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At 51, chef Mark McKinney is opening his own vegan restaurant, Primary Plant Based, in Philadelphia

The veteran chef, who oversaw food at such restaurants as the Royal Tavern and Khyber Pass, has found a charmed location on Girard Avenue.

Maitake grits (griddled maitake, heirloom grits, pumpkin gravy) by chef Mark McKinney at Primary Plant Based.
Maitake grits (griddled maitake, heirloom grits, pumpkin gravy) by chef Mark McKinney at Primary Plant Based.Read moreCOURTESY MARK MCKINNEY

Before the March 2020 shutdown, Mark McKinney oversaw five kitchens as the 15-year culinary director of Stephen Simons and David Frank’s bar-restaurants, including the Royal Tavern and Khyber Pass Pub.

As a vegan for nearly a quarter-century, McKinney is also the creator of two of Philadelphia’s most popular plant-based sandwiches: the Khyber’s vegan fried chicken po’boys and Royal’s tempeh club sandwich.

McKinney’s pandemic pivot was running a vegan pop-up out of the Khyber’s kitchen called Primary Plant Based, with a more refined menu.

And he’s now setting out on his own in fall 2021 with a brick-and-mortar BYOB version of Primary Plant Based. McKinney will take the charmed restaurant space at 161 W. Girard Ave. on the Kensington-Northern Liberties border that now houses Cadence and formerly Modo Mio. Cadence chef-owners Jon Nodler and Samantha Kincaid will close their celebrated BYOB on Aug. 14 as they plan to move to Wisconsin.

McKinney is putting together a menu more in the spirit of the pop-up. No bar food. He’ll make a rougamo (Chinese burger) out of jackfruit, as well as halupki (stuffing collard leaves with mushrooms, beans, and black rice), and maitake with grits topped with pumpkin gravy.

Why now, at age 51?

“Primary just opened the door to the food I always dreamed of doing my whole life,” McKinney said. “I always wanted to do something like this. No plans — just cook my [butt] off on what I was getting delivered that week. ... I was able to do something that I love and chase it. It just felt so right. Leaving that bubble, the security blanket of Simons and Frank was not an easy choice to make, but I’m just feeling real good.”

“The pandemic had some bad effects on some people,” McKinney said. “For me, it made me do soul-searching and I [realized] that no one’s going to hand it to you. You’ve got to just go out there and do it. So I’m doing it.”

After leaving Simons and Frank in April, McKinney shopped for a location. “Our search was focused on finding an intimate space where Mark could connect with guests and be a part of a neighborhood,” said Vincent Stipo, the broker with MSC who handled the real estate deal. “The space provided a beautiful open kitchen.”

“I’m sick of working in caves,” McKinney said.