Twenty years ago - Thursday, June 27, 1996 - an artist etched the words "Audrey Claire" into the front-door glass of a former five-and-dime at the corner of 20th and Spruce Streets.
Audrey Claire Taichman says she saw her name and started to cry.
"This place is so going to suck," Taichman says she told herself - after months of planning, wheedling loans from her friends, her father, and the Money Store, and setting up a BYOB - a BYOB!? - near Rittenhouse Square.
But then, wow.
The next day, Taichman flung open the big windows, opened the door, and watched the neighborhood rush in, jamming in cheek to cheek for bright-tasting, Mediterranean-inspired cooking in a bare-bones room with wooden floors and unforgiving wooden seating. Brought wine? Great - here are your juice glasses. Oh, and it's cash-only. Still is.
Twenty years ago. "Where the heck did that go?" Taichman roars. "It still feels like yesterday."
She was 27 then, a former waitress and bartender at Friday Saturday Sunday, the landmark restaurant around the corner (which happens to be coming back this summer under new owners).
"I was so sure that Philly needed an airy, fresh restaurant. I was so young. When you're younger, you can take that risk. I had nothing to lose."
Audrey Claire's 20 sidewalk seats helped set the scene for outdoor dining on Rittenhouse Square, opening two years before Rouge.
After Audrey Claire, she took over Carolina's up the block in 1999 and installed Twenty Manning (later revamping as Twenty Manning Grill). Then came the creation of Feastival, the annual fundraiser for what is now FringeArts. And Cook, a demo kitchen a few steps farther up 20th Street from the restaurants.
What has she learned?
"You learn not to sweat the small stuff," Taichman said.
"I don't take things personally, either. I don't worry about another restaurant [opening nearby]. The more, the merrier. And respecting your employees' time and money. A lot of these people have been with me five or 10 years. I have great employees."
Audrey Claire still makes it because "it's simple. It's not outrageous. People come here three times a week. The food is not complicated. Garlic, olive oil, lemon. That's pretty much it."
Check out this backgrounder on Taichman and her restaurants.