IT'S A NEIGHBORHOOD fish story worth telling.
Ten years ago, when Paul Kimport and William Reed took over Johnny Brenda's, there wasn't much new going on in Fishtown, a blue-collar, mostly Irish-Catholic river-ward neighborhood 2 miles north of Independence Hall.
The triangle roughly bounded by the Delaware River, Frankford Avenue and York Street wasn't on anybody's radar for dining or nightlife, unless you were looking for a gritty shot-and-beer joint like Johnny Brenda's, opened in 1967 by boxer John Imbrenda, whose ringside moniker is still on the sign outside.
Kimport and Reed, with a proven track record for opening well-conceived, affordable dining in Northern Liberties with Standard Tap, made the same pioneering move in Fishtown when Johnny Brenda's came up for sale. Kimport knew the place because he lived in the neighborhood.
They bought the business on a handshake from Imbrenda. The idea of leaving the bar's faded character intact while upping the food quality seemed like a win/win.
"There's even more diversity, of all kinds, than there was when we bought our house," said Kimport. "Economic diversity as well as ethnic diversity. And that's a positive thing for the future of this town."
Although both Fishtown veterans and newcomers are quick to say they don't want to become another Northern Liberties, from Kimport's perspective, that's an apples-and-oranges scenario.
"Northern Liberties was more industrial, with more open space to attract large-scale development," he said. "Fishtown has more diversity of housing stock. People have lived there for a long time.
"William and I wanted to open a place to serve the neighborhood, both existing residents and the musicians, artists and young families that were moving in."
In the past few years, a spate of restaurants and bars have opened in Fishtown, places like Kraftwork, Bottle Bar East, Fishtown Tavern and Frankford Hall, which really turned the tide, according to Henry Pyatt, the Main Street corridor manager for New Kensington Community Development Corp. Pyatt works with businesses in Fishtown, as well as Kensington and Port Richmond, to fill vacant storefronts, ensure there's a healthy retail mix and promote the neighborhood.
"Frankford Hall was a big deal for us," he said. "In 2001, Johnny Brenda's proved that better food could be popular in this neighborhood. But people from the suburbs and New Jersey didn't really notice until Stephen Starr came long."
Starr's German beer hall, along with Fette Sau, his meat-lover's barbecue paradise, brought lines out the door most Saturday nights, and other restaurateurs took notice.
"We still need a dry cleaner and a place to buy greeting cards," said Pyatt, who lives behind the Philadelphia Brewing Co. in Kensington.
Fishtown, which got its name from its leading role in the Delaware River shad-fishing industry, is growing slowly, which Pyatt said is a good thing. At its peak in the 1950s, Fishtown was home to somewhere around 16,000 people. It was at 8,000 for the 2000 census, and is now around 9,500.
"We're at 60 percent of what we were before people moved out for the suburbs," he said.
An industrial hub
What sets Fishtown apart from Northern Liberties and other Philly neighborhoods is that it's a place where people make things, Pyatt said. "We are still to a small extent an industrial neighborhood. We dye yard, make jewelry, fabricate custom blue jeans. There are small business owners making low-volume, high-value goods.
"Sarah Lewis at Adorn has a workshop behind her store where she'll make 1,000 pieces of jewelry to sell to Anthropologie. Ryan Kozar and Melissa Colosi at Catch and Release have their own clothing line. Chris DiPinto makes guitars at DiPinto Guitars. People can work with their hands here and make a decent living."
Many of these people have put down roots in the neighborhood and community, which makes for collaborative and integrated growth, he added.
Laura Viegas, chef/owner of the Cook and Shaker, has lived in Fishtown for 10 years. She took over the former Chugamug Pub, with plans to open the redone 55-seat eatery by the end of the month on East Albert Street, about a mile northeast of Johnny Brenda's.
Viegas will serve affordable comfort food, from sausage and peppers and pierogis to buffalo fried Brussels sprouts, with nothing priced more than $15. Viegas, a veteran of White Dog Café, Farmicia and Bistro 7, wanted to open north of York Street, where Memphis Taproom is her closest neighbor.
"I wanted to better serve the neighborhood where I live myself," she said. "We're a tight-knit community."
Chef Lisa Ransing's great-grandparents were born in Fishtown. She grew up there, moved away a few times for work, but came back to the 'hood two years ago.
After spending her early career working with Georges Perrier and as a private chef, she started Full Moon Fare, a raw vegan food delivery service that will open in a Fishtown storefront in a few months.
"This neighborhood is exploding with creative people. I knew it was a good place for me to live and run my business," said Ransing. "Most of these businesses are independently owned. Sarah at Adorn, the girls at the yoga studio [is YOGA studio], The Parlor, where I get my hair done. It's exciting to be a part of it all."