When it opens next month at 10th and Filbert Streets with Justin Townes Earle playing the first show, City Winery will immediately become a rarity in Philadelphia.
It’s not just that New York entrepreneur Michael Dorf’s upscale urban listening room and restaurant will also be a winery, making its own vino from California grapes (as well as serving other booze and beer).
It’s that City Winery Philadelphia is something that you’d think you’d see more of, but don’t: a Center City music venue.
Dorf, the 57-year-old City Winery founder who made his name in the 1980s with the Manhattan venue the Knitting Factory, says the Philly locale will put on as many as 10 shows a week, ranging from adult-oriented rock and acoustic folk to hip hop-flavored R&B, comedy, and podcast events.
City Winery is opening on Sept. 19, along with with fellow tenants in Fashion District Philadelphia, the shiny new update of the East Market Street shopping mall formerly known as The Gallery. But while the multi-story Winery will be open for drink and food on that date, Americana songwriter Earle won’t play the 350-seat venue (there will be no standing) until Sept. 30.
From there, a busy schedule begins, with shows happening in both the downstairs main room and upstairs in the 150-capacity the Loft, whose patrons also will all be seated.
Among the notables of the fall season: two shows by singer-songwriter Raheem DeVaughn on October 18; Old 97’s songwriter Rhett Miller on Oct. 23; Chester, Pa., singer-pianist Avery*Sunshine on Oct. 27; Lubbock, Texas, legends The Flatlanders on Nov. 16; Detroit soul singer Dwele on Nov. 30; Chicano should-be Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Los Lobos on Dec. 15 and 16; and Philly neo-soul vocalist Musiq Soulchild on Dec. 26.
Opening in Philadelphia was a logical step for City Winery, says Dorf, who spoke from his New York office, just as the venue’s lower Manhattan location was getting ready to close this week. The New York venue is being forced to vacate its Hudson Square location after Disney bought the block on which the club is located. (The venue is set to reopen at Pier 57 in Manhattan next year; in the meantime, its table and chairs will be repurposed in Philly.)
“We’re looking at population density and cultural affinity,” says Dorf, whose upcoming book, Indulge Your Senses, has a title that’s also the City Winery company motto. “Music, museums, just a gravitation towards consuming culture. And when you see the success Live Nation has had with the Fillmore in Fishtown and the development in the city in general, you see it’s a strong, growing music city.”
Besides New York, the company has locations in Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Nashville, and Chicago. Promoters increasingly book concert tours en masse — the Rolling Stones’ No Filter tour, for instance, was handled in its entirety by AEG Live, the nation’s second-biggest promoter in the U.S., behind Live Nation. Many locales for City Winery allows for the exclusive booking of multi-city residency tours.
The venue’s talent buyer is Christianna LaBuz, who has spent a decade in the local market booking shows for Live Nation and World Cafe Live — the Philadelphia venue that most resembles City Winery in the size of its two rooms and its emphasis on creature comforts.
Five acts playing this fall are on City Winery-exclusive tours — Los Lobos and Sunshine, plus Matt Wertz (Oct. 1), Eric Hutchinson (Oct. 12), and Edwin McCain (Nov. 12). The venue will be partnering with local radio stations, she says, including WMMR-FM (93.3), who are presenting “Missing You” singer John Waite on Oct. 13, and WXPN-FM (88.5).
Last year, British songwriter Joan Armatrading, who rarely tours, played 30 shows at six City Wineries. “We could give her a guarantee of $700,000, which is not inconsequential," Dorf says. "And a guarantee of comfort and predictability, which is important to her.”
Paying more attention to the comfort of concertgoers is a trend that’s manifested itself in Philadelphia venues, from small clubs like pioneering Fishtown gastropub Johnny Brenda’s and midsize venues like World Cafe Live and Union Transfer, to larger spaces like the Fillmore and The Met Philadelphia.
Dorf founded City Winery in 2009, more than two decades after he first got into the business with the Knitting Factory, which had an edgier, experimental vibe.
Back then, he recalls, “I wanted adventurous, alternative sounds. I didn’t mind standing and I was really looking for beer. I was looking for Jack Kerouac-wannabe New York adventures.”
City Winery, Dorf says, reflected his changing taste. “I wanted to sit for the concert, not stand. I want to be intimate with the performance.” He also wanted to be able to have dinner while seeing the show, to “consolidate the cultural experience.”
That cultural experience is facilitated by the venue’s Vinofile club, which caters to frequent customers, offering them early access to tickets and the option to sit in a favored seat.
City Winery shows tend to be over by 10:30 p.m., says Shlomo Lipetz, the company’s vice president in charge of programming (and a member of the Israeli national baseball team). Drinks and dinner from a Mediterranean-inspired menu — chef Jason Heim is a Philly native, formerly at City Winery Nashville — are served through the evening, which Dorf admits can be an issue in a venue that aims to be a listening room.
He says the staff is up to the challenge, with every employee armed with a copy of Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer’s book Setting The Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. More than 65% of the liquor sold is wine, an uncharacteristically high number for a concert venue. Another City Winery feature: assigned seating.
City Winery will be in potential conflict with the World Cafe Live, but also many other venues around Philadelphia and its outskirts. Various acts on the initial calendar have in the last year played the Keswick Theater, Ardmore Music Hall, and The Locks at Sona in Manayunk, among others.
“Will there be some cannibalization?” says Dorf. “Of course. That’s just the way it is. But will more acts also play Philadelphia? Yes, absolutely.
"For one thing, Philadelphia is growing. And I think we pull people back in to see shows … We do a lot of marketing to an audience that might read Wine Spectator, who doesn’t have the BandsInTown app to tell them Graham Nash is coming through. How do you get to that audience that’s 75 years old and hasn’t seen a show in 10 years? We’re pretty good at expanding the pie.”