End is near for Cisco's in Flourtown, a 'lovable dinosaur'
Times have changed. “It was either make changes and throw a bunch of money at the place, or just go out the way we are."
After 65 years on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown, Cisco's Bar & Grille will sell its last cheesesteak hoagie and dollar-fifty glass of beer on Jan. 1.
Times have changed, explained Sandy Olszewski Durkin, who called the business that her grandparents Jim and Ann "Nan" Cisco started in 1949 "a lovable dinosaur."
"It was either make changes and throw a bunch of money at the place, or just go out the way we are," said Durkin, 51, who has helped run the bar since 2002. "The trend now is craft beer, and menus with a 'foodie' feel. We have nothing healthy on our menu." Witness the bestselling cheesesteak hoagie - a heart-stopping creation that tops classic Italian hoagie ingredients (provolone, salami, tomatoes, onion) with griddled cheese and meat.
Once-strong takeout beer sales have been eroded by the launch of "beer gardens" at both the neighboring Acme and Giant supermarkets, whose case prices are sometimes cheaper than Cisco's wholesale cost.
Earlier this year, she and her parents decided that it was time to move on.
"I call it a Kenny Rogers decision - you gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em," said her mother, Joanne Cisco Olszewski, 71, who, with her husband, Bernie, now 83, took over the bar from her father in 1986.
Joanne Olszewski has been heartened by the outpouring of support. "Everyone has a Cisco's story," she said. "That's been the best part of us closing. People come in and tell us things we had no idea about. 'My father proposed to my mother in that booth!' or 'Over there is where my mom was eating a hoagie when her water broke!'"
All the hot food at Cisco's is prepared at a flat-top grill behind the wooden bar top, often by the same servers who take your order. (Small hoagie? That'll be $4.50, please, and cash only.) The four taps pour Yuengling, Rolling Rock, Coors Light, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, a relatively recent addition that took the place of Budweiser. A 9-ounce glass of beer - there are no pints - will run you $1.50.
While the cow pastures that Olszewski remembers flanking Bethlehem Pike are long gone, there have been very few changes to Cisco's over the past half-century.
Jim Cisco opened the business as an all-day luncheonette in the strip of Springfield Township known as "the Panhandle." He had just gotten out of the Coast Guard, where he served during World War II, and had wanted to get into the restaurant game since working in his uncle's Norristown grill growing up.
His wife, Ann, cooked, whipping up soups, sandwiches and platters. The Springfield Township Police became regulars, and the chief started dropping hints that the Ciscos would do well to move their business up to Flourtown, which he predicted would experience a development boom.
Jim and Ann took the chief's advice, and in 1950, moved Cisco's to its current home near the firehouse. Two years later, they acquired a liquor license. In 1956, they bought the building.
It was at some point during the 1950s that a giant moose head, along with its an elk bust, ended up on the tavern's knotty pine walls. They were brought as a gift by a young customer called "Bubbles" Reeves, who salvaged them when a nearby hunting club threw them in the trash during renovations.
Jim Cisco was an avid hunter himself - older patrons remember the regular sight of deer hanging out front of the bar after successful trips - and he was also an early environmentalist.
He volunteered for the National Geophysical Data Center (now part of NOAA), and would regularly take water samples from Wissahickon Creek to monitor its cleanliness and the health of native species. A pickle jar on the bar was used to collect donations for trout to stock Hillcrest Pond - "I want a place for the children to fish," he used to say - and before he died, in 1997, the area surrounding the pond was designated Cisco Park in his name.
"We recently fought for and won money for dredging the pond so kids can continue to fish," said Olszewski, who is also a county jury commissioner. "I really feel like my father's spirit lives there."
After growing up in her parents' bar and meeting her husband there, Olszewski had moved to Baltimore, but when her mother had a heart attack in 1983, she returned to help by running the business.
The Olszewskis now live in the same building as Cisco's, and have no plans to sell the place.
They also have no plans to host another restaurant there.
"We'll renovate and put some kind of business in, but it'll be something dry," she said. "No compressors or refrigerators."
The Olszewskis' other daughters, Laura and Christine, live out of town and are not involved in the business. They plan to visit for the final week, as will Joanne's sister Dianne Cisco Yeater, who lives in Cape Cod. Joanne's brother, Jim "Timber" Cisco Jr., is too ill to travel from his home in the Poconos, the family said.
In the weeks since the announcement that Jan. 1 would be the last day, Cisco's clientele has become resigned to the fact that they'll be losing a landmark – and such staples as Bernie Olszewski's Friday-only tuna hoagies and the cheesesteak hoagie.
"I grew up eating their cheesesteak hoagie. It's a huge loss. My stomach is depressed now," lamented Nick Cejas of Philadelphia, whose father, Carlos Cejas, lives in Wyndmoor and prides himself that he is the customer who eats three or four sandwiches in one sitting.
"We're going every day from now until they close," said John McGettigan, 58, owner of a nearby electrical contracting business. "My dad knew Mr. Cisco. I met my wife there."
At the time, he said, his wife, Hope, was a "moose virgin," referring to the taxidermied moose head that hangs on a wall next to the bar and whose likeness is on the sign out front. "That's what you call someone before they've pet or kissed or taken a photo with the moose."
"That moose is worn from the attention of countless children," said Todd Unger, a Flourtown native who now lives in Seattle but heard about the pending shutter via Facebook. "I was deeply saddened to learn that Cisco's is closing. My parents used to bring me there for dinner as a child, nearly 50 years ago. I'm sure I could visit today and order an identical meal."
"A place like that holds generations of memories," said Unger. "It's not about drinking, it's about community and friends."
"Of course we're upset," said John McGettigan, "but we understand. Nothing lasts forever."