We were heading out to dinner a few weeks ago for a flight of funky latkes, one of my favorite burgers, and a slice of bourbon pecan pie when a neighbor asked our destination.
“We’re going to Fitz and Starts,” I said, watching her blank stare for a few beats before adding, “...the former Hungry Pigeon.”
“Oh,” she said, “didn’t something bad happen at Hungry Pigeon? What was it again?”
Yes, a lot of world history has been compressed into the difficult months since June 2020, when the public’s goodwill for Hungry Pigeon crumbled like an overbaked pastry. The all-day cafe and bakery in Queen Village, until then, had been one Philly’s restaurant darlings. It’s perhaps a sign of our troubled times that some people no longer remember the details.
For the sake of a larger question here — how does a restaurant that’s suffered a major crisis eventually find its way to a new chapter? — let’s refresh the memory:
During the unrest following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Hungry Pigeon’s then-chef and former co-owner, Scott Schroeder, wrote racist, anti-Black comments on social media that lit a fuse of outrage among the restaurant’s staff (many quit), as well as customers and neighbors. Within days, his already strained partnership with baker Pat O’Malley was kaput, the restaurant temporarily closed, and Schroeder essentially disappeared from the local food scene as persona non grata.
O’Malley clearly denounced the comments. But he also took responsibility for being part of a flawed management team that had too long maintained a toxic workplace status quo. And nothing has been status quo since. O’Malley rebooted his restaurant as solo owner a couple weeks later with a pledge to revamp its systems with antiracist goals, going through diversity training with his staff, revising hiring strategies to be more inclusive. They’ve since participated in three rounds of the Bakers Against Racism initiative, raising money for groups like Women Who Never Give Up, Mill Creek Farm and Honeysuckle Projects.
The restaurant was also rebranded in October 2020 as Fitz and Starts. But that was hardly O’Malley’s most important move. That would be his implementing a new service model based on an automatic 20% service charge, as opposed to traditional tips. The change guarantees hourly workers a $15-an-hour minimum base salary, with take-home pay supplemented by those divided service fees, raising pay usually into the mid-$20s. It’s intended to redress pay inequities between the front and the back of the house, and create living-wage stability during an era of inconsistency.
But the system, which raises the earnings floor but also can limit its ceiling, hasn’t been universally appealing to workers during the pandemic’s hypercompetitive job market. O’Malley couldn’t compete with the thousand-dollar signing bonuses demanded by many job candidates last fall. And he couldn’t find a dishwasher for six weeks, meaning that the chef, general manager, and O’Malley took turns in the dish pit.
“The rule book we play by is not everybody’s rule book,” said O’Malley, referring to the inflexibility of his new wage system that prevented him from arbitrarily offering bonuses. “I’ve struggled to make good on [these wage changes] because they’re important. But you don’t get rewarded,” he said recently, sounding discouraged.
And yet, based on my recent revisits, it’s clear that Fitz and Starts has been rewarded indeed by landing talented employees like chef Colin Freeman and pastry chef Laura Carnecchia who buy in, not only to the new pay system, but also to a restaurant built around the integrity of sustainable ingredients, and values reinforced by its recommitment to a more sustainable workplace.
“The tone of the culture made me excited for what we were doing,” said Carnecchia, a former Hungry Pigeon employee who returned to Fitz and Starts to help last summer after O’Malley injured his hand.
Carnecchia, most recently pastry chef at the Franklin Fountain, has taken her baking cues seamlessly from O’Malley, the supremely talented former pastry chef from New York’s Balthazar. This kitchen still produces the most elegant croissants in Philly, their infinitely flaky crusts spiraling around tenderhearted centers of soft pastry lace puffed with buttery steam. The same viennoiserie is used for the apple galettes, the ham-and-cheese-stuffed pithiviers and other croissant variations ribboned with dark Valrhona chocolate or creamy almond paste. The intricately decorated puff pastry wheel of the large Galette des Rois made especially for the Epiphany, stuffed with almond cream and brandied cherries, is a monumental pastry beauty.
But then there are the shortbread cookies, meringues, scones, and any number of seasonal pies I still dream of (from classic apple to that delicious wedge of bourbon pecan). But also the cannelés. The pastries’ fluted copper molds get lined with butter and molten honeycomb so that their rum-splashed custard centers bake inside a caramelized shell that crackles.
My son and I, braving the chill for weekend brunch in the restaurant’s partially enclosed streetery, found that dunking those cannelés into good Ultimo coffee had a deeply warming effect. (The seating inside this cafe’s airy corner dining room remains as cozy as ever, but we’ve been sidling up to outside tables with heaters as much as possible during the omicron surge.)
Freeman’s cooking did the rest. The 27-year-old Long Island native, previously at Kensington Quarters and Zahav, has reveled in the task of turning the best ingredients from local farms into creative comfort food riffs. I can’t resist his cast-iron skillets, like the one in December bearing a dip of sherry-braised collards and cream cheese, or the warm ricotta skillet in January he topped with wild mushrooms and eggs.
There are soulful noodle soups steeped from the bones of Keiser’s Pheasantry chickens, and a white bean soup scented with smoked turkey carcasses from Green Meadow Farm. I loved Freeman’s latke flight for Hanukkah a series of crispy cakes topped with gin-cured salmon, silky chicken liver mousse, and pickled onions, as well as another with tender confit brisket and spicy mustard. It was one of the highlights on Fitz and Starts’ dinner menu, along with a plump Country Time pork chop with crowder peas and long hot agrodolce. But the restaurant unfortunately suspended its nighttime hours in the new year due to business slowing from the omicron surge and the colder weather, combined with the challenges they present to staffing.
Fitz and Starts, which has been through more than its share of actual fits and starts since the pandemic, has decided for now refocus its energies and lean staff on a morning-to-afternoon brunch menu from Thursday through Sunday.
And given the continued strength of this restaurant’s bakery, this kitchen’s virtues are always at their best when accompanied by the house breads and pastries, from the flaky buttermilk biscuits with creamy sausage gravy to the delicate crust that wraps the nutmeg-scented, deep-dish quiche of the day (cauliflower and cheddar at my visit).
A crusty roll was key to the hearty satisfaction of the vegetarian French dip with plancha-roasted Mycopolitan mushrooms and cheese that came alongside a deeply-steeped mushroom broth side that had more umami than 99% of the meaty dips I’ve tasted. The softer, sesame-speckled challah, meanwhile, is essential to the burger, which is classic in its presentation. But top that fresh roll with a Green Meadow Farm beef patty (which carries a savory tug of dry-aged complexity), spicy pickles, special sauce, and grass-fed Lancaster cheddar, and it adds up to one of the best burgers in Philly. Freeman turns it up for a breakfast version with bacon marmalade and a fried egg.
The current menu is, by necessity, a bit more pared-down than it was during the busier, warmer months — a reflection of the seasonal fluctuations now baked with both consternation and resignation into the business rhythms of pandemic restaurant life.
But continued attention to the details that elevate familiar comforts like that burger, or those consistently spectacular croissants, or the breads that make each breakfast platter sing, is crucial to Fitz and Starts’ success. The cafe’s steady presence as a vibrant hub for handmade daily sustenance and genuine hospitality has been essential in its quest to regain the trust of its community. The offending co-owner may be long gone. And O’Malley has clearly poured his heart into remaking the culture of his restaurant. But institutions like restaurants must also overcome the long fallout from a crisis through sustained efforts, even when details are forgotten. Both O’Malley and his staff humbly acknowledge much progress remains to be achieved.
Has it been enough to redeem a fresh reset for this restaurant? I believe Fitz and Starts has shown its determination to change boldly, despite the pandemic’s unrelenting challenges, along with a steady commitment to craft that remains special in Philadelphia. The real verdict, though, and this cafe’s sustained success, is ultimately up to its community.
Fitz and Starts
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
743 S. Fourth St., 215-278-2736; fitzandstartsphilly.com
Brunch served Thursday through Friday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner hours are temporarily suspended.
Brunch dishes, $7-$18. A 20% “One Fair Wage” service charge is automatically applied to every bill in lieu of tipping.