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Phil's Tavern in Blue Bell: From 'dump' to destination

"What keeps them here?" A good owner. "What makes you a good owner?" I was an employee once and I know how it feels to be mistreated. I always try to make them feel like a family. I never embarrass them. When I'm doing well, they do well.

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.

Diners may be few and far between nowadays. But what if you combined a diner's phone-book-size menu with a comfortably worn bar attached to a series of dining rooms?

Then you'd have Phil's Tavern, just off the intersection of Butler and Skippack Pikes, which has been serving the Blue Bell area for decades. (It's properly known as "The Phil's Tavern" for corporate reasons, but everyone knows it as Phil's.)

Charles Compagnucci and Sal Paone took it over in 1985, growing it from a shot-and-a-beer into a destination that regularly fills its 280 seats plus 35 at the bar.

How busy? "I go through 4,000 to-go boxes every week," Compagnucci says. He sat down to chat with us the other day.

First off, Chuck, who is Phil?

The original Phil was Phil Signore. He was from Ambler. His family had this place. ... They started out as a gas station and an auto repair shop. Then he had a little taproom. Then in the mid-1970s, he sold it to the Mallozzi brothers, who had it for 10 years.

This place has grown since you bought it?

It was sort of a dump, dive bar. They did most of their business during lunch with all of the businesses around but at nighttime it was a hell hole.

How have the challenges changed since 1985, when you bought it?

There was no competition. You only had Broad Axe, the Blue Bell Inn, and Marabella's at that time. It was a dead town. Plymouth Meeting was dead.

You have employees that've been here forever.

The majority of my main people have been here for 28 to 30 years.

What keeps them here?

A good owner.

What makes you a good owner?

I was an employee once and I know how it feels to be mistreated. I always try to make them feel like a family. I never embarrass them. When I'm doing well, they do well.

Speaking of which: How are you doing?

(Knocks on wood.) Pretty good. We're constant. Our numbers are growing a little bit but constant all of the time, despite the fact that 100 new restaurants have opened up.

Have you ever thought of cutting the portions?

I realize it's too much food. Well, if I cut it back, you might not come back. You can get ordinary food anywhere. You don't get it here. If you're average, you're just like everybody else. You can sit here and eat prime rib and your date could have a grilled cheese. I don't alienate anybody. In today's market, everybody is changing to maximize profits. Most places everything is a la carte. We still do it the old-fashioned way. We give you a salad or soup. We give you a potato and a vegetable. You're getting your money's worth.

This meatball. It must have weighed 4 to 5 ounces.

It is close to 7 to 8 ounces. I want to tell you a funny story about it. That's my grandmother's recipe. We make about 400 at a time. When we started out, I cooked, I cleaned, I did everything. I made the meatballs. We had 60 or 80 pounds of meat, veal and pork, and I was weighing them. It was taking me all day. I said, "The hell with it. They are the size of my hand." That was my guide. From that time on, that's how we did it and everybody loves our meatballs. They are really good. We got veal, pork, beef, cheeses, grated cheese, eggs, everything. We use panko bread crumbs. Our secret is when we make them, before we put them in ... When you put meatballs in a sauce they get dark, black and hard. We put them in a pot of water. They soak and they get real fluffy and then we transfer them to the sauce,  and then we put them on the plate.

Tell me about your customers.

My customers range from blue collar to billionaires. From 20s to 80s. It's a cross of everybody, retirees, young people, millennials. My place is very friendly and welcoming in the sense that everybody that comes in feels comfortable. We monitor language. We monitor behavior. I have a lot of families with children. It's a foodery where people come to eat. We're not really a sports bar, though we have TVs in every room.

Tell me about some of your regulars at Phil's.

We have one gentleman who comes in every Friday night. He loves the '70s. He has a big following of friends. They start singing every Friday night around 9 o'clock at the bar. They come in just to see him. For about an hour and a half, they're singing '70s tunes. It makes the whole bar alive and people want to come in. We have very loyal customers that like specific tables. Merrill Reese comes in, and he likes to walk in and walk right to his table. He doesn't stop. We always have his table ready.

Do you ever think of retiring?

I'm 66, and I'm in very good health, knock on wood. I was going to retire. It sounds great until you retire, then you either want to kill your wife or kick the dog. I work 3½ days a week. I have three managers [Brian Lupo, Joe Lochetto, and John Mallozzi] that have been with me for over 25 years. I'm sort of semiretired. As long as they are willing to do their job, and I don't mind coming in, I'm not in a hurry.