drizzle of green peppercorn sauce, and a side of horseradish cream.
In a city already saturated with cheesesteaks and burgers, this distinctive sandwich has the magnetic pull of a signature go-to comfort that can be a beefy draw for a neighborhood scene still in the midst of recalibration since Ida’s flood put In Riva out of commission. When Cavaliere’s Italian restaurant eventually does return (assuming that happens), the tasty and intimate pub spirit growing now at the Black Squirrel assures that eating in East Falls will be better than ever for it.
The Black Squirrel Pub & Haunt
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
3749 Midvale Ave., 267-323-2611; blacksquirrelphilly.com
Lunch: Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday 3-10 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Reservations suggested weekends. Vaccination is also required for entry, although policy enforced inconsistently.