Down Home looking up
Jack McDavid brings back the diner, adds takeout: Overall, an impressive, tasty return.
Jack McDavid was a few scenes into his third act - or maybe fourth - last week, relaunching his Down Home Diner in the Reading Terminal Market, opening it now for dinner (until 10 each night except Sunday, when it closes at 7), his exuberant promises filling the booth I'm occupying, including the promise of cast-iron-skillet-fried chicken, the return of his nonpareil black-eyed pea soup, and visions of house-churned butter (and the homemade ketchup) he'd featured back in the day.
He has been up and down the restaurant mountain, 55 now, his trademark bib overalls apparently retired, though "Save the Farm" still glows in neon scrawl at the back of his 70-seat dining area, refitted with barnlike rafters, and his twang, redolent of the foothills of Virginia, is as rich and peppery as it ever was.
Once upon a time, back in the mid-'80s, before the Iron Chef and Top Chef and Rachael Ray phenomena took off, McDavid was a celebrity chef himself. He was a media darling, celebrating farm-to-table ingredients before farm-to-table was a word. He cooked with Coca-Cola. He got paid to promote bison. He grilled and chilled with Bobby Flay on the Food Network.
He was a reliable contrarian: Give Swordfish a Break? Well, Jack said, no need for that if you bought it from the better-stocked Pacific instead of from the North Atlantic, where it was being depleted.
Yup, his first iteration of the Down Home Diner got a lot of ink back in the '80s, tucked in a corner of the Reading market near where the Pennsylvania General Store currently resides. He took the show on the road, opening another place - the Smokey Mountain Grill, a ribs and barbecue joint, at 18th and Spring Garden. (It faltered, suffering from inattention.) Then came his longtime centerpiece, the soaring Jack's Firehouse, across from Eastern State Penitentiary, which distracted him from the diner, and which he sold after a decent run a few years ago.
Jack McDavid is not in denial about his missteps. There were decidedly fallow years at the diner, now relocated in the market, its windows looking out on the hooded shadow-world of Filbert Street. At times the food just stunk, breakfast biscuits, sandwiches, fish.
The bloom was off the rose. Which makes all the more impressive McDavid's reinvestment in spiffing up the old diner space (he spent a bundle, doubling, to 850 square feet, his kitchen footprint) and rededication (he has been showing up at 4 in the morning, albeit one recent day to get ready to deep-fry a Thanksgiving turkey for a segment on Fox29).
He has installed a take-out counter, facing the interior of the sprawling market, stocked with $5 chicken-salad sandwiches and soups, the black-eyed pea version restored to its former ham-hock-infused glory.
McDavid is well known for his tongue-in-cheek, Southern-fried blarney. But his praise of his soups stands the test - a deep, smokily delicious complexity informed the broth in a recent cup of beef-vegetable, and the black-eyed pea bested most I've had south of the Mason-Dixon: "We've got all the bones we could want for stock," he says, waving at the butcher stands aisles away; most of his produce comes from the market as well.
The diner menu is still shaking down. A plate of Memphis-style ribs the other day had a decent chew and honest crust, and a hearty side of toothsome campfire beans. On the other hand, sweet-potato pierogi under sauteed onion and ham were a bit light on real flavor.
Once again, though, McDavid runneth over with reports of forthcoming blockbusters - "Better Than Your Mama's Pan-Fried Chicken" (with collard greens), and small-batch, bacon-spiked mac 'n' cheese (made throughout the day), and potato-crusted catfish with (bless his heart!) old Philadelphia-style pepper hash, the sweet-vinegary slaw of cabbage and bell pepper that was served with the catfish that teemed in the Schuylkill a century ago.
For Sunday supper? Roasted chicken and dumplings and other, well, down-home dishes.
His old pal Bobby Flay is coming down to do a star turn. The diner is making its own free-range chicken nuggets. And though McDavid swears it's a money-loser, he will soon, he says, offer another of the city's legendary dishes - fried oysters and chicken salad.
A fitting encore for a welcome encore.
Down Home Diner
Reading Terminal Market
12th and Filbert Streets