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Chef Nicholas Elmi’s Laurel restaurant will return to a la carte dining and expand into ITV’s space

The tasting menus' finale will be March 18. The new Laurel, positioned as "a refined neighborhood restaurant," will reopen April 5.

Laurel, at 1617 E. Passyunk Ave., is changing to a la carte dining.
Laurel, at 1617 E. Passyunk Ave., is changing to a la carte dining.Read moreSamantha Fryzol

Chef Nicholas Elmi’s South Philadelphia destination restaurant, Laurel, will ditch its six-course, French-influenced tasting menus in favor of a la carte dining, and it will expand to subsume In the Valley, the bar next door.

Laurel and ITV’s last day under the current format will be March 18. A renovation, including new lighting and a banquette on the Laurel side, is expected to be finished for an April 5 reopening.

Elmi said Laurel would become “a refined neighborhood restaurant with a la carte menus that prioritize local sourcing, a wine list that highlights natural and organic producers, and cocktails that range from classics to playful riffs.” The menu will shift to American with French, Italian, and Japanese influences. It will remain open four nights a week.

Laurel has juggled before. It was an a la carte BYOB with an optional tasting menu during the week when it opened at 1617 E. Passyunk Ave. in November 2013 — shortly before the announcement of Elmi’s Season 11 win on Bravo’s Top Chef.

In 2014, Elmi changed to tasting menus only on the weekends. In 2015, he went all-in, full time — one of few Philadelphia-area restaurants at the time to shun the a la carte experience. In 2016, Elmi opened ITV, giving him a lower-priced bar while allowing wine pairings at Laurel.

The pandemic was an eye-opener. While Laurel was closed to in-person dining, Elmi converted ITV into a doughnut shop through a partnership with Curiosity Doughnuts.

“The happiness that exuded from the guests for a $3 doughnut was equal to — if not better than — the satisfaction I got from cooking 10 perfect courses for someone,” Elmi wrote in a letter to his customers Tuesday. “We saw guests come in regularly for doughnuts that historically we only saw once a year when they came in to celebrate an anniversary or birthday. We were approachable again, having fun, and pushing ourselves to continually improve (let’s just say serving 1,400 doughnuts a day was not a pace we were accustomed to). That experience centered us; those qualities were exactly what we wanted for Laurel’s next chapter.”

The new look

After the renovation, customers will enter only through Laurel’s front door. There will be free flow between the adjacent storefronts. Those who want to sit at the bar can do so. Reservations will be recommended, though walk-ins will be accommodated, Elmi said.

The ITV side, already smart and contemporary, will remain relatively the same. It will get new paint and floors. The Laurel side, which will be designed to mirror the other side, will get new chandeliers and pendants. “We’re trying to make it symbiotic,” he said.

A matter of economics at Laurel

The change to an a la carte menu runs counter to a current trend as restaurateurs adopt fixed-price menus to standardize check averages and to manage purchasing and labor.

» READ MORE: Hearthside in Collingswood moves to tasting menus

Those issues do not seem to concern Elmi. “Yes, it’s more cost-effective, and it can be easier on the staff but it’s also confining sometimes,” he said in an interview Monday. “I think we’ve always tried to do whatever makes us happy — it’s usually the one thing that makes us successful.”

Additionally, “just continuing to charge more for a tasting menu doesn’t seem like much fun for me,” he said. “Every year, we’ve had to raise it $10 or $15 or whatever, and it’s just getting expensive.”

Laurel’s new menu will include 15 to 20 dishes of different sizes. Customers will be encouraged to order three or four plates. “We want to be more of a place where four people are going to sit down and are probably going to try 10 to 12 dishes and get a large variety of things,” Elmi said, opposed to the same dish served to each person under the fixed format.

Elmi said this would translate to a workable business model, although the cost per guest should drop by “a fair amount — about 30% to 40%.” Laurel’s dining room seats 18 people. On a full night of tasting menus, that’s 36 people paying $142 each, plus tax, tip, and drinks.

The new Laurel, with seating for about 56, should yield about 100 covers, Elmi said. “Whatever we lose in cost per head, I believe we’re going to be able to make up in volume,” he said.

‘Letting them drive’

General manager Jane Fryer and chef de cuisine Kevin McWilliams developed the new format.

McWilliams, whose work history includes River Twice and Kensington Quarters, was a sous chef at Elmi’s Bala Cynwyd restaurant Lark at its opening in October 2021 before moving to Lacroix and then, at the beginning of this year, joining Laurel.

“We think very similarly when it comes to food,” Elmi said. “I think that bringing him and Jane together and letting them drive for the foreseeable future is exciting for us. We’ve made it to year 10. How do we make it 10 more years?”