Judith DeVicaris, Philadelphia restaurateur, designer, and retailer who helped propel a South Street renaissance, dies at 88
Judith DeVicaris was an entrepreneurial mother of five who co-owned a pioneering boutique and a succession of successful Center City restaurants from the 1970s through the '90s.
Judith DeVicaris, 88, a restaurateur, retailer, and interior designer who helped propel South Street’s commercial renaissance and made a fading Center City fun again in the 1970s and ’80s, died Tuesday, Oct. 12, of breast cancer at the Mount Laurel home she shared with a son.
With exuberant taste in design, cuisine, and people, Mrs. DeVicaris — known to all as Judy — was a creative force behind Café Nola and several other restaurants, and as co-owner of the magazine and gift shop Le Corner Store, she brought a Parisian flavor to 15th and Locust decades before Parc debuted nearby.
“My mother was an amazing woman,” said her eldest daughter, Suzanne DeVicaris, a painter who lives in Bensalem. “She was a voracious reader and a very sophisticated, adventurous person. She had a sense of the theatrical, like a stage designer.”
Mrs. DeVicaris’ former business partner Bill Curry, of Queen Village, said: “Judy was a great decorator and gave wonderful parties. She had great taste, and that went over into food as well. She was the best business partner I could have ever asked for.”
Gregarious, generous, and hardworking, Mrs. DeVicaris — born Judith A. Boyer on Aug. 31, 1933, in Philadelphia — loved movies, Broadway musicals, and interior design magazines. But the stylish, cosmopolitan woman who partnered with Curry, a former Inquirer journalist, to craft some of the city’s most popular cocktails-and-dinner spots was a personally abstemious mother of five who grew up in a Wissinoming rowhouse, graduated from Little Flower High School, and lived in Levittown.
She and her husband, Philadelphia high school principal Louis E. DeVicaris, who died in 2010, were among the thousands of young emigres from the city who set up book clubs, gourmet food groups, and a babysitting cooperative on the suburban frontier. This was how Mrs. DeVicaris teamed up with Marge Brown to make papier-maché Christmas decorations for a New York wholesaler before the two established their own interior design studio, Brown & DeVicaris, in Yardley.
“Judy was driven to do something interesting,” said Brown, of Gladwyne. “She had a fabulous eye, enormous vibrancy, and was just so hilariously funny. It was a magical collaboration.”
At one of Mrs. DeVicaris’ legendary Levittown parties, the hostess — in an upswept hairdo bedecked with colorful ribbons — was working the room and pouring champagne for her guests when one of the tassels on her head made contact with a candle and caught fire. “Judy put the ribbon fire out in my cocktail glass,” Brown said. “She didn’t miss a beat.”
With her contagious sense of fun, “Judy was like my own Auntie Mame,” said David MacDonald, who became a close friend after she hired him to work at Le Corner Store in 1976. He later worked in several of her restaurants.
“I was a 20-year-old gay rube from Upper Darby, and she opened up the world to me,” said MacDonald, a retired teacher who lives in Center City.
“She was beautiful, and smart, and she really knew her stuff. I loved just listening to her talk.”
At a time when Center City retail was in decline, Le Corner Store offered “international magazines and newspapers that Judy got from vendors in New York,” MacDonald said. “We saved the Milan paper for [then-Philadelphia Orchestra maestro] Riccardo Muti. Philadelphia Magazine wrote that Le Corner Store was the only place you could buy caviar in the city on a Tuesday night.”
Richard Keaveney, who founded the Philadelphia-based Toppers chain of salons and spas, met Mrs. DeVicaris through the Center City Proprietors Association. “We both wanted our city to prosper,” said Keaveney, who lives in Maryland but still owns the business he founded in Center City.
“Judy was absolutely a risk-taker, and her creativity was beyond compare,” he said. “She designed six of my spas, and she never fell into a mold. She was about creating a wonderful space and a wonderful experience.”
Mrs. DeVicaris did so most memorably at Café Nola, which lasted from 1981 to 1996 on South Street. Lush fabrics, deep colors, an Art Deco bar, and an adventurous New Orleans-inspired menu attracted a diverse Philly crowd as well as celebrities such as Vaclav Havel and Bruce Springsteen.
“The ingredients, techniques, and stocks make up a grand food tradition,” Mrs. DeVicaris told the Allentown Morning Call in 1993. “But it’s not the kind of food that requires French service. People can have fun here and laugh out loud.”
“The space my mother designed for Café Nola was influenced by trips she and Bill took to New Orleans. She wanted to capture the beauty of the Garden District. She wanted to bring that atmosphere to South Street,” said Suzanne DeVicaris, who painted the expressive watercolors that were a signature element in the dining room.
In retirement, Mrs. DeVicaris redecorated her homes, including her color-coordinated libraries, read books on design and architecture, and doted on family and friends. The last days of her life were filled with the music of Broadway shows and movies she loved, including a YouTube clip of the famous TV duet of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland blending “Happy Days Are Here Again” with “Get Happy.”
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two other daughters, Lisa DeVicaris and Jacqueline Sinkler; sons Alexander and Christopher; two grandchildren; and a sister.
A memorial service will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 23, at the Adventureland Day Camp, 6401 Hulmeville Rd., Bensalem, Pa. 19020.
Donations in memory of Judy DeVicaris may be made to the Arden Theatre Company: https://tickets.ardentheatre.org/Online/shoppingCart.asp?doWork::WSorder::manageDonations=1&BOparam::WSorder::manageDonations::giftId=22D74097-76AA-4B30-98F8-4882D0DA02BB