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At Jack's Firehouse, no pretentiousness

No burgers in the dining room.

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.

When Jack McDavid was growing up in Clinchport, Va, his family never went out to eat. There wasn't anywhere to go - the Appalachian Mountain region where his parents worked and farmed was too poor to support any restaurants.

McDavid paid his way through college in Charlottesville, Va., by working in local restaurants. After graduation, he scored a position behind the line at Washington's Le Lion d'Or, the elegant French dining room that was regarded as one of D.C.'s best. In 1984, he was recruited by Georges Perrier to come cook at Le Bec-Fin, which had just moved into its new home on Walnut Street.

Although McDavid found working for Perrier inspiring, his bold personality clashed with that of the Gallic chef, and before a year was up, he left to open a restaurant of his own. With an investment of $20,000 (most borrowed from friends), he transformed a sagging Reading Terminal Market spot called the Glass House into the Down Home Diner, which opened March 1987. Things were slow at first, but after a pair of rave reviews from the Inquirer and Daily News, the diner became the hottest breakfast and lunch spot in town.

McDavid had always been enamored of the giant 19th-century firehouse on Fairmount Avenue near 22nd Street, which had been a short-lived restaurant but was vacant. The first time he'd asked about it, the building's owner was unwilling to lease it to him, but the diner's success proved his mettle, and the landlord relented.

Jack's Firehouse opened in December 1989. McDavid made a point to use as many local ingredients as possible way before it was trendy, filling his daily-changing menu with produce, game and seafood all sourced within 100 miles. He turned an old copper still into one of the region's first wine cruvinets, and stocked his bar with more than a hundred bourbons. The dining room had white tablecloths and fine silverware, but also moderate prices and no dress code.

For the next decade and a half, McDavid continued to run his two restaurants. In 2006, looking for a little more rest, he sold Jack's Firehouse to a former manager, Mick Houston.

Houston had gotten into the hospitality biz by mistake, discovering that he had the knack while bartending as he searched for a job after law school. In addition to Jack's, he'd run a popular Fairmount bar called Catalina and was an opening partner at Center City's Twenty21. When his former employer asked him to take over the Firehouse, his one condition was that McDavid stay on as adviser and partner.

Nearly 10 years later, Houston, 47, and McDavid, 60, still collaborate on everything. They recently sat across from each other at a sidewalk table and discussed how much the neighborhood has changed, why they don't serve burgers in the dining room, and the reason they've never had an advertising budget. They also let on that in about six months, they plan to open a bakery serving hot doughnuts in the space  next to the wide-open firehouse doors.

Do you know the history of this building, the firehouse?

It was originally built in 1864 as the first paid fire department in the U.S. It was rebuilt in 1902, and there's a great story behind that. In the 1870s, a man named Philip Johnson got himself appointed lifetime architect for the Philadelphia City Department of Public Health, thanks to family connections. Since he got a 3 percent commission on everything he built, he ripped down nearly every firehouse in the city and had them all redone. Almost everything in here, including all the wood on the walls and the floors, is from that construction.

What was this neighborhood like when you opened, Jack?

It was a little rough. I once suspended my wife for a few days - she worked for me - because my staff knew they weren't supposed to wear their waitressing uniforms walking home, and she kept doing it. The first few weeks after I opened, we had a little problem with people trying to open cars that weren't their own. So I put gentlemen out on the street with baseball bats and whistles, and when somebody broke into a car, we would encourage them not to. We spoke redneck very well.

But people came for your cooking?

We had a very aggressive menu, and we changed it every day. We used wild game; we served everything from bear to venison to buffalo. We flew in fresh shrimp from Louisiana; we brought in fresh crawfish. This kind of stuff wasn't going on in Philadelphia. But we were always moderately priced. I never figured out why you wanted to bang people over the head with prices. Or why you would force people to wear a coat and tie. We said, if you had money, you were welcome here. I always believed the pretentiousness of fine dining was stupid.

Did you have a liquor license from the start?

Absolutely. We had a huge wine program. David Moore ran it, and basically started Moore Brothers [in New Jersey] out of our wine list. We also had what might have been the first bourbon bar in the country. The biggest, anyway. We had over a hundred bourbons; only some of them were legal. The state of Pennsylvania probably had 30 bourbons at that time - that's when it was considered redneck stuff. LCB officials used to come here and taste my bourbon and decide what they wanted to add to their list.

You're right across from Eastern State Penitentiary. Was it open then?

The prison was completely locked; no one went in or out. I was the one who convinced them to open it for Halloween. I begged, I battled, I pleaded, I took the press over there to show them what a wonderful facility it was and get them to write about it. And then I wrote the prison a $18,000 check so they could turn on the lights for the first haunted house. Everyone thought I was crazy, but it worked.

Now Fairmount Avenue is full of restaurants. Are there too many?

Competition is good. You can open a place in any area of Philadelphia right now and still do well if you have good food at a good price and good service. There's enough people, and as long as you're moderately priced, and you serve a great product, people will come.

Have you ever done advertising?

No. I believe people generally don't base their dining decisions off a glossy picture. We always participated in any events we were asked to, like the Flower Show and other charitable causes. We donated all the time and effort we could to any of those things, instead of worrying about paid promotions. We basically took our advertising budget and gave it to charity. And it paid off in spades.

Why did you decide to sell the place, Jack?

The only way I knew how to run the restaurants was to be there all the time. I would get into [Down Home Diner] at 5 a.m. and leave here at 2 a.m. the next morning. I could sleep standing up. But I was getting older, and it was time to spend more time at home. Instead of selling it for top dollar, I wanted to sell it to someone who would maintain it the way I had - someone that would come and run the business with the understanding of buying local, helping local, being local. And maintaining a decorum that I thought was appropriate.

Why did you buy the place, Mick?

I had just left Twenty21, and I was thinking of getting into the legal practice. That's when Jack called me up and told me he wanted me to buy the Firehouse from him. When I had a chance, I think he said. So I did.

Did you get loans?

I mortgaged everything I had in my life. Jack told me, "If you buy this from me, Mick, you'll be able to pay it off in a couple of years and everything'll work out OK." And it's been better than I could ask for.

Did you make changes when you took over?

Not many. I expanded the draft list to six instead of just one - Jack was one of the first to have Yards beer on tap, and he used to go through five kegs a week. But most things are the same. The menu is still the same physical menu - a handmade wooden book with leather binding. It's still organized the same way, with appetizers and entrees. We still make all the desserts in-house. I still have separate menus for the dining room and the bar.

And you still have tablecloths.

It's something I struggle with. People come in all the time and want cheeseburgers for dinner, and I just won't put them on the dinner menu (you can get them in the bar). I feel like there's got to be a level of fine dining here; I want that to carry on. There are very few fine dining restaurants that are open seven days a week for lunch, brunch and dinner. There might not be a single one around here anymore. And this has been going on for 26 years.

So no plans to make changes?

Well, we are opening a bakery here again. Jack used to run one, and people would stand in line for the sticky buns. So we're bringing it back. I hope to have that situated within the next six months. It'll have its own entrance. I think it's going to be called Jack's Bakery, but I don't even think I'll put a sign up. It'll just be people showing up because they smell the hot doughnuts. And all the people who walk by with their heads buried in their phones, the aroma will make them look up. I think that's the one thing this street is missing, food-wise. A great neighborhood bakeshop. When you wake up in the morning and smell bread - it's just marvelous.

Jack's Firehouse

2130 Fairmount Ave., 215-232-9000
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday