We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
The building at the corner of 23rd and Aspen Streets fbecame a saloon in 1915. Prohibition was enacted just five years later, but the proprietors supposedly didn't skip a beat. They painted the counter and shelves pink, stocked them with canned goods, and proceeded to operate as a "grocery store" - one with a trap door behind the bar leading to a hideaway where alcohol continued to be served.
After Repeal, the bar picked up where it had left off, and at some point became known as Patsy's. Tucked beside the Eastern State Penitentiary, a block off Fairmount Avenue, the watering hole was kept alive by neighborhood regulars. It operated mostly under the radar until 1985, when it was bought and rebranded as Rembrandt's.
Rembrandt's was the brainchild of Harrisburg native and adopted Philadelphian Jan Zarkin, who'd heard the bar was for sale and set about putting together a group to make the buy. He asked nearly everyone he knew, ultimately assembling a cohort of a dozen partners who threw in $10,000 each. They also acquired the garage next door to the original spot, and converted it into a dining room, adding a tiny kitchen in the room connecting the two spaces.
None of them had much restaurant experience - they were mostly executives at SmithKline Beecham (the precursor to Glaxo SmithKline) who wanted to keep the booze pouring at their local hangout - and over the course of the next 15 years, Zarkin bought most of them out.
In 2000, Zarkin bought the house behind the property, on 23rd. He quadrupled the size of the kitchen, bringing on chef Peter McAndrews to oversee a large and ambitious dinner menu, and turned part of the second floor into a banquet room. Downstairs, he added a third seating area with its own entrance. By morning, it was a cafe selling pastries and coffee; by evening, it was the place guests could ask to be seated if they preferred the nonsmoking section. The coffee shop idea was short-lived, but the restaurant continued, eventually earning two bells from The Inquirer's Craig LaBan.
In 2007, McAndrews left to launch Modo Mio and a mini-empire, and by 2009, Zarkin was ready to retire from publican life. He was loath to leave his project in a stranger's hands, though, and after much effort, he convinced a longtime friend and Fairmount resident, Gail Seygal, to become Rembrandt's owner.
Seygal was even less of a bar expert than Zarkin had been when he started - in fact, her long career in occupational therapy had included zero jobs in hospitality. But she was ready for a life change, and so she picked up a copy of "Restaurants for Dummies" and dove in.
Things were rough at first - just months after taking over, an ice storm crashed the entire balcony and awning apparatus onto the sidewalk, crushing two parked cars - and Seygal went through a series of chefs and managers as she struggled to find her groove. She then got the idea to promote from within, and ended up with a solid crew, including current chef April Hyers.
For the management of day-to-day operations, she relies greatly on GM Alec Terry, who started at Rembrandt's as a busboy in 2003 when he was just 15 years old. He joined her recently for a short discussion of the tavern's history - and its future.
How did you end up in this business?
It was just one of those serendipitous things. I was a biology major in college, did medical research for several years and got a degree in occupational therapy. After college, I moved to Philadelphia, and one day a group of four of my friends and I went out for a drink at McGillin's. It was there that I first met Jan [Zarkin]. I'm not saying what year it was - I don't even tell my staff how old I am! - but it turned out Jan and I were both from Harrisburg, and we became good friends.
Back in 1985, he came to me when he was getting the original Rembrandt's group together and said, "Hey, do you want to get in on buying a bar?" I said, "Are you out of your mind? No!" But this time around, I was ready for a new adventure and challenge, so when he was selling in 2009, I said yes, even though I didn't know anything about the restaurant business.
Was there a big learning curve?
Oh, my God, yes. A huge learning curve. I'm a docent at the zoo, so ask me about animals and I can talk all day. I have no idea what to say about food, other than I like chocolate. I hired a manager at first that just wasn't a good fit, so I told myself, "OK, I'm going to learn how to do this." I bought a bunch of restaurant books, and started teaching myself.
I remember the first time I tried working on the floor. A group of guys came in, four guys in suits, so I seated them and went over to pour them water. I thought, "How hard could this be? I see the staff do it all the time?" So I pick up the first glass, and tilt the pitcher to pour from the side, and water ends up all over the floor.
Eventually you got things rolling; what was the key?
The staff. Definitely the longtime staff. One of the bartenders has been here for 30 years, since the place opened. I let the staff handle most things day to day, since there's always something else for me to take care of - a leaky roof to fix, or running to the liquor store to get more vodka. Even now, when I try to help out in the dining room, they don't let me. But I have gotten better. I can bus tables, now.
Has owning a restaurant changed what it's like to dine out?
Very much. When I go to restaurants now, I'm always thinking, "I know exactly what you're going to do when you leave my table." And I know exactly what's going on in the kitchen after I order. It's a whole different perspective; you really don't know until you're in the industry. I see some menus and I'm like, "Twenty dollars for pasta - are you out of your mind? That costs like 50 cents!"
Did you make changes when you took over from Jan?
We got rid of all the tablecloths in the dining room - nobody wanted to sit there! And Jan used to have two menus - dinner and bar food - and we consolidated them into one much shorter menu. It helps to know your audience. The people who come here don't want froufrou and foam and $15 glasses of wine, like they do downtown. They just want a neighborhood spot with good pub food. And the beer - we expanded the beer selection. Now we have 12 taps, all pouring craft beer, plus 15 or 20 more in bottles.
Has your clientele gotten younger?
We have many more younger people now - although we do still get older folks, a few of whom complain that we took the tablecloths away. But the demographics of Fairmount have been changing, and now it's all people starting their families. We keep something like 20 high-chairs in the back, because the parents definitely love their happy hour.
The neighborhood has changed a lot since I first moved here. You wouldn't even walk around here at night - the parking lot right next to this place was full of needles. I had a rowhouse on 24th Street that I bought for $62,000 and sold in 1986 for $90,000. Now? It's valued at something like $640,000. It's still just a rowhouse. It's nuts.
There are a lot more restaurants here now, too - is that good or bad for you?
That's a good thing. It's a bigger draw to the neighborhood. And they're building all these residential high-rises. Plus, the areas all around us are getting developed - Girard Avenue to the north, North Broad to the east. With more housing going in, there's definitely room for all these restaurants. And with North Star Bar not being around any more, maybe we'll get into hosting music. We've got a big space upstairs, and we already host events like Kenn Kweeder's annual Bob Dylan's birthday concert. It's a big success.
Are you friendly with the other restaurateurs in the area?
When I first took over, Stephen Starr knew the manager I hired, and he came here to practice in our wood-burning oven before he opened [Pizzeria] Stella. And I know the people in the neighborhood. London [Grill] is right down the block; we borrow chairs from them, and they come and borrow potatoes from us. It's a small community.
What were some of your most memorable days here?
Well, just recently, when Pope Francis was here, we had what was probably our busiest hour in Rembrandt's history. The whole week it was very slow, but right after the Mass on Sunday, we got packed. Within 20 minutes, every single seat was filled. You're talking about 110 people sitting down all at once. The staff handled it very well.
Your favorite thing about owning a restaurant?
Talking to the guests, and becoming friendly with the regulars. There's funny times, there's touching times, and they've all become like my family. It's not like I'm always going to listen to what they say - they all have suggestions about how to run this place. "You should have ketchup on the tables!" "You should get new chairs!" Oh, OK. Sure. People say all the time, "I used to own a restaurant..." I'm like, "Oh good, then you don't need to ask me how I am today."
741 N. 23rd St., 215-763-2228
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.