A PLUSH PIG the color of cotton candy sits on a windowsill at Carman's Country Kitchen. Though it's the size of a Beanie Baby, this tiny swine is no Ty Warner product. Official Beanie Babies do not come with the sort of appendage that sticks up over the pork's belly.
This little piggy has a big salami.
Look around chef-owner Carman Luntzel's three-table, two-counter (and, in warm weather, a table for eight in the back of her pickup truck) bruncher-y, and you'll see that it's a sausage party on and off the menu.
Dingaling-shaped ceramics pepper shelves. Phallus-adorned postcards cling to a corkboard. A mug with a willie for a handle hangs out on a ledge. A purplish rubber johnson dangles from the ceiling fan.
But the wiener-theme teapot and creamer made by the wife of "American Pie" singer Don McLean? Luntzel took it home weeks ago. Over the past three months, she's been packing up her most cherished decorations, including select members of her member collection.
After 22 years at 11th and Wharton, the self-made chef and self-proclaimed "keeper of the penises" is closing shop and moving to South Carolina.
At summer's end, Luntzel's landlord sent notice he wasn't renewing her lease. The property owner wants to turn her one-of-a-kind South Philly spot into a run-of-the-mill pizza shop.
The news, said Luntzel, wasn't easy to take. "I was upset at first," she recalled.
No wonder. She'd spent the past couple of decades building a business, turning strangers into fans (and friends) by persuading them to try peanut butter on waffles, lime syrup on French toast, and salmon, corn, asparagus and ricotta salata in omelets.
She even got customers to love sweetbreads and mushrooms, duck breast and sour cherries, and conch fritters and eggs . . . for breakfast.
Her job was fun - if you know Luntzel, you know she wouldn't do something she didn't enjoy - but it wasn't easy. Getting up well before dawn. Doing all the cooking, and sometimes the serving, too. Accepting same-day-only reservations. Looking after all those sex-organ souvenirs (along with penises, the restaurant has a fair share of boob objects, too).
The venture began the way most things in Luntzel's life seem to - through a friend of a friend, and by asking herself, why not?
In the late '80s, "a cousin to a friend of mine that I used to go with said this place was going to be changing hands, and he wanted me to take a ride with him to look at it," she said. "When I looked at the place, I said, 'What am I supposed to do with this?'
"And he said, 'You'll think of something.' "
He was right.
She'd come to Philly from Miami to open nightclubs here like she did there. Later, she sold cars - first Pontiacs, then Dodges, Chryslers and Nissans - on Passyunk Avenue. But when the stock market went sour, she needed a new gig. She could always go back to the club scene, but as a single mom with three kids about to enter high school, she also knew, "If I wasn't home at night, [my kids] weren't going to be, either."
So she rented the place from its then-owner - and something of a South Philly legend herself - Annie George, whose parents had run a restaurant there. Luntzel hired a friend, Maggie Morningstar, to cook and went into business. But six months after opening, the friend died suddenly.
"I couldn't replace her," said Luntzel. "So that's what made Carman a cook. Nothing preplanned. None of this was, 'Let's go look for a restaurant. Let's go cook.' No-o. That wasn't my life."
But then, it was.
Alone in her 8-by-10-foot kitchen, she redid the menu. She decided to serve the kind of food she grew up eating, plus dishes she'd sampled in her travels abroad. The "Country" in the restaurant's name wouldn't refer to a rural bent but to "different countries of the world," said Luntzel.
Today, her seasonal selections - always a choice of pancakes or waffles, challah French toast, an omelet, or a savory entrée with a side of eggs-your-way - are a neighborhood staple and an international sensation.
Carman's Country Kitchen has been raved about in the New York Times. It's been on TV, in magazines and blogged about beyond belief. Luntzel's regulars come from South Philly, Center City and the 'burbs, as well as Alabama, Georgia, Texas, California, Minnesota, Japan and beyond.
Now that she's closing, longtime customers are, "like, out of the woodwork," she said. One couple is flying in from Los Angeles just to eat there this weekend.
Why do they come back? For one, the place if fairly unforgettable, from those anatomical souvenirs and the mannequin named Tula at the front door, to the rainbow flag hanging outside and the political stickers on the windows, to the red-and-white business cards printed with her slogan, "She put the c--- in country." ("It's a bad word, but as long as we [women] use it" it's OK, she said.)
All this makes the cash-only restaurant stand out.
"Carman's is absolutely unique, and will be missed," said Therese Madden, a former producer for WHYY's "A Chef's Table," adding, "Where else can you get a jelly bean omelet at Easter?"
OK. So not everyone would want candy in their eggs, or appreciate dining amid phallic decor. But those folks who get it feel sure Carman's can't be replaced.
Center City residents (and pals since grade school) Larry Schlesinger and Norman Stein have been coming here for four years. They're visiting as much as possible now. Said Stein, "We were drawn here by the food but stayed for the people."
"Sad to see her go," agreed Schlesinger, "The people here are almost like family."
Last Saturday, the pals ordered the French toast with buttered yams, persimmons, dates, almonds and vanilla whipped cream. As usual, Stein took a second entrée home to his wife. "She's offended by the decor, so I always bring back breakfast for her." He was kidding, of course.
Luntzel's as nonchalant about them as she is about anything.
She started the collection years ago with a souvenir from Spain. "I brought it back, and people were like, 'Wow, she's got a penis. I've got a penis for her. Let me bring her a penis.' Each one has a story."
She hasn't decided what she'll do with all of them - maybe keep a couple, probably give most away. Her plans for her next act - become a private chef, travel, volunteer internationally, spend time with family, especially the three grandkids, and date exotic men "with no intention of staying with them" - require her to pack light. Plus, she's pretty confident there's plenty more where those came from.