LAST WEEK, I visited Lemon Hill, the anxiously awaited spot set to open next week at 25th and Aspen in what's alternately called Fairmount or the Art Museum neighborhood. Lemon Hill's pedigree has raised expectations - it's a partnership between the owners of the acclaimed Supper and Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company, the Center City cocktail temple.
Mitch Prensky, of Supper, and Mike Welsh, of the Franklin, showed me around the warm, unpretentious space where the short-lived Lucky 7 had been (and before that the Aspen Restaurant). We talked about the concept - Prensky called it "relaxed seasonal American cooking" - and the menu, which features down-home offerings like smoked tomato soup, rice fritters with crawfish mayo, pastrami-fried chicken wings, brick-oven flatbreads, cathead biscuits, shrimp-and-grits, beef brisket and even a classic patty melt.
Then I asked what seemed, to me, a harmless question: "So would you call Lemon Hill a gastropub?"
Welsh chuckled uncomfortably. "Please don't use that term," he begged me.
"Do you have another term?" I asked.
"I don't," Prensky said, also laughing.
"Will you have bone marrow on the menu?" I asked.
"Yes, probably," Prensky said.
"Well," I said, "I guess you're probably a gastropub then."
"We've been giggling about the term gastropub," Prensky said, "but we're taking it to another level."
Well, it's not as if this would be the first gastropub to open in Fairmount, especially if we're defining gastropubs as casual-bar-meets-interesting-menu that appeals to foodies who like craft beer. In fact, sometimes it seems as though the neighborhood's zoning only permits gastropubs.
In the past few years, we've seen the arrival of gastropubs like Kite & Key and St. Stephen's Green, and the reimagined and reinvigorated McCrossen's Tavern. Soon, Matt Zagorski, previously of Rouge and 500 Degrees, will open Hickory Lane, a BYOB, in the former L'Oca space, offering "quality, farm-fresh ingredients in modern recipes."
And those are just the newer spots. I lived in this neighborhood about 15 years ago, and what always strikes me is just how many of my old haunts still remain, mostly unchanged: London Grill, Rembrandt's, Bridgid's. Even the Belgian Café gives me a sense of déjà vu for the long-gone neighborhood standby Tavern on Green. These places have been, it could be argued, gastropubs since long before the idea of the gastropub became trendy.
It's difficult now to believe, but at one time in the early- to mid-1990s, this area was the trendy, up-and-coming neighborhood, several years before Old City really took off. For more than a decade, though, the area has been stuck in a sort of time warp. But we're now clearly seeing an influx of new talent.
"There's money up here, there are families. It's the suburbs in the middle of the city," Welsh said. "But there's been a turn. There's some fresh blood coming in. I'll go out on a limb and say this is like a Brooklyn resurgence kind of thing."
"It's one of the few neighborhoods in the city that's still its own enclave," said Townsend Wentz, who became chef at McCrossen's Tavern a little over a year ago. "Even though it's fully gentrified now, in 10 years it really hasn't changed too much. It's still people that don't fancy themselves city dwellers."
Wentz is an example of the fresh blood coming in. Wentz did previous fine-dining stints at the Four Season and Lacroix and in New York. But like many younger chefs who saw diners' appetites for fine-dining wane after the financial crisis, he decided to focus on a more low-key approach at McCrossen's. "This allows me a lot more freedom to make excellent food, but without all the trappings of fine dining," he said.
McCrossen's Tavern has been transformed from a hole-in-the-wall into a top-notch kitchen that serves excellent veal sweetbreads, bouillabaisse, pork Milanese and, yes, bone marrow. It calls a meatball "polpette."
I've enjoyed eating and drinking at McCrossen's over the past few weeks. It's still a bar - there are always people playing darts and they were doing a trivia contest during Monday-night football. But I was particularly impressed by the pork belly and the scampi pasta, and some of the chalkboard specials, such as a squash bisque, a truffle risotto and a "trotter slider," a sausage of trotters (read: pig's feet) and ground pork shoulder prepared and served in a way similar to Italian cotechino.
"It's been a long year for me to change people's perceptions," Wentz said. "Buffalo chicken fingers don't cut it anymore. That's high school cafeteria food." Still, Wentz admits he's had to keep chicken wings and burgers on the menu. And let me say, his habanero wings are worth seeking out.
Wentz used to live in Fairmount and sees a lot of potential here, especially with the new Barnes Foundation set to open a few blocks away. He believes places like Lemon Hill and Hickory Lane will push the ball forward. "Mitch Prensky was in the other night and he said, 'I want to make interesting food, but there are limits.' "
One major difference at Lemon Hill will undoubtedly be the focus on cocktails. The introductory cocktail menu features straightforward classics like real daiquiris, Manhattan variations, the Boulevardier (bourbon, Campari, sweet vermouth), the Clover Club (gin, vermouth, raspberry syrup and egg white) and others - but all call for ingredients of higher quality than almost anywhere else.
Al Sotack, the Franklin's excellent bar manager, will be on site overseeing the drinks program. This may be the reason for Welsh's resistance to the word gastropub, which usually refers to a place focusing on craft beers and wine.
I'm curious, of course, to see how serious cocktails will work in the Art Museum neighborhood. The Franklin, for instance, has always had a strict, no-apologies policy of No Vodka For You. Vodka, of course, being the bane of the cocktail geek's existence.
"Yeah, we're going to have vodka here," Welsh said.
"Vodka?" I said. "Really?"
"Yeah," he said. "Look out."
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.