Chicken wings, life, and friendship on the table at my final lunch with Bryan Dilworth | Craig LaBan
Bryan Dilworth was the ultimate wing man
I got a call Monday morning that anyone would dread, the news that a good friend had died suddenly. Bryan Dilworth — concert promoter, bon vivant, devoted family man, frequent dinner companion, and formidable destroyer of steamed crabs — was gone at age 51 due to a pulmonary embolism.
How could this be? We had just shared lunch.
I instantly grieved for Bryan’s wife and son, then his massive circle of friends. And since we were about the same age, his passing also made me think not simply about how finite life is, but how each of our precious minutes are spent. I’ve met very few people who lived quite as intensely, as generously, or as joyfully as Bryan Dilworth did.
We were introduced a dozen years ago by a mutual friend who brought him along as a guest on a review meal — and we instantly bonded over the power of good food and became fast friends. Bryan was always up for a spontaneous dining adventure, ravenously hungry, and always seemed to be able to pause whatever major concert deal he was in the middle of wrangling for an opportunity to share lunch or an omakase feast.
I knew Bryan was a big deal in Philly’s music world. But he didn’t brag about it. Our relationship was quite separate from that universe, crafted entirely at the table over years of shared meals.
And you wouldn’t know his mover-shaker status from being around him. Bryan did not sport fancy airs to display any sense of self-importance. He seemed to strive for the opposite effect, showing up to all manner of restaurants in rumpled sweats, a cockeyed Phillies cap, and several days’ worth of scruff.
That’s how he came to dinner with me one night at Bar Volvér, showing up late for a reservation at Jose Garces’ fancy venue in the Kimmel Center. But he had an offer I couldn’t refuse: “I’ve been killing the slot machines at SugarHouse — let’s get some great champagne!”
I’ve been a fan of Bruno Paillard Brut Première Cuvée ever since, but mostly because I shared it with Bryan, who was always generous when he didn’t need to be. His phone lit up perpetually during our meals with texts from acquaintances requesting free tickets to events. He always shrugged like it was no big deal, happy to pass on the perks of his good fortune to others.
While Bryan could fit in with the sophisticates when it was required (we also dined together at Vernick Food & Drink and Hiroki), he was most happy feasting in the down-to-earth corners of Philly’s food scene. The all-you-can-eat crab nights in the private clubs of Port Richmond (as a Marylander, he worshiped crabs). He was all in for a cash-only pizza-hoagie run to Angelo’s Pizzeria South Philly. He even had a signature cheese move at Pat’s Steaks — Whiz on the bottom, American on top — a calculated overload of processed cheese to compensate for any shortcomings in the meat.
Few places, though, were as dear a lunch spot to us as Tasty Place, the subterranean Cantonese kitchen in the back corner of a basement supermarket in Chinatown, where the greatest salt-baked chicken wings in Philly could be found.
Bryan always marveled at the oil drum-sized barrels of MSG stored on the restaurant’s open shelves and once asked the waitress if Tasty Place used any in their cuisine. “Just a little bit!” she said with a wry smile, pinching her fingers in the air. It became one of Bryan’s favorite catchphrases for years to follow whenever he weighed the balance between moderation and indulgence. Indulgence usually won.
So when Tasty Place announced it was closing in January, I knew with whom I needed to share that final meal. We met on short notice, poured the tea, and talked about dumplings, ho fun noodles, music, children, wives, and life, especially the challenge of caring for sick elder parents.
“You know what’s scary,” he told me, “is that once they’re gone we’re next.”
The somber mood instantly turned cheerful, though, when a plate of those chicken wings arrived for the last time, their crackle-fried crusts scattered with chile peppers so fresh they radiated heat. We went silent as we devoured them, methodically stripping the blades clean of juicy flesh with ease until it was just a plate of bones. When we were done, he conceded with genuine melancholy that he was going to miss them, “just a little bit.”
Bryan Dilworth was the ultimate wing man, indeed. But there’s nothing little about the hole he leaves in the lives of those who knew him and had a chance to share his table.