More than its bar: Bok grows up with multiple food businesses
The Bok has overcome many early concerns to become a thriving neighborhood spot and food hub.
First impressions can be unforgiving.
Lindsey Scannapieco isn’t in denial about the rough beginning of the Bok Building’s stunning transformation from shuttered public school to ambitious space for entrepreneurs and creative artisans. To many, however, it first appeared to simply be a giant rooftop Bok Bar with a skyline view.
“The framing wasn’t great,” she concedes.
Scannapieco’s referring to 2014, when her development company, Scout Ltd., bought the shuttered Edward W. Bok Technical High School from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission — and then, within a month of getting the keys, put a beer garden on the roof that drew 30,000 visitors in 22 days. The protests were loud and angry. Opponents said this blocklong colossus of deco architecture towering over South Philadelphia at Ninth and Mifflin was becoming a monument to clueless gentrification. “I totally see how those assumptions came about,” she said.
Not all concerns have been resolved. Like the added traffic for a punk rock flea market, for example. But five years later, it’s time to reconsider the positive value of Bok’s impact as a growing community hub, especially as new public-facing food businesses have come online within the building: a legit barbecue pit in South Philly Smökhaus; a serious coffee shop with Two Persons; and Irwin’s, a rooftop bar and Mediterranean restaurant. Along with the building’s many other nonfood tenants, they have helped it to begin to finally realize its full potential as a more enriching and public-engaging reuse of a former school than, say, a giant condo complex.
In fact, Scannapieco used the brash success of the Bok Bar’s first DIY season to leverage financing for Scout’s more holistic vision for the property. And it has flourished, now with an impressively varied roster of 140 tenants ranging from woodworkers to jewelers to furniture makers, rooftop yoga classes, and nonprofits like CAGE, a Khmer American dance group, and the Garces Foundation, which runs ESL classes.
About 75 percent of those businesses are owned by South Philly residents, and 48 percent are owned by women, including Katie Lynch and Emily Riddell, two veterans of Le Bec-Fin who’ve partnered at the Machine Shop Boulangerie, a wholesale bakery whose flaky vienoisserie has become in demand at local cafes (don’t miss the kouign-amanns). A caterer, Miles Table, has set up shop there. So has chef Shola Olunloyo for his private Studio Kitchen dinners. A kombucha producer, Inspired Brews, recently opened a large production facility.
The Bok is by no means in a food desert. And many of the neighborhood’s excellent Mexican restaurants, like La Virgin de las Nieves across the street, are frequented by the 300 people who work at the Bok. But the addition of new restaurants inside the Bok has enhanced its role as an accessible neighborhood amenity rather than attempt to redefine its surroundings.
But good coffee? Not much around there until barista Adam Gery and architect Whitney Joslin opened Two Persons Coffee, grinding Passenger beans from Lancaster in a wire mesh cage on the ground floor where the auto shop’s tool room once stood.
“We were desperate for good coffee. I’m not going to lie,” Scannapieco said.
And so the Bok these days is finally perking, and moving forward, well beyond the first impressions of its bar.
South Philadelphia Smökhaus
Among the Bok Building’s best traits is its developer’s knack for giving first-time business owners a chance to realize their entrepreneurial and artistic dreams. Eric Daelhousen, 34, spent nearly a decade crunching numbers in accounting and finance for Aramark, but his true passion place was at the smoker. And South Philadelphia Smökhaus, the result of a his recent career shift, is not simply a clever new life for the former auto-body shop behind the roll-up garage doors on the Dudley Street side of this onetime vocational school — it’s a worthy new player among the city’s welcome surge of serious barbecue options.
And Smökhaus happens to be one of the best. I first tasted Daelhousen’s 'cue at a Winter Fare pop-up market in the Bok a year ago, when he was handing out free chicken wings as a preview of his coming project. That morsel was enough to catch my attention. It was so deeply imbued with a smoky savor that I eagerly awaited his debut in the fall. And I haven’t been disappointed by the bark-crusted slabs of oak-smoked beef, pork, and poultry that have followed.
The casual space itself is a montage of Bok-centric collaborations. The room’s industrial concrete bones were reimagined by Toner Architects. Its open-kitchen counter is adorned with a butcher block crafted in the building by woodworker Brian Christopher of Bicyclette Furniture. Glass lampshades were blown from whiskey bottles by Remark Glass; wall textures were created by Done & Dusted. Interior design work was by Daelhousen’s wife, Wendee, who owns Nuance Jewelry, also in the Bok. Smökhaus serves kombuchas from Inspired Brews and bread from Machine Shop for its sandwiches. Even the prime-grade meats come from just a few feet away: Passio Prime Meats, a butcher counter operated by Giunta’s from the Reading Terminal Market that shares Smökhaus’ space.
On sunny weekend days, with vintage jazz in the air and light streaming through the glass garage-door walls onto the country tables, Smökhaus and its counter-service operation are an irresistibly laid-back and aromatic welcome to those arriving for one of the building’s occasional markets.
Berks County-born Daelhousen is self-taught, and his style roams through various regions, depending on the cut of the meat. But on the whole, his approach is minimalist, with simple seasonings and the rustic magic of a slow ride through the sweet oak smoke of his eight-food “stick burner” with the occasional cider spritz. No electric-powered, steam-smoker shortcuts here.
As a result, the meats still have the integrity of a little chew (perhaps a little too much for the burnt ends in his pit beans). But they also deliver deeply satisfying flavors, with vivid pink smoke halos that trace like lipstick beneath peppery black crusts. The richly marbled short ribs alone are worth the trip. But, then, so is the tender pulled pork, which comes piled by the pound on your tray, or posed in pretty pink plumes atop mustardy deviled eggs.
The brisket is excellent, too, though I remember it most fondly whipped into the smoky creamed chipped beef served over toast at brunch (my current vote for most delicious ugly food), and also mingled with molten cheddar for a sandwich special. I appreciated the smoked chicken salad sandwich for something “lighter." Meanwhile, here’s another sandwich not to miss: a double-decker club of thin-sliced pit beef layered with lettuce, tomato, house-bacon, and horseradish sauce. It’s called the Bevy, after pit beef-loving friend Bev Beaulieu, a jewelry designer who owns Bevy of Objects, which also happens to be in the Bok. Of course.
SOUTH PHILADELPHIA SMÖKHAUS
Bok Building, 821 Dudley St. entrance, 215-309-3549; southphillysmokhaus.com
Eric Daelhousen has gone from amateur smoker to professional pit boss at this casual-but-serious BBQ destination in the former auto-body shop of South Philly’s onetime vocational high school. The industrial bones of the sunny ground-floor space have been preserved, though the counter-service vibe — with meats sliced by the pound onto metal trays and communal wood tables for dining — draws on conventions of next-gen BBQ spots from Fishtown to Brooklyn. There are some fun sandwiches here and brunch variations, but the oak-smoked quality meats are the stars; purist in approach with simple seasonings, but gifted with thick barks, deep flavors, and vivid pink halos from hours in the smoker.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Smoked meats: short rib; brisket; pulled pork; chicken wings; spare ribs. Deviled eggs with pulled pork; the Bevy sandwich; beef n’ cheddar sandwich; smoked chicken salad sandwich; creamed smoked chipped beef brunch special.
BYOB Saturday visits from various guest brewers have been a nice weekend draw; otherwise, bring your own.
WEEKEND NOISE A good soundtrack ranges through bluesy, jazzy tunes, but never gets too loud for conversation — or eavesdropping on neighbors at the community table.
IF YOU GO Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Smoked meats, $11-$23 a pound. Sandwiches, $9-$13.
All major cards.
Reservations only for parties of 10 or more.
Wheelchair accessible. Wheelchair accessibility to building from Mifflin Street entrance.
Free parking in Southwark School lot on weekends and evenings between 5 and 11 p.m., across Mifflin Street.
The elevator ride to Irwin’s begins in a fluorescent-lighted hallway of the former high school and rumbles up to the eighth floor, where the doors open onto the amber glow of a grand chandelier that sets the tone for another dimension. On the north side of that lobby is the entrance to the al fresco party deck that is the Bok Bar (currently closed for the season). Irwin’s sits on the opposite side, behind open French doors like the Bok Bar’s somewhat grown-up sibling, a mellow year-round cocktail bar and restaurant for a pleasant sit-down meal in what looks like the artfully scavenged living room of a squatter’s loft.
The entire seventh and eighth floors of the former vocational high school were sealed off for decades before the school closed (due to fire code violations) and were reopened by its current owners (now with a proper sprinkler system). Irwin’s occupies the more spacious room on the south side of the building, and the bones of this former nursing classroom proved to be a ready stage for designer Kate Rohrer of Rohe Creative to craft a seductive, edgy space. The white-tiled walls were left as-is, still amply tagged with graffiti. Paint is still chipping off the concrete ceilings. But with vintage rugs on the floor, a shelving unit from the old chemistry lab repurposed as the bar, cushy leather banquettes, a dramatic gold curtain, big communal tables relocated from the art room, plush club chairs and potted palms now framing the expansive view of South Philly and its stadium lights, the mood for transformation has been set. And the largely youthful crowd has embraced it — some at the table behind us toting their post-workout yoga mats — eager for rooftop libations and mezze.
Executive chef and partner Paul Garberson, 36, came to Philly to seriously pursue rowing at the Undine Barge Club, then worked in real estate before transitioning into a culinary career at Fitler Dining Room and Trattoria Carina. He’s channeling Middle Eastern flavors here on a menu of small plates and “a little bit larger” portions, which top out reasonably at $18 for crisped fingers of sliced branzino posed over saffron rice sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and preserved lemon gremolata.
A trip to Istanbul provided inspiration for many of the bites here: yogurt-sauced manti dumplings in chili oil; a duo of kofta lamb meatballs (one spicy; the other milder with pine nuts and herbs); a pile of mussels whose intentionally closed shells are stuffed with cinnamon-scented rice that would have been as satisfying as they were surprising had they been a few degrees hotter. Likewise, I would have loved the seared halloumi with Champagne-pickled apricots if the cheese still been warm and oozy by the time it arrived.
Irwin’s — named for Philadelphia School District architect Irwin T. Catharine, who designed the Bok in 1936 — has arrived at the tail end of a recent wave of updated Mediterranean concepts. Its menu is geared more toward grazing than large-plate features, so it toes the line between cocktail bar and restaurant without ever quite committing to all-in dining.
Though Garberson’s interpretations show a bit less finesse than, say, Suraya or Spice Finch, his veg-forward Grand Mezze still is a satisfying way to unwind with friends over a sharing board laden with flavorful bites. There were airy carrot and feta fritters with a garlicky toum dip, za’atar-dusted almonds, sweet and tangy walnut-pepper ezme salad, deep-fried castelvetrano olives, colorful pickles, a chunky, lightly smoked baba ghanoush, and a lemony hummus that recurs in multiple cameos across the menu. It’s on the thinner side. But I preferred it on a separate dish topped with tender shreds of confit chicken, pine nuts, and roasted eggplant.
This is deeply savory food intended to foster drinking, and Irwin’s bar obliges with a solid list of Mediterranean wines by the glass sourced from the South of France to Georgia and Turkey; a small but crafty handful of good beers (Victory, Tripel Karmeliet); and an appealing offering of modified classic cocktails, from a citrusy Cognac-spiked sidecar to a list of old-fashioned variations like the nutty Irwin’s scented with walnut bitters and sweetened by honey. As with the food menu, some fine-tuning was needed — a slightly flat sparkling wine in the French 75; too much lime pucker in the Black Honey. The coffee — an oversteeped, not-hot-enough French press of mediocre Peet’s beans — also could have been improved.
Such flaws are a relatively easy fix for a new place that already does some of the hardest things right. The element of surprise. The creative leap of transforming a graffiti-scrawled shell of a room into an actual destination. And for those who take that elevator ride up to eighth floor, the evocative food, drink, warm service, and design do enough of the rest for Irwin’s to succeed in helping us to see the city a little differently.
Bok Building, 800 Mifflin St. entrance, 215-693-6206; irwinsupstairs.com
Gaze across South Philly from eight floors up in a once-abandoned school building with a craft cocktail in hand and a Mediterranean mezze board for sharing. Irwin’s is the mellow, grown-up cocktail bar antidote to the boisterous Bok Bar across the hall, and chef Paul Garberson is just scratching the potential of this restaurant with his modern interpretations of Middle Eastern flavors. There’s room for fine-tuning on many of the dishes, as well as some of the drinks. But the flavors overall were good, and the sensation of dining and drinking in this former classroom — its graffiti-tagged walls now framed in gold curtains — offers a unique view of the city that should be experienced. Warm weather brings the patio crowds.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Grand mezze platter; ezme; carrot fritters; crispy olives; baba ghanoush; za’tar almonds; halloumi; lamb kofta two ways; hummus and confit chicken; sea bass; manti; stuffed mussels; salted tahini brownie; baklava.
DRINKS Classic cocktails are given light updates, with a special attention to old-fashioned variations, like the Irwin’s, which draws sweetness from honey and a vivid nuttiness from walnut bitters. There’s a relatively affordable selection of wines by the glass, with an emphasis on Mediterranean bottles from the South of France to Greece and Turkey. For beer drinkers, the selection is small but crafty, with reliable names, like Tripel Karmeliet, Hitichino Nest, and Victory.
WEEKEND NOISE Lively but manageable for conversation.
IF YOU GO Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Closed Monday.
Plates, $11-$18 (average two to three per person.)
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially on weekends.
Wheelchair accessible. Call ahead for assistance to enter building.
Free parking in Southwark School lot on weekends and evenings between 5 and 11 p.m.