Bourbon Blue, which helped usher in a new era in Manayunk when it opened by the Manayunk Canal in late 2002, has closed, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that also claimed the nearby Mad River Bar & Grill two weeks ago.
Owner Brendan McGrew, who started as one of the New Orleans-theme spot’s first line cooks, segued into front-of-house management in 2005, and bought it from Sean Coyle in 2009, told his 29 employees last week. Given the pandemic’s destruction of the restaurant industry, it was a conversation that some saw coming, but it still was emotional “because we’re a family,” he said.
Bourbon Blue had been doing takeout and deliveries since the start of the government-ordered shutdown in March.
“I was looking at the reopening models coming out of this situation, and it just couldn’t work,” said McGrew, 39, who ran Bourbon Blue with his girlfriend, Melissa Gregory, whom he met at the restaurant 11 years ago when she was a customer and he was general manager.
McGrew said he thought they had turned the corner last year when the Small Business Administration loan was repaid.
About 40% of Bourbon Blue’s $2 million annual revenue came from events. At 50% occupancy — when the restaurant is eventually allowed to reopen — the numbers would not make sense. Even when outdoor dining is permitted, Bourbon Blue’s 860-square-foot deck would be able to accommodate only 12 people. Despite takeout and off-site catering, “there’s too much to lose to make it financially," he said. “Personally, yes, it sucks, but Melissa and I will be able to rebound and find ourselves in a better place.”
Manayunk’s retail and nightlife scenes soared from the mid-1980s through the 1990s with restaurants such as Jake’s, Thomas’, Kansas City Prime, and Sonoma finding fortune during a massive private redevelopment of its sleepy, largely vacant Main Street.
Manayunk became a victim of its own success, however. Longtime residents complained about assorted issues, notably parking. In 1997, City Council imposed a five-year moratorium on new restaurants along Main Street and its side streets.
Bourbon Blue, set up in a circa-1815 stone building that was once a mill that supplied cotton for Union uniforms during the Civil War, was the first major restaurant to follow the moratorium.
But while Manayunk eventually picked up some, it lost much of its cache and momentum as nightlife entrepreneurs turned their energies to other neighborhoods downtown, chiefly Old City. Then mainly a daytime commercial district, Old City attracted such destinations as Buddakan (1998) and Cuba Libre (2000).