The East Falls bridge was just ahead, so I shifted into a higher gear. On weekday mornings, when I usually don’t have time for a longer ride, that’s my cue to cross the river and pedal back to Center City. But not today. Not with a date for a breakfast sandwich and an old friend awaiting me at the Landing Kitchen. So I kept pedaling on past that bridge, up, up and around into Manayunk.
I ride my bike regularly along the Schuylkill River Trail, where another beautiful side of the city often reveals itself to me. Every time I pedal farther, the river with its undulating contours, seems to offer a new secret.
As I cross the Pencoyd footbridge, located in the parking lot beside the Regal movie theater, the latest revelation appears on the other side of the Schuylkill: a relic of the region’s industrial DNA reborn as a riverside oasis for avocado toast, cocktails, and bocce. Where once stood the smoke-belching hulk of the Pencoyd Iron Works is now a lush hideaway for brunch and leisure with an expansive terrace anchored by a Residence Inn and the Landing Kitchen. The all-day cafe’s blue umbrellas provide shade beneath the rusted steel girders that trace the old factory’s remains.
You can arrive by car to this complex on the Bala Cynwyd side of the river, and there is ample parking around the hotel and nearby sporting clubs. But the serene Lost City effect is heightened if you approach by foot or bike from Manayunk.
It snuck up on chef Nicholas Elmi and Fia Berisha, too. The Top Chef champ and his business partner, formerly at Fishtown’s Aether and Mistral in King of Prussia, initially intended to consult for Penn Group developer Donna Galvin, with plans for a simple ground-floor cafe with coffee and sandwiches plus an upscale restaurant for the hotel’s top floor called Lark, a Mediterranean seafooder still planned for early fall.
But they quickly realized the greater potential of this site, signed on as managing operators, and the Landing took on more ambitious goals to serve breakfast, lunch, and light weekend dinners as a breezy community hub. It’s particularly well-suited to the fair weather, though there is an indoor dining room with roll-up windows and the outdoor fire pits and heaters will be ablaze for fall. It’s a concept that has already been met with enthusiasm, with as many as 800 people passing through on a busy day — all tended to by a chipper young staff of food runners, baristas, and cheerful managers that keep the counter service operation flowing nicely.
Elmi is best known for cutting edge haute cuisine at his tiny Laurel and the updated brasserie fare of Royal Boucherie (where he’s no longer a partner). His focus at the Landing is far less precious, but well-suited to the setting — and also well done. And with chef Mike Millon, formerly of A Mano, working behind the scenes on both the Landing and Lark, they’re producing polished renditions of familiar favorites that are excellent considering the volume.
“We have people who show up for a breakfast sandwich, plug in to work all morning, stay for a lunch salad, continue to work through the afternoon, grab a canned cocktail, and then hit the road,” says Elmi.
For the morning meal, it’s hard to go wrong with either sandwich. The heavy-duty Ironworker, with three thick slices of crisply fried Taylor pork roll layered with a runny fried egg, cheese, and preserved green tomatoes on a sweet potato bun, is a Berisha favorite (She hails from Central Jersey, the land of pork roll.) I was partial to the Landing’s signature, a fluffy blanket of fresh scrambled egg folded over a Philly muffin with Cooper Sharp cheese and a house chicken-maple sausage drizzled with the zing of a jalapeño-tomatillo salsa verde. I considered that a proper reward for the 6-mile ride out.
Merzbacher’s brioche makes a fine French toast, with berries and real Vermont maple syrup. And for a lighter start, there is a bowl of pepita-heavy house granola with yogurt. The Landing could not keep up with early ambitions to make all its own pastries, but offers fine options with viennoiserie from Au Fournil and vegan baked goods from Manayunk’s Crust, plus excellent bagels from Original Bagel in Broomall.
But I was also smitten with the Landing’s toasts, slices of good Baker Street sourdough cooked on the plancha to a buttery crisp, then topped with folds of good smoked salmon, cream cheese, dill, and capers, or the inevitable smashed avocado toast (”I know it’s passé but I feel good eating it,” says Elmi). It hits next-level flavors with spicy citrus dabs of yuzu kosho pepper paste and a veritable snow of shaved ricotta salata.
Toast options are a part of this nibble-centric menu that bridge all three meals, with a more savory prosciutto toast, whose supple pink sheets unfurl over a sweet schmear of house quince puree, my choice for an afternoon snack.
By the midday hours, as the picnic tables fill with larger groups ready to graze with their dogs in tow — my Great Dane puppy, Buttercup, included, lapping-up every drop of adulation from the staff, along with her cool water bowl — the menu expands.
I couldn’t resist the house pickles, especially the sweet-tart crunch of bread-and-butter sunchokes. The grain bowl was another example of a familiar dish done particularly well, its blend of wild rice, quinoa, and freekeh infused with flavor before they’re tossed in a lemon tahini vinaigrette with shaved veggies and whole herbs that manages not to become a tiresome chore to chew by the time you’re halfway done. Add a roasted chicken breast, and that’s a healthy meal.
Then again, the Landing’s indulgences are also hard to resist. The TLK burger is a juicy double stack of 3-ounce patties with spicy mayo and pickles on a well-crisped Merzbacher’s sweet potato bun that reminded me vaguely of the old Royal Boucherie’s burger beauty.
But there are other temptations, too. The Cubano pressed with Swiss cheese, chowchow, and ham on a ciabatta is highlighted by thick slices of pork belly confit in duck fat. And then there is the fried chicken sandwich, an outstandingly crisp, double-fried breast dusted with paprika and ranch seasoning topped with fresno pepper aioli for zing. The sheer crust, juicy flesh and flavor combo should rank it on anyone’s list of top Philly chicken sandwiches.
Crack open some of the festive and colorful canned cocktails created by Berisha in collaboration with Fishtown’s Walktails, and it’s easy to see — as I sipped through the mezcal smoke and strawberry juice of the Desert Flower, the fuchsia-hued pea leaf and gin brew of Purple Rain, and the dangerously quaffable hibiscus margarita — how lunch beside the river here can effortlessly slide into an afternoon layover, as the thump of bean bags lading against cornhole boards in the background increases with inviting frequency.
It’s enough to make you want to linger into the evening, although, limited to weekends only. (That menu remains a work in progress.) It’s basically the same as lunch, plus some worthy nibbles like cacio e pepe-seasoned popcorn, crackly fresh pork rinds, a smoked trout dip nod to Elmi’s In the Valley bar, and perfectly fine platters of local craft cheese (St. Malachi! Bamboozle!) and good charcuterie. In other words, salty bites intended to keep the crowd drinking.
The Landing could easily expand upon its small list of local craft brews and basic wines, especially with more specialized staffing. But it’s unclear just how far they actually want to go in becoming a full-on restaurant operation. The coming installation of a large projection screen for movie nights and sporting events is an indicator that this crew plans to keep the focus tilted toward community more than gastronomy, which they are saving for Lark.
And I understand the resistance. Eating at the Landing Kitchen is not so much a culinary revelation as it is a lovely affirmation of how this region, which has so often failed in its riverside developments, can tap that potential magic. The destination is not the dining so much as the riverfront itself.
The Landing Kitchen
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
617 Righters Ferry Rd., Bala Cynwyd, Pa. 19004, 484-434-8765; thelandingkitchen.com
Hours: Breakfast and lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Evening menu, Friday and Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m.
All major cards.
There is a bar with a focus on canned, premixed cocktails, as well as a small selection of local craft beers and affordable wines.
Ample free parking in adjacent lot.