We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
In 1999, when Mark J. DeNinno was first brought in to help revive Chris' Jazz Cafe, Sansom Street west of Broad was a retail wasteland, with more Dumpsters than busy storefronts and very little pedestrian traffic. Over a decade and a half, things have changed. Though some trash containers still make their home on those sidewalks, they're now outnumbered by a profusion of shops - most of them bars and restaurants.
The strip is now home to Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Oyster House, Giwa, Marathon Grill, Square 1682 and more. As the lone establishment on the 1400 block, Chris' Jazz Cafe gets to play both sides - it's a cool hidden lounge that's also a gateway to a miniature restaurant row.
Chris' first came to life in 1990, when restaurateur (and cigar aficionado) Christ "Chris" Dhimitri turned what was once known as the Little Pub into a jazz bar. After nearly 10 years, Dhimitri decided it was time to sell, and a trio of regulars got together to buy the place from him. Well-intentioned as they were, they didn't know much about the hospitality industry, and business faltered. Enter DeNinno, an industry vet.
He helped turn the restaurant around, and continued consulting until the folks who hired him began talking about selling. In 2001, DeNinno bought in, and set about refurbishing the joint. He knocked down walls, built a stage, bought a baby grand piano, and turned what hadn't been much more than a cafe with live music in the corner into a full-fledged jazz club.
Clad in a chef's jacket and kerchief (he's the current lunch cook), DeNinno took a seat at high-top table next to thick, blond, oak-panel walls and described his Chris' Jazz experience. He memories range from when he was a waiter at Le Bec-Fin (he wasn't aware of the Chris' existence, even though it was only a block and a half away) to the horror he felt when he took over and discovered the carpet situation (new carpet had been laid on top of old, instead of ripping it out) to the pride he now feels in hosting 500 shows and serving close to 70,000 guests each year.
How did you get involved with Chris' Jazz Cafe?
I had a restaurant consulting business, and a friend told me Chris' could use my help. In 1999, original owner Chris Dhimitri had sold the business to Andrew Touchstone, Alex Bartlett and Glenn Gerber. They were a group of attorneys who used to hang out here, and when they heard Dhimitri was selling it, they said, well, let's buy it, how hard can it be to run a restaurant? They found out real quick.
What did you do for them?
Their business had faltered to the point where when I met with them, we were the only ones in the dining room. The chef was sleeping below the pinball machine; they had to wake him up to go make my turkey sandwich. So first, I convinced them to get rid of the pinball machine and pool table. Then, we cleaned the place up. We scrubbed the walls, everything, top to bottom. We replaced the carpets - when they first took over, they hadn't wanted to spend the money to rip out the old carpets, so they just put the new over the old and it smelled like a wet frat dog. We rearranged the dining room.
How long was the place closed for renovations?
We didn't shut it down. We did all the work at night. The band would end at 1 o'clock and then we would start our work and go until around 8 or 9 in the morning. Then the general manager would come in and wake us up, asleep on the booths. Then I'd go home, take a shower and come back to cook lunch.
Did you make changes in the kitchen?
I did. I trained the kitchen. The cooks they had didn't know things like a club sandwich is made with three pieces of bread. They thought sauce was Cajun powder mixed with water. I taught them things like how to make chicken stock, how to use a whole chicken instead of buying boneless breasts. Now everything here is made from scratch, except the ketchup and fries.
Did you hire new staff?
I kept everyone who wanted to stay. We did close for one day, actually. That was the day I put a closed sign on the door and told the staff that if they wanted to continue to work for Chris', they should grab a mop and a bucket and start cleaning the place up. One woman moved first, and grabbed a mop, so I stopped her and said, "What's your name?" She said, "My name is Mary." I said, "Mary, congratulations, you're the new general manager." ... I can't teach you to be the person who moves first, but I can teach you how to run a restaurant.
That's what your consulting company does? How did you learn that?
Yes, we've opened over 30 restaurants in the Delaware Valley. I started as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Collingswood, where I grew up. After college, I got a job as a waiter at Lamberti's, and eventually became regional operations manager. When I left Aldo Lamberti's company, I moved into the city and was asked if I wanted a job at Le Bec-Fin. I would have to start as a busboy, though, because everyone at Le Bec started as a busboy.
But you took the job?
Yes, because it was Le Bec-Fin! When I first walked in the door to meet the manager, it was like walking into a Faberge egg. It was unbelievable. This was around 1997, and everyone still wore tuxedos, everyone was sharp, all of Georges' original staff was still with him. Even though I had been regional manager for a $40 million company, I started out polishing silver, filling water glasses and giving bread service.
Then you went out on your own?
I left right after New Year's Eve 2000. I hung up my shingle and pounded the pavement. I would go to restaurants and say I can teach you to make more money, I can teach you to be more efficient, I can teach you to be in compliance.
And you got Chris' as a client. Then you became an owner?
After working with the owners for a year and a half, we'd already tripled the business, but they didn't want to put any more money in, because they'd already lost so much. I told them, unless we knock some walls down and reconfigure the dining room, there's no way I can stay on, because you won't be able to afford me. They came up with the idea of having me buy in, instead. One partner stayed on. Literally 15 minutes after we signed the papers I took a sledgehammer to the walls and began knocking them down.
What did improvements did you make?
We moved the music to the back, instead of a corner in the front, so that it was the focus. We built a raised stage that floats on 328 rubber cushions, so you don't feel it when the drums are going. We spent $50,000 on a piano. We bought our own drum kit. Now we have national and international acts that play the club, because we can afford to pay them now. We upgraded the food.
There are fewer and fewer white tablecloth restaurants these days. Ever considered getting rid of them?
There's a reason for them. Every year I look at how much I spend on linens and think to myself, "I'll just bite the bullet and buy $5,000 worth of oak tabletops." But then I calm down and remember that it helps keep the noise down. I learned that from Le Bec-Fin. We pad them so there's no din of the silver or glasses or plates on the tables. It's helpful to the artists.
What do you think of the Philadelphia restaurant scene right now?
I think it's the best restaurant scene in America right now. And you don't need to go to the high-end restaurants anymore to get high-end food. Look at Laurel - BYOB! Nick is killing it down there. Just so many great places to go, and none of them are the same.
Is it surprising to you?
Not really. I mean, 15 years ago, when the city was dark still - before there were lights everywhere, it would have been surprising. When I first got here 15 years ago, you could shoot a cannon off down Sansom Street on Saturday night and you wouldn't hit anybody. Now it's one of the hottest parts of the city. I think that's because of [Tony] Goldman. When he bought all those buildings and created the Midtown Village [on 13th Street]. Now you have that and Rittenhouse, and we're the space in between. We get all the foot traffic. We do also get the Dumpsters.
It would be great to see the Dumpsters taken off this street.
Agreed, because they stink when summer comes around. Perhaps you've heard about the "hot head chef" who chained the dumpsters to Del Frisco's door one night? I had tried to get them to clean them, but they refused. One Saturday night I got out of my truck in the parking garage and I could smell the trash. I called my buddy said, "Yo, I need you to bring me a chain and heavy rock." He brought a cable, because they wouldn't be able to cut through it, and we attached the Dumpsters to Del Frisco's doors with a note that said "Keys in the bottom."
Did you get in trouble?
Not really. The police told me I shouldn't have done it. But, once Rich [Furino] took over, everything changed, and they became great neighbors. They hang out here all the time.
1421 Sansom St., 215-568-3131
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday; 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday