This article was originally published Nov. 16, 1997
High noon. Marc Brownstein stands next to his table under the window in the Palm, waiting for his lunch partner.
He’s wearing a conservative gray suit that marks him as a player and a cheery tie that tells the world he’s in advertising and public relations.
He glances at the wall next to his table, and drawings of family members look back: father Berny, mother Beverly, wife Amy, sister Toni. And there’s the face of Marc Brownstein himself. It’s a Palm perk to have your face on a wall, a tribute reserved for a thousand regulars, celebs, movers, shakers, media types and media hypes. Talk about a conversation piece.
Why else does he eat lunch here two or three days a week? "They don’t know the word no here. You don’t want to be distracted by a rude waiter. They instinctively know when to appear," Brownstein says, explaining why he is a regular at the restaurant, nestled in the Bellevue at Broad and Walnut Streets. “It’s also a visible place, and in our business, it’s important to stay visible.”
In walks his lunch partner, William Stallkamp, chief executive officer of Mellon PSFS, in a navy suit and a red tie that says banker.
They are visible, all right. They are seeing and being seen, in that table under the Broad Street window.
Stallkamp and Brownstein shake hands and right away delve into something of urgent importance, something more crucial than marketing, mergers and acquisitions, ATMs and debt service: What’s for lunch?
Let Washingtonions dish at their dinner parties, and New Yorkers network at their cocktail parties. When Philadelphians want to wheel and deal, they do it over lunch at the Palm.
Almost from its opening in November 1989, the Palm emerged as Center City’s power-lunch magnet, pulling the big spenders from the city’s traditional private clubs.
Then came the restaurant boom and the prospect of posher competition. Far from losing its luster among the crop of upscale Johnny and Tony Come Latelys, the Palm became even busier. It is expected to gross $4.7 million this year, a full one-third better than two years ago, with minimal advertising and a public relations budget of zero.
Why has the Palm endured? “It’s an electrifying environment that lends itself to dealmaking,” says Joe Wolf, whose company runs Tony Clark’s, a plush restaurant a block away.
The environment. Part of the Palm ‘s appeal is its location, in the heart of the Center City power district. Then there is the comfort factor. The place feels like a pair of year-old wing-tips. The waiters and managers remember everything - favorite drinks, preferred tables, wives’ names.
The dining room - of course it’s a single room, the better to see everybody - is done in pure Mid-20th-Century Men’s Club. The ceiling is stamped tin. The floor is bare hardwood. The chairs are dark bentwood. The rows of booths are ringed in brass rails. Each table is covered with a white cloth and has a glass ashtray and a Palm notepad.
Merchant banker Bob Greenberg has a rule of thumb, based on the notepad. “If it takes more than two of these pages,” he says, “the deal’s not going to work.”
On any weekday, the room starts filling between noon and 12:15. Politicians, lawyers, health-care bigwigs, expense-accounting conventioneers, sales executives, bankers, and a developer or two. Before long there’s a din of Important Chatter, lively exchanges about sports, careers, the market, and who-has-clout.
They leap up to shake hands and table-hop, all the while keeping an eye on the door to see who’s coming in. It might be developer Ronald Rubin or even Mayor Rendell, who works the room - fending off entreaties of food - if he happens to be nearby. Or it more than likely will be Ted Beitchman, the mayor’s former deputy chief of staff, who appears almost daily with galleys from his new upscale magazine, The Player, in hand.
The white-aproned waiters careen between the tables, balancing platters of simple, retro, mainly manly fare - thick, brown-crusted patties of ground sirloin, mountains of pasta, chicken parm flopping over the sides of the plates. They sell the sizzle and the steak. All meals come with heaps of hash browns and crispy handmade potato chips, the Palm ‘s concept of two vegetables.
Lunch takes less than an hour, give or take a vodka martini. The average tab: $22 plus tip. Waiters make $45,000 and up.
“I should have been here years ago,” says waiter Michael Murphy - known as Philly Murph - who, before he arrived at the Palm six months ago, had made a career of bouncing from one hot new restaurant to another to grab the plentiful tips: Babe’s, the Ritz-Carlton, Striped Bass, Tony Clark’s, Nicholas Nickolas. Who needs hot? “This is steady,” he says. Plus, he gets benefits.
The Palm ‘s general manager, Alex Plotkin, came a year and a half ago from the Four Seasons, where the leisurely lunchtime crowd may be just as powerful, but at one-tenth the noise level.
Plotkin can take the intensity. At 30, he’s a 6-foot-4 former defensive lineman looking out over his 35 tables just as he used to size up quarterbacks. It’s his job to know the players and their politics. He’s the one who doles out the coveted power tables - the six tables lining the Broad Street window. These are table numbers 3 to 8, assigned judiciously to regulars and the highest of the high and mighty.
At Table 3, Brownstein and Stallkamp talk business over their crabcakes and minestrone. The subject changes when anyone gets close. This is Brownstein ‘s turf. His company, the Brownstein Group, is across the street. It’s also Brownstein ‘s place to pick up the tab. (When they meet in the Mellon Bank Center on Market Street, Stallkamp pays. They might go to the Pyramid Club in his building, or dine unceremoniously in a Mellon conference room.)
At Table 4 is City Controller Jonathan Saidel, coolly eating an omelette - “not on the menu, but they have eggs in the kitchen, right?” - and greeting well-wishers. (“I’m not on the wall,” he quips a day before re-election. "I’m on enough poles. ")
Table 5 is being set up. At No. 6, State Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille, the former district attorney, is breaking bread with Fred Anton, Ron Kozich and Jack May. “We’re just a few pals talking friendly politics,” says Castille, who drops in when he is in town. "This is the Horn & Hardart of the ’90s," says Anton, a Republican fund-raiser. Naturally, Castille is on the wall.
Lawyer and Democratic operative Marty Weinberg is seated at Table 7, the “Obermayer table,” occupied almost daily by partners and associates of the law firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel. (At night, William Batoff, the Democratic power broker, holds court at the same table. He says he will not sit anywhere else. )
The faces of Obermayer lawyers are on a nearby pillar. There’s the smiling face of partner Jerry Kline. And a few steps away, there’s Jerry Kline himself. He’s just been seated at Table 5 with Herman S. Ellen, a retired businessman. Ellen, 90, was the Philadelphia Palm ‘s first customer, and it says so under his picture. Ellen eats at the Palm twice a week and has patronized Palm restaurants for six decades. "They’re sincere," he says, squeezing Plotkin’s arm. "They’re all nice kids."
The crowd is 80 percent men at lunch, about 50 percent at dinner, says assistant manager Michelle McGuire. Despite the ratio, women say they feel comfortable. Michele Malin of the Nicole Miller boutique in the Bellevue calls it a "powerhouse for networking, and any woman today can identify with that. " She sends models in for informal necktie modeling. Kelly Boyd, a Rittenhouse Square consultant, said she has been eating there more frequently recently because she is six months pregnant and craves the chicken parmesan.
What has changed most dramatically over the early days is the makeup of the staff, which is now nearly half women.
In June 1990, six months after the Palm opened, 60 women - led by the American Civil Liberties Union’s then-executive director, Deborah Leavy - phoned in lunch reservations for noon, sat down, looked at menus and, instead of ordering, chided Palm management for its male-preferred hiring practices. Then the women walked out, effectively killing a Thursday lunch. ACLU executive director Larry Frankel last week said, "If they’ve changed the policy, we welcome the change. " He is not a Palm regular, incidentally.
If the walls could talk . . . No. The Palm’s wouldn’t. The walls hold one of the keys to the Palm ‘s success. Before a Palm opens in a new town, the corporate headquarters in Washington comes up with a list of local power players and asks the people for photos. Then a lone artist gets busy and creates color renderings. From day one, each Palm has instant local cachet. The Palm people are doing this right now in Charlotte, N.C., the 14th city, due to open next month. (The Philadelphia list was compiled by Ronald Rubin, the developer and owner of the Bellevue , which may explain why there are 14 members of the Rubin family represented among the 1,000 faces, though he is a good customer.)
The pictures have been a Palm staple from the restaurant’s beginnings 71 years ago on Second Avenue above 44th Street in Manhattan. Owners Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi, Italian immigrants whose “Parma” name was mangled into " Palm " by a hard-of-hearing city licensing clerk, had no money for decorating. What they had were customers who happened to draw cartoons for King Features. The artists drew customers in exchange for a hot meal. In Philadelphia, it is a cottage industry for one local artist, Bronwyn Bird.
So how does one get one’s face up on the wall? You have to be asked, or win the honor in a charity auction, says Plotkin. When the Palm first opened, the story goes, patrons would try to bribe their way up there. Once you’re up there, you’re up there - no matter what happens to your TV career or political star. It is a matter of practicality. "It’s hard as hell to take them off," Plotkin says.
A close examination of the wall reveals some almost Kremlinesque blank spots. Some marriages are not forever.
On a recent Thursday after a City Council meeting up the street, four Council members walk in for lunch. Obra Kermodle, a well-connected Center City lawyer, gets up from his table to say hello. Councilman Angel Ortiz, his cell phone never leaving his ear, waves.
Two more men walk in for the Council table. Busboys pull out the table’s flaps and set it for six. Then three more people arrive. The smaller table is rolled out, and a larger one is rolled in. An informal Council meeting is in session. Plenty of business, no hecklers.
Jim Baumbach, an Obermayer lawyer, arrives to wait for a client. "While most people would see their life flash before their eyes in their final moments, I’d see the Palm menu," he says. Baumbach, a confidant of Frank Rizzo, was having lunch at the Palm in the summer of 1991 with David Cohen, the erstwhile mayoral aide, when Cohen received a page from his office that Rizzo had suffered a fatal heart attack.
There is Paul Fox, paying his check ($97, plus a $20 tip). Fox, who is in the medical-supply business, says he drives down from Jenkintown twice a week - 35 minutes each way - to impress clients. "It feels like home," he says.
Jeff Reiff, a lawyer and venture capitalist whose office is across the street, calls the Palm "a fun place to do business. " He used to have lunch at a private club before the Palm opened. He says he since has dropped his membership. He eats at the Palm three times a week.
Back at Table Number 3, the business and the meal are done, and Brownstein signs the charge slip. He and Stallkamp get up and shake hands under the gaze of the Brownstein family.
They pass a man and a woman, awaiting their table.