Not too long ago, at the northern edge of Bella Vista, barely a block south of teeming South Street, you could be forgiven for not immediately sensing the area's up-and-coming-ness: There was Goosebumps Lounge, widely disparaged by neighbors as a nuisance bar. Under a hip roof along Bainbridge stood a row of empty storefronts. In between, hmmm, was Chick's Bar & Back Room Cafe.
It had been there since the 1890s, the "Chick's" dating from its long ownership by members of the Cicalese family. But in later years it had become unclear whether it was open to the public, or whether it was being operated as, in the parlance of certain precincts of South Philadelphia, a "social club," with all the shady, vaguely sinister connotations that term has come to have.
Nella Genovese, the daughter of a stonemason who emigrated from Sicily, was toying with her broccoli rabe and grilled polenta at the bar at Chick's, reprising those not-so-long-ago days. She'd freshened up and reopened Chick's just weeks before - rechristening it Chick's Cafe & Wine Bar.
And if she'd had a little rough sledding at first - one banker from the suburbs hadn't seen much future in the place, and turned her down for a loan - the scenery one recent evening was certainly looking rosier.
Goosebumps was gone, transformed into Horizons, a genteel, apricot-colored vegan oasis. Where the vacant storefronts had stood, a book-lined coffee shop called the Bean Exchange smiled in the dusk, its tables spilling onto the sidewalk. A gentle breeze rippled down Kater Street, giving it the aspect of a tranquil urban village, a half block off South at Seventh - but miles from its adolescent vibe.
This is Chick's corner redux, aglow in the twilight, its status no longer in question. The vintage cherry bar back is still intact, elegantly carved. Silvery stained glass drapes the transom. The striking, original pressed-tin ceiling has been repainted a chocolate-burgundy, its brocaded pattern continuing in an embrace halfway down the walls.
It is a sweet space, never overhauled out of character, still evocative of its era. The menu is presided over by Jim Piano, a Bridget Foy's alumnus, who is turning out modest but friendly dishes that (with the exception of an abidingly bland bouillabaisse) are full of comfortable and satisfying flavors - slow-braised short ribs on polenta; rosemary-accented "Tuscan fries"; mussels with tomato and fennel; Spanish cheeses; and a lush chocolate-banana creme brulee.
Genovese insisted on one of the tastier small plates - fresh, pan-fried sardines with brandied golden raisins and pine nuts - as a nod to her Sicilian roots. With a glass of Duchesse de Bourgogne, the sweet, fizzy, sour-cherry Belgian ale, it is bar food as its best - neither drearily ho-hum nor prissily overworked.
Chick's had had a brief revival 20 years ago before returning to semi-hibernation. Which was probably a good thing: No one fiddled with its innards.
So it rejoins the city's roll of Victorian and classic workingman's saloons, tin-ceilinged artifacts on the order of Sassafras in Old City; Manayunk's U.S. Hotel Bar and Grill with its starburst-tile flooring; London Grill (circa mid-1800s), whose mahogany bar served guards from the nearby prison; and, though the exterior has been battened with atrocious paneling, Kelliann's, 16th and Spring Garden, its bar faced with Tennessee pink marble, the original urinal trough still visible at its base.
Genovese tells me she once set her sights on running a bed and breakfast. But Chick's turned her head. She'd already managed a cardiology practice, gotten a hairdressing license, then a real estate license: "Who would have thought I'd end up with a liquor license?"
For the record, it is No. 376 of the first batch issued after the repeal of Prohibition. Cent'anni!
The Bella Vista veteran - now "cafe and wine bar" - has a satisfying menu and a fresh face, yet is still evocative of its 1890s roots.
Corner of Seventh
and Kater Streets.