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 the 1970s, South Street was struggling to recover from a downturn, but there were glimmers of life as artist studios and bars began to dot the rows of boarded up buildings. Not much retail existed near the east end of the block, but that's exactly what Tom Vasiliades liked about it.
Seeing the area's potential, he invested a few dollars in real estate, and in 1976 opened South Street Souvlaki at 509 South Street.
The restaurant turned out to be one of the first of many in the area, and the 1980s ushered in a boom, with South Street becoming one of the main — if not the only — hot spots for dining, drinking and entertainment in Philadelphia.
Since then, the neighborhood's fortunes have seen highs and lows, but Vasiliades' Greek restaurant has continued to flourish for 38 years. Tourists and young folks still flock to the window counter for gyros, falafel and fresh-grilled kebabs, while a contingent of locals continues to fill up the adjacent dining room and bar.
Now, Vasiliades thinks the strip is poised for a comeback. Things are looking so promising, in fact, that he's just weeks away from opening a second establishment on the second floor — a French-Mediterranean tapas bar called Bistro on Top.
Last week, between bites of grilled octopus in the mural-covered back room, Tom and I discussed his new venture, the (many!) restaurant concepts he's floated over the decades, and why he prefers cooks to chefs.
You're originally from Greece. How did you end up in Philadelphia?
I came to the U.S. in 1965, when I was 12 years old, with my mother and younger brother. After my father was killed in the [Greek] Civil War, we had nothing. So we came here, to New York City.
By 1972, I had enough of the New York life. I didn't like what I was doing — I was in the fur business at the time, and I saw it going into a decline. So I figured, let me get out of the city, go south and start a new life. I got as far as Cherry Hill.
And then found your way to Philly?
A friend of mine was into rehabbing real estate here. He said, why don't you come check out South Street. I'd heard of South Street, in that song [by The Orlons], but I'd never even been to Philadelphia before.
So I came, and it reminded me so much of the Village in Manhattan, back in the '60s, when it was nothing. I saw that evolve into a hot area, and I said to myself, hey, I bet the same thing is going to happen here. Sure enough, it did.
I had a couple dollars, so I bought a couple properties. This place, where the restaurant is now, I bought it for $12,000.
Was it a restaurant back then?
Oh no. It was boarded up, everything around here was boarded up. We cleaned it up, and it was summer, so I figured, let's sell some ice cream. That was 1974. Business was great, but then winter came, and I had to do something else. So I started selling hot dogs and burgers, stuff like that.
Not Greek food?
That started in 1976. A friend who lived in Society Hill said to me, "You're Greek, why not do Greek food?" So I did, and as soon as I put shish kebabs and gyros and spinach pies on the menu, no one bought burgers or hot dogs anymore. I figured, hey, if people like the Greek food, that's the direction I'll go in. And that was the beginning of South Street Souvlaki.
Were there other restaurants around here back then?
There was Phila-Deli, and around the corner was a restaurant called Wallflowers, one of the best in the city in those days. That's about it.
But I got busy. I started with just one side, a counter and a couple tables. It was mostly takeout. Then I bought the property next door for around $16,000, and turned it into a sit-down restaurant.
Did you know how to cook?
My mother was a great cook, so I picked up a lot of recipes from her, and other older Greek people I knew. I'd take their recipes and adjust them to my taste. I've got pretty good taste, that's what I go by, here. If I like something, I'll serve it. So far, it's been pretty successful.
In order to make the move from sandwiches and kebabs into entrees, I found out who the best chef in the country was. It was someone in Detroit, so I offered to pay him more than anyone else would, and he came and worked here. I learned from him, and then I threw him out.
Once they stay a year or two, they're no good. I mostly dislike "chefs." So temperamental. I like cooks better.
So you got your dinner menu going, and then you added a bar?
In 1980 I got a liquor license, and added a bar downstairs. Around 1985, South Street was booming, so I opened a little nightclub upstairs. It had live entertainment, belly dancers, all that. It was fun.
But the upstairs has since closed.
I got tired of finishing work at 4 or 5 a.m. I used to be here seven days, 160 hours a week. When business slowed down a bit, it wasn't worth keeping the club open.
See, back in the '80s, South Street was the only street, there was nothing else. No Manayunk. No Old City. No Passyunk Avenue, no Fishtown. Over the past 10 or 12 years, there was a big decline. But we'll get it back again. You'll see. It takes a while, but I think when it comes back, it's going to be better than ever before.
Look at the new Stephen Starr restaurant [Serpico]. There's no reason it can't survive. I hope it does. [Peter Serpico] is a very nice fellow. He doesn't like a lot of attention, but I think he's one of the best chefs — cooks — in the city.
Serpico is a great asset for the street. Because there will be more people following. Who knows, maybe Vetri will come down next. It's a possibility. We need that. To make this street like it used to be.
And you're reopening the upstairs.
Yes. I'm calling it Bistro on Top, Bistro on Top of Souvlaki. It'll be a French-Mediterranean tapas bar, with a small piano for some relaxed live music. Small plates, nothing more than $12. There's a full bar up there, and we installed a brand new kitchen.
Do you have a chef/cook to run it?
Yes. Frenchie. Well, I call him Frenchie. His name is Michel Audeon, and I've known him for years. Stephen Starr brought him to Philadelphia originally, to open a place on Walnut, but they had a falling out, and he went back to California. He was chef at Pastis, and then opened his own place.
While he was in Philly, though, he came into my restaurant one time with a big party, and I sent them a bottle of wine. He thanked me and we got to talking. We talked through several more bottles of wine, and that was it. We became best of friends.
So when I was getting ready to open the upstairs, I said to him, "I could do anything up there, but if you're into it, let's do French." We're going to give it a shot. If that doesn't take off, we'll do something else. We'll do South American, maybe. What's the difference?
What's the difference?
Right. I believe a restaurant itself will show you which direction it wants to go. You can't force it.
I did the same thing with La Fourno, just up South Street. I own that building, and before La Fourno opened with Italian food, I tried several different things there. Back in the '80s, it was a French restaurant called Alex on South. That didn't work out, though, because even though I had a great cook, he didn't know how to run the business side of things.
After that I tried burgers, then BBQ, then ribs. I did everything. Eventually, the Italian food clicked.
I didn't realize La Fourno was yours. Any other restaurant buildings you own?
Yes, in fact. Where Pub & Kitchen is, at 20th and Lombard. I own the bricks. I started Chaucer's there, and operated for a few years. In 2008, a couple of fellows came along and wanted to do something new. I'd never met nicer people, so I sold them the business.
I love Pub & Kitchen. Ed [Hackett], what a guy. And Dan [Clark], he's fantastic. Just the nicest guys. Everybody who works in that place is great — I don't know where Dan finds them.
Like Johnny Mac [former Pub & Kitchen chef Jonathan Adams]. He's a sweetheart, too. I just found out he opened a cafe at 24th and Lombard [Rival Bros.]. If I'd known, I would've sent him flowers for the grand opening. I think I'm going to stop by next week, bring a nice plant or something, say congratulations.
Years ago, I used to stay informed. I knew everything that was going on. But nowadays, if I'm not here, I'm down the shore fishing in Ocean City. I just got back.
Catch anything good?
Absolutely. Got a great bluefish. It's in the restaurant kitchen right now. I'll probably have it for dinner.
South Street Souvlaki
509 South St., 215-925-3026
Hours: Noon to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m., Sunday