‘Energy,’ ‘elegance,’ and Denzel in sneakers: What it was like at Zanzibar Blue
Former staffers, Philly residents, and local personalities share their memories of the jazz destination.
Nothing lasts forever, even restaurants. Especially restaurants. But while they’re open, restaurants can make magic — the family meals, the business deals, the first (and hundredth) dates that create memories that do last forever.
“The 86′d Project,” a new Inquirer series, takes a look back at the restaurants that made an impact on the Philadelphia region. We’re eager to share memories of these restaurants, along with their signature recipes. Would you like us to remember a now-closed restaurant? Share your thoughts and we’ll add it to our list.
Our first restaurant is Zanzibar Blue, the jazz destination in two Center City Philadelphia locations open from 1990 to 2007. We’ve gathered anecdotes from former employees, Philly residents, and personalities about their stand-out memories. The quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Zoe Ashby, who has worked for the Bynums since 1991 (she manages Relish in West Oak Lane now):
“Ben [Bynum] and I were managing Zanzibar Blue [in the winter of 1992-1993]. We got a phone call, and they said that Mr. Washington would be in with a party of four later today. Ben said to me, ‘Keep your eye on the door because Denzel is coming.’ [He was in town, shooting the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks.] And I said, ‘No problem, no problem.’
We had a dress code, and we were strict about that dress code. Ben said, ‘Two sneakers at the door.’ I go running to the door, and I was getting ready to say, ‘Excuse me, gentlemen. We have a dress—.’”
“It was Denzel who had on the sneakers. I said, ‘Come right this way.’ I wasn’t going to tell them they couldn’t come in. He came in. He loved it. Whenever he came back [to Philadelphia], he’d stop in.”
Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, and friend and classmate of Robert Bynum:
“It was a place of great elegance and sophistication. And it was always about the music and the food.”
Al Paris, a chef who spent 15 years off and on in the Bynum organization:
“Neil Stein [the creator of such landmark restaurants as Striped Bass and Rouge] brought me in from San Francisco to open up Pomodoro [in 1990] and we went to Zanzibar Blue. [The Bynums] were so sincere and hospitable, and the restaurant was so sophisticated. I didn’t even know anything existed in Philadelphia like that. It was so Hollywood. Years later, when I went in for my first job with them, the embrace that I had! I walked in with my wife, and I’d never been treated like that before. It was just so welcoming and genuine.”
Pete Cunningham, a golf instructor from Lancaster County (then a printer from Philadelphia):
“I remember my wife and I coming in to see Dave Burrell and David Murray, and while we were having dinner [before the show], there was David Murray at the next table and we got to chat with him a bit.”
Wendy Wolf, current marketing director, part of the original management team:
“I met Ben when he was chef at Cafe Einstein [then in Old City]. He was leaving and he wouldn’t really say why. It was top secret. Zanzibar Blue was two blocks from where I had grown up and [the space] had been a variety of things over the years. Nothing ever worked there. I give the Bynums credit for making this off-the-beaten-path destination restaurant become something that people flocked to. It stands out to me how comfortable and integrated it was — young, old, white, black. There was a feeling that this is how things should be.”
» READ MORE: Get the recipe: Zanzibar Blue’s shrimp étouffée
Frances Hamann, a restaurant industry veteran from Fairmount:
“I saw Michael Bublé when he was an unknown artist. You just felt the energy in the room that he was going to make it big.”
Marcos Espinoza, the Philly culinary dude known as Fidel Gastro:
“The best Heineken of my entire life was there in 2000 or 2001. We were there to see Kenny Garrett.”
Harry Hayman, who started as a bartender in 1992; after doing almost every job in the Bynum organization, he is special-events coordinator:
“Robert and Ben were very much fans of treating the everyman as a celebrity. They would always remind us that the $20 or whatever we were charging for somebody to come down Broad Street was a real big deal and represents whatever percentage of their income. We really needed to make sure that we took a lot of pride in what we did.”
Tom Moon, former music critic for The Inquirer:
“The genius of the 11th Street location was its swankiness. This was the era of Wynton Marsalis in suits and jazz players championing/upholding an orthodoxy that went from the music itself to all aspects of its presentation. Zanzibar Blue caught that vibe perfectly — it was speakeasy and upscale at the same time. The room had real energy.
“The Bellevue location was trickier because of the layout and, at least initially, the open kitchen, which could be noisy and was therefore at odds with the ethos of live music. The management really worked on the sonic aspects — the room got quieter, the sound got cleaner, and you could tell that musicians were comfortable playing there. I’ll never forget covering Abbey Lincoln, the peerless vocalist. It was baseball season, and there was a TV mounted in the bar area — this was visible when you were on stage. It was the first night of a three-night run, and at some point she abruptly veered from the song she was singing into a bit of baseball play-by-play: ‘… and the runner’s going into second.’ She was clearly upset, and even though the TV went off right away, the set was effectively over.”