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.
Making it to the 10-year mark is an impressive milestone for a restaurant, so it's remarkable to realize that three years from now, the Saloon will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
It was 1967 when Richard Santore and his twin brother, Bobby, bought the building on the corner of Seventh and Clymer, just below Fitzwater Street, in South Philadelphia.
Over the next half century, the bar grew in size and stature, eventually becoming a fixture of the neighborhood, where it's regarded with a combination of curiosity and deference by those who've never been inside. For those who regularly pass through the ornately carved doors, it's a revered sanctuary, a place for fine dining without the fuss.
Though he still makes all the day-to-day decisions and basically lives at the restaurant, 78-year-old Santore isn't much for conversation. Instead, his nephew (and Saloon manager) Mark Santore helped me arrange a meeting with Richard's older brother, Charles.
A prodigious illustrator with several best-selling children's books to his credit, Charles Santore is not an official partner in the restaurant, but he's been involved from the start — he's the one responsible for the plethora of historical artifacts and paintings that adorn the restaurant walls.
Over a dinner of gigantic raw oysters and meltingly tender veal piccante, he and I discussed the highlights of the past 47 years, including the time Billy Joel took over the second-floor piano for a spontaneous show (decades ago) and the time a visiting musician mistook Richard, the owner, for a handyman (last week).
What was in this location before the Saloon?
We grew up here, right in this neighborhood, and the building — just the corner part — was a bar as far back as I can remember. I remember walking by all the time when I was a kid; it was called Melinda's and had a pair of swinging doors (like a saloon). Then Melinda died, and the place went through a series of changes.
During the '50s, it was called the Ray Lou Bar, and the owners made some horrible renovations. Replaced all the windows with glass brick, put in an oval bar that was padded. It very dark and not welcoming. It was pretty successful, though, because whoever Ray and Lou were, they drew a lot of people.
That business petered out and the bar went through a bunch of different owners, none of whom could do anything with it. The building owner stayed the same. He would just lease out the business, then whoever took it on would fail, and he'd get it back.
But then your brother bought it?
It was actually Richie's twin, Bobby, who had the idea. Bobby was a social worker. He worked with the Quakers helping neighborhood kids, but he didn't have a degree so he couldn't advance in their organization. He was really good at it — they actually offered to pay for his tuition. But he had three kids and needed to work, he couldn't just go off to school.
So just about that time this place came up again for sale. He asked me, "What about the bar?" but I was just starting my own illustration business, and told him I wasn't interested. So, he got Richard involved. Richie said, OK, sure, he would be a partner, but he didn't really want much to do with the business.
I told the two of them not to do it unless they could buy the building, but the building owner had gotten old, so he was ready to sell. I gave them my huge antique National Cash Register, which I had paid $20 and had been using to store pencils in my studio. That was the first thing. Then I told them to get rid of that damn block glass in the windows and take out the oval padded bar. They did.
So you were their design consultant?
Yes. Still am. I've been a collector for years. My own preference is toward 18th-century stuff, but I like 19th-century stuff too, and this was a great opportunity to have a place to put it. I was always going to auctions of various kinds, suggesting to Bob and Rich, "Hey, this would look great in the restaurant." To their credit, they always said fine. Now we have a collection of dozens, if not hundreds, of old pieces here. I'd say 95 percent of them are from the Philadelphia area.
Was the restaurant a success from the start?
In the beginning, it was only a one-room bar. They were doing very well just selling hamburgers. The guy who did the cleaning used to make the hamburgers. There was no chef. They sold a ton of martinis at lunch, used to make them by the gallon. Forty cents each, they were.
Around six or eight months after opening, my brother met a guy who was teaching film at Temple. They decided it would be good to show old movies on Tuesday nights. So they started, and it was wild! People used to line up outside to get in, just to watch and old Bogart film. They became very successful. People starting writing about it in various newspapers, and it just got better and better. When they could, they bought the building next door, and then they expanded upstairs — it had been the painting studio of our younger brother, Joe, and they kind of kicked him out.
And the menu changed, too?
When they began expanding, my brothers got together and brought a chef over from Italy, he had worked on cruise lines, and he made this place into a real restaurant. He was here for years. When he retired, a man who had worked under him became the head chef. He stayed for a long time, too. When he left, Richard starting bringing over people from Italy to run the kitchen.
Bobby died of lung cancer when he was 40, so Richie had to come forward. He had been working here, but stayed in back, didn't want to deal with customers on the floor. But then, he had no choice. He came forward, and he actually made it a much better restaurant, as far as the food goes. He got very involved with the food and the menu.
Did you know he had that kind of taste?
No, and I don't think he did, either. But he was traveling a lot back then, going to Italy a lot, and he knew what he liked when he saw it other places, and would remember it and implement it here
Did you eat Italian food growing up?
Not really. My father's family is from Naples. They came to Philadelphia sometime in the 1870s and bought a house right on the corner of Seventh and Bainbridge in 1885. But my mother's family is Irish and German. I'm not sure when her grandparents came over.
Plus, the war was on back then, so everyone ate things from cans. All the young women were buying stuff in cans. The old ladies, you'd see them get up in the morning with their little kerchiefs, and go to the market on Ninth Street, but that was considered old-fashioned. The new thing to do was go to the grocery store and buy cans.
So you're only half Italian. But this is an Italian hangout?
The restaurant? No. No. That really never happened. Because right from the beginning, my brothers didn't want it to be a hangout. From the start, the local troublemakers had to be thrown out. It had to be "the kind of place you could bring your mother."
What were some of the most memorable nights here?
[Richard Santore walks over to the table and sits down.]
Charles: Richie, she asked what were the most memorable moments, the most memorable nights, can you think of anything?
Richard: Yeah, the ones you don't want to write about.
[Richard Santore gets up and leaves the table.]
Charles: That's just how my brother is. Always been like that. Once we got a call from — I think it was Jerry Blavat — and he said, "I'm going to bring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin over for dinner." So Richard says, "Do me a favor, take 'em somewhere else."
There was one night, unfortunately I wasn't here, but I heard about it. Billy Joel came in for dinner and he was eating downstairs and someone told him there was a piano on the second floor. So he came upstairs and did a whole show. He played for hours, song after song.
How do celebrities hear about the Saloon?
I'm not really sure, because my brother's not very congenial. But the celebs that do come in, they come back because nobody makes a fuss over them. Richard leaves them alone.
He's not one to make himself known, anyway. He used to love to clean the place. He couldn't wait for lunch to end so he could bring his cleaning crew out. One day, there was this guy sitting at the bar, one of those martini drinkers that hangs around long after lunch. He said to Richie, "You know, I've been watching you clean for days, and you really do a great job. Would you like to come and do cleaning work for me?" Richard says, straight-faced, "No thank you, I'm happy here."
Just last week, I was sitting at a table with Richie, it was around 9 p.m. on a Saturday. We had a small jazz trio playing, and the bass player was very heavy, a big guy. When he'd come in, earlier, he couldn't get his bass up the back steps, and Richie saw him struggling and carried it up for him.
So in a break in the music, the guy looks up and sees Richie sitting here. Walks over, says, "Hey, here's five bucks, thanks a lot." Richie said, "Oh no, no, that's OK." Bass player says, "No, go ahead and take it. Buy yourself a drink." He'll probably be back to play next week.
He still doesn't know it's Richie's place.
750 S. 7th St., 215-627-1811
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday to Friday; Dinner: 5 to 10:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday