The dinner crowd is bustling at Cherry Hill’s Farm & Fisherman Tavern on a summer weeknight, so much so that you may need to jockey for a perch at the bar. Once secured, it provides a front-row seat to one of the most interesting bar programs in the Philadelphia region, found in a South Jersey strip-mall gem.
Fresh garnishes spill out of pint glasses along the bar, progressing from expected to surprising: celery sticks, basil and sage sprigs, carrot tops, elderflower blooms, juniper, wormwood, purple shiso, and papalo — an herbal nod to Farm & Fisherman staffers who hail from Puebla, Mexico, where the cilantro-like plant is essential in cemita sandwiches. At F&F, papalo flavors La Poblanita, a blend of tequila, mezcal, poblano syrup, lime, and salt that’s as bright, piquant, and balanced as salsa verde. An almond-shaped papalo leaf floats atop the ice cube that chills the drink.
“Poblanita!” a regular exclaims when a visitor from across the bridge orders one. “I’ve had about nine of them over three days. That’s different. You take a sip of that and...,” he scrunches his face in a pensive look. “You have to think about it?” Exactly.
That thought-provoking theme threads through F&F’s drinks menu, crafted by bar manager Danny Childs, a soft-spoken, academic Delco native who’s drawn inspiration from his and others’ personal histories as well as the local and seasonal agenda that informs the eight-year-old restaurant’s food. Many of the ingredients and garnishes for the bar are supplied by the burgeoning garden in the parking lot behind the mall complex on Marlton Pike, and he forages for others (think spruce tips, staghorn sumac, and black walnuts) in the wilds of South Jersey.
I think that at the heart of everything behind the bar is a botanical ingredient. Whether it’s amaro or agave or tequila or barley or corn or juniper or what have you, at the heart of it always is a plant and the process.
If you know all that’s behind Childs’ elaborately constructed cocktails — a pisco sour spiked with a pawpaw shrub, a martini made with vodka that’s been fat-washed with tomato leaf oil, a chicory-and-radicchio root “coffee” cocktail riff on an espresso martini — they might seem more at home in a trendy Philly boîte. (Indeed, those three numbers paired perfectly at a recent sold-out collaboration dinner at East Passyunk’s River Twice.)
But Childs knows how to soft-pedal, too; you can spot his fingerprints on easy-drinking F&F cocktails like the strawberry-infused sazerac, a cucumber-basil twist on a Pimm’s Cup, or a chamomile-tinged rye daisy.
“That’s a delicate balance, and one that I think we’ve taken a few years to really iron out, how to not make it too avant-garde but make it fun and approachable and the most important thing is delicious,” Childs says of the tavern’s ever-changing drinks list. “The response has been better than I really could have ever expected.”
It’s easy to gloss over details that make those simpler drinks singular: the “garden absinthe” in the sazerac, distilled from wormwood, bronze fennel, and angelica flowers grown in the cocktail garden; the house-fermented ginger beer in the Garden Cup, the first of many homemade soda recipes Childs has developed; the fall ‘19 amaro, flavored by foraged botanicals, that balances out maple syrup’s sweetness in the rye daisy.
Childs doesn’t hit patrons over the head with those little things (unless they ask). The brevity of the drink descriptions on the menu belies the copious notes he has on each one. But he and his fellow bartenders do lean into the local angle to reel in skeptics. They tell customers if their beverage’s blackberries came from down the road or if its garnishes were picked from the garden out back.
“You have this opportunity to introduce people to these things that are hidden in plain sight, oftentimes in their literal backyards, that taste incredible,” he says. “It’s more work — definitely more work — but the result is, I think, something that’s really engaging and interesting to people. You know, to taste a pawpaw or elderflower or black walnut nocino.”
Childs has been interested in plants and how people use them since childhood. He didn’t have too many opportunities for foraging in Clifton Heights, where he lived through middle school, but his grandfather and an uncle, whom he characterizes as “almost naturalists,” encouraged that interest. By the time he was in college at University of Delaware, majoring in premed and minoring in Spanish, he was cultivating a dream: to study how Indigenous populations use plants. His roommate suggested he explore anthropology, a path that eventually led him to South America, where he studied medicinal plants used by the Shipibo-Conibo people in the Peruvian Amazon, the Atacameño people in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and the Mapuche in Chile and Argentina.
“The village medicine men or women that I was working with would take me out and they would forage and show me, ‘We use this for diabetes and this if you have a fever, or this if you have a cough or skin infection.’ Of course there’s magical connotations and shamanic uses for all of these plants as well.’
“I just was endlessly fascinated with it,” Childs says. “I thought that that was going to be pretty much the rest of my life, doing research and field work down there.” Little did he know fate had a different southern clime in mind.
He took a gap year after graduating to live and backpack around the continent; he planned to return to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D program that would further his ethnobotany studies. To earn money beforehand, he worked at an Irish pub in Newark, where he met his now-wife, Katie, as well as Chickie’s & Pete’s in Drexel Hill. The industry gigs came in handy not long after, while Childs was living in Santiago, Chile, in 2013. A couple of friends in his apartment complex were opening a restaurant, La Casa de la Luna Azul, and traded him room and board to launch the bar program — something he wasn’t qualified for, per se, but for which he had total confidence. “This was young-20s naivete,” he says.
Chile’s bartending culture fuses its own agricultural bounty with pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes and techniques and European traditions, too. Amaro made in the style of German and Italian counterparts relies on Chilean botanicals. Fresh juices, herbs, and produce are essential. The first drink Childs learned to make there was a pisco sour with fresh citrus and egg white — at the time, a totally foreign concept to him.
“I didn’t realize it then, but really we were doing things that now I couldn’t imagine not doing,” he says.
Childs returned to South Jersey in 2014 to apply to med school. He and Katie reconnected with a friend whose family owned a Christmas tree farm in Marlton, and the couple wound up spending nine months living in a military tent there. (“Some people say glamping, but there’s very little glam about it,” Childs says.) In between studying, he began farming and foraging. It was the first time he started to look at South Jersey through the same lens he had brought to his work in South America.
“I was there living in this space that was dotted with farmland and meadow and forest. That’s sort of where I got into foraging and trying to figure out what grows here, which never was really something I thought about.”
The Marlton farming project didn’t pan out as he had hoped, but Childs went on to work at Urban Roots Farm in Newtown Square and at Plowshare Farms in Bucks County. By early 2015, he needed to make some extra money. He landed a side job as a server at Farm & Fisherman, which Joshua Lawler and Todd Fuller had opened in Cherry Hill in 2013 as an offshoot to Lawler’s Washington Square West BYOB. Eventually, his two work worlds started to meld.
This is when Childs started experimenting with botanically inspired drinks in earnest. He used ají dulce peppers to make cocktails for his fellow farm workers; he brewed ginger beer for the first time (the yeast culture for it still lives in his basement). Thoughts of going back to school started to fade as Lawler and Fuller directed more attention to the tavern’s bar program.
“Once they suggested moving me to the bar, it was a very natural fit. I could have my hands in botany and the professional restaurant world at the same time,” he says. “I didn’t know that it was as logical of an intersection as it is, but I think that at the heart of everything behind the bar is a botanical ingredient. Whether it’s amaro or agave or tequila or barley or corn or juniper or what have you, at the heart of it always is a plant and the process.”
Since then, Childs’ passion has taken literal root in the four-year-old garden growing behind the tavern. He and a fellow bartender started various seeds in six beds. The project has since grown to 15 beds, almost crowding out a communal space for F&F employees that’s made cozy with picnic benches and string lights. None of the restaurant’s neighbors minded them working the otherwise fallow land. (They do share turnips with a Korean restaurant in the mall.)
“We’re flanked on each side by a physical rehab facility and a dry cleaner, and we exist in this little magical restaurant space between them,” Childs says, walking through the garden, identifying the cocktail-destined crops coming up: Jenny Lind melons, Bradford watermelons, lemongrass, hibiscus, hops, huacatay, epazote, papalo, Koginut squash.
Farther back, beyond some dumpsters, there’s a wild mulberry tree that supplies berries through spring and early summer. Around the bend, near a gym, he’s found staghorn sumac, mugwort, wisteria, pine, and juniper. Where Childs sees botanical treasures, anyone else might see weeds and shrubs. He points out a crabapple tree that makes a fine cocktail shrub and pickled garnish come fall.
“We got a whole bunch back here,” he says. “You would never think it.”
Farm & Fisherman Tavern, 1442 Marlton Pike East, Cherry Hill, N.J., 856-356-2282, fandftavern.com, Tue.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.