We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments.
Coco's is a true neighborhood bar, just off Jewelers Row in Center City. Pull up a stool at the polished wood counter and you're just as likely to find yourself next to a chef or bartender chilling on his or her day off as you are a surgeon or jewelry kingpin stopping for a quick post-work pint. It's been that way for 30 years.
It was 1984 when John Cokos first slapped his name (or something close to it) on the window of this unassuming storefront on Eighth Street between Chestnut and Sansom. Three decades later, there's a lot less hairspray in the dining room, and shoulder pads are much harder to spot, but not much else has changed. The TVs are flatter, but the wainscoting above is the same. Even prices aren't all that different: Beers have risen from around $1 all the way up to $4, and the burger that was $4.75 in 1994 will run you all of $7.99 today.
Ten years ago, longtime barman Mike Callinan joined Cokos as a business partner, and just prior to the 10th anniversary of that alliance (it became official on Sept. 1, 2004), we sat down with the proprietor pals to find out what makes their neighborhood tavern tick.
How did you originally chose this location, John?
I've always loved Jewelers Row. It's a crazy neighborhood — there must be 19,000 different languages spoken here. When I was a little boy my father would bring me here. He came here to buy costume jewelry that he sold at his diner on Germantown Avenue in North Philly.
My brother and I opened our first restaurant in Camden in 1973; it was called King Zog's. We ran it for nine years, and when we closed it, I tried a regular job, but I couldn't take it. All of a sudden I was home at 5 o'clock every day. Who comes home at 5 o'clock? You might as well go to bed at 9:30. The night just stretches forever.
So I knew I had to open another place, and I started looking around here. I got my brother to come back as my partner, and we were all set to buy a spot just around the corner. But when we went to make settlement, at the last minute, the landlord wouldn't sign off on the deal. We were upset, so we walked in here to get a drink — it was called Pip's Pub at the time. We noticed the owner and his wife looked really frazzled, so we offered to buy this place. They took us up on it.
How did the name come about — your name is Cokos, but the bar is Coco's?
I thought "Cokos" would be a good restaurant name because it's kind of unique, and people would remember it. I ordered a stencil to put the name in the window, but when the woman came in with the template, she had misunderstood — it was written "Coco's" instead of Cokos. She was very pregnant, and when I pointed out what was wrong, she told me she'd have to come back after she had the baby. I didn't feel like waiting, so I told her to just put it up the way it was. It stuck. Now people think my name is Coco. I answer to it.
Why did you bring on Mike as a partner?
In 2004, my brother decided he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in the restaurant business. I was a little burnt out myself — my chef had died, and several of my longtime employees left or moved away. You know, the older you get, the older your customers get. Part of having a restaurant for 30 years is watching people die.
It's sad but true. For example, around 25 years ago, a group of six or seven moneyed Main Line women started coming here every week after the Thursday matinee at the Walnut Street Theater. They'd be dressed to the nines and would all order martinis. I watched as the group got smaller and smaller. After a couple years, there were only four of them coming, then three, then two, and then there was only one left, and when she came there would be another woman helping her walk, and she'd drink ice tea instead of gin.
When I brought Mike in, he really breathed new life into the place. He'd been managing Las Vegas Lounge for years, so we knew each other; we were good friends. When he came in as a partner, we kept having fun, but business jumped up, too.
What kind of changes did Mike make?
He put in more TVs, and extended the hours. When I first opened, there weren't many restaurants here — Jones was a card store, Rosa Blanca was a dollar store — so no one was around at night. We used to close pretty early, 8 or 10 p.m. Then Stephen Starr came in with Morimoto and Blue Angel, and the area really took off. Mike suggested staying open late, and all the restaurant workers started coming here after their shifts. It became an industry hangout spot.
I have all these sayings, like "At Coco's, you're only a stranger once," "It's where friends come to meet." They're cliché, but everything here is cliché. This place is an absolute cliché of an old restaurant and bar. With the exception that the food here is fresh, always. I like people to be surprised at how good the food is.
What's your favorite thing on the menu?
I eat the burger a lot, I've been lucky that we've always had a great burger. Burger, steak sandwich or omelet, I eat one of those things every day, pretty much. Mike eats steaks, morning, noon or night.
What do you eat when you dine out? Do you dine out?
Both Mike and I live in South Jersey, so we don't go out in the city much, but we used to. We'd wander from The Prime Rib to Morton's to The Palm and The Saloon. I didn't eat steak at any of those places, by the way (I can make a better steak at home), but I like white tablecloths, I like tuxedos. I prefer that kind of dining.
Lately — it's the weirdest thing — my wife and I have been going to chain restaurants. Five years ago I would never, ever, ever have gone to a place like Cheesecake Factory or Seasons 52. I was always an independent restaurant guy. But it's happening now. Maybe it's an age thing.
What does the future hold for Coco's? Are you thinking of stepping away?
Sometimes I can see myself beginning to wind down; it's been 30 years! But I wouldn't know what to do with myself, spending all day at home. My wife and I get along great, but while she married me for better or for worse, she didn't marry me for lunch. Really, I have nowhere else to go. I love it here.
I've been contemplating doing a little remodeling, redoing the back bar, painting the walls. Maybe we'll get a new awning. I don't want to make it like Disneyland. I like being the kind of place no one knows about. The kind of place that relies on word of mouth, the kind of place that's just cool enough to stay in business.
Coco's Food & Spirits
112 S. 8th St.; 215-923-0123
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week