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Lucky 13th

Once seedy, it's now a sparkling restaurant row

Where porn and grime once reigned, South 13th Street has come alive with eateries and upscale groceries. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)
Where porn and grime once reigned, South 13th Street has come alive with eateries and upscale groceries. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)Read more

BACK IN the day, when Paul Hogan took a break for lunch from his job managing Robin's Bookstore, on 13th Street near Sansom, there weren't many options.

"The food at McGillin's was always good, and they've been here forever," he recalled. "But other than that, 13th Street was a wasteland, a real depressed area. Horrible fried chicken, greasy pizza — really awful."

These days, Hogan has his choice of a global smorgasbord, thanks to a few hungry visionaries who have transformed 13th Street between Chestnut and Walnut into one of the city's best restaurant rows.

Part of the Midtown Village neighborhood, a handle bestowed by a conclave of business and tourism folks in 2007, 13th Street was once an urban eyesore, a blighted stretch of real estate just blocks from City Hall, the Convention Center and Independence Hall. A bustling retail area for decades, this stretch of 13th Street lost tenants to suburban flight and fell on hard times in the late 1970s, when the area became known for its porn theaters, seedy go-go bars and check-cashing establishments.

It was a place to cut through, not to visit.

"People avoided 13th Street like the plague," recalled Craig Grossman, managing director for Goldman Properties in Philadelphia. "I'd say it was a bit of a red-light district."

Grossman works for Tony Goldman, the New York developer known for transforming down-and-out neighborhoods into thriving, livable cityscapes, transformations he's accomplished in New York's Soho, Miami's South Beach and now in Philadelphia, where Goldman's vision once again rang true.

Goldman started buying midtown property in 2000. Cleared of decades of neglect and grime, the buildings in the company's 25-unit portfolio revealed themselves as architectural gems, with 12-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, exposed brick and impressively carved facades, most dating back to the late 1800s.

"Our goal was to raise the taste level, create a mixed-use neighborhood with restaurants and boutiques on the ground level and office and living space in the upper floors," Grossman said. "We knew that food and beverage was the way to ignite the neighborhood and bring pedestrians back."

Enter chef Marcie Turney and her partner in life and business, Valerie Safran. Together they have been an incredible force in the revitalization of this now-bustling street. In 2002, they took a risk with Open House, the chic housewares store that they launched in the middle of a retail no man's land.

"The idea was for me to keep my day job as chef at Valanni while Valerie ran the store," Turney recalled. "We really didn't know if anybody would come through the door."

Family members told Safran she was crazy, that nobody in their right mind would even walk down 13th Street. "They were wrong," she said.

Grossman remembers meeting the pair and thinking that they had what it takes — an entrepreneurial spirit, passion to succeed and willingness to work hard. "The rest really is history."

Safran and Turney now own six businesses and support a staff of 90. Besides Open House, there are three restaurants — Lolita, Bindi and the soon to open Barbuzzo; Grocery, a gourmet takeaway and catering service — and Verde, a flower and gift shop where Turney sells her Marcie Blaine artisanal chocolates.

"We're proud that we helped make 13th Street a destination," said Turney. "We hoped, but really didn't know for sure, that it would happen."

With not a single storefront vacant, 13th Street between Chestnut and Walnut is bustling, a magnet for shoppers, local business people, and residents and destination diners. Turney loves to see lines out the door at Sampan, Michael Shulson's hip Asian-fusion scene, or across the street at Zavina's, where patrons line up for thin-crust pizza and wine.

"People don't mind waiting," she said. "They're outside, having fun, drinking. The busier one restaurant is, the better it is for all of us."

New, notable nosh on 13th

Bindi, 105 S. 13th

Turney's toothsome foray into exotic Indian cuisine combines heady spices with seasonal ingredients in dishes like coconut chicken with wild mushroom biryani.

Grocery Cafe & Market, 101-105 S. 13th

Gourmet takeaway and catering, including the tasty new Little Lolita hot-food bar, featuring savory fresh Mex.

Apothecary, 102 S. 13th

Seasonal meets artisanal at this mixology mecca. Tasty small nibbles and a roof deck add to the allure.

Lolita, 106 S. 13th

Marcie and Val's first-born eatery is still a winner — nouvelle Mexican artfully served. And don't forget to BYOT (bring your own tequila)

Barbuzzo, 110 S. 13th

Set to (finally) open in June, Barbuzzo gets chef Marcie back to her Medi roots in the former Robin's Bookstore space. George Sabatino, last of Bindi, will be chef de cuisine. No need to BYO; there's a liquor license.

Zavino, 112 S. 13th

Tasty, thin-crust pizza, along with memorable, seasonal veggie dishes and cheese and imported meat samplings. Well-priced wines by the bottle.

Capogiro, 119 S. 13th

One of the 13th St. pioneers, Capogiro remains the best place in town for inventive gelato. Yes it's expensive, but so worth it.

El Vez, 121 S. 13th

Its 2003 opening makes this sassy Mexican joint an old-timer, but the crowds keep coming for a lively bar scene inside and out.

Sampan, 124 S. 13th

Michael Schulson's long-awaited modern Asian dishes up silky edamame dumplings, braised short rib lo mein and a diverse menu of satay that skewers everything from kobe beef to king crab. Head to the graffiti bar for an artsy outdoor scene.

Vintage, 129 S. 13th

Hefty pours, a smart French bistro menu, informed servers and 60 wines by the glass give this handsome restaurant real star power.

Also worth a visit

Zinc Bistro, 246 S. 11th

Romantic vibe along with Olivier Desaintmartin's classic bistro fare. Tableside duck is a specialty.

Philly Cupcake, 1132 Chestnut

A riot of flavors (Chocolate Massacre, anyone?), gluten-free and vegan options, and...they deliver.

Jake's Sandwich Board, 122 S. 12th

Creative new hot spot specializing in roasted pig on a roll topped with long hots, broccoli rabe and more.

Tabu Lounge, 200 S. 12th

Tasty gastro pub eats amped up a notch. Care for Kobe on those nachos? Plus, beaucoup flat screens for sports and an upstairs lounge.

Knock, 225 S. 12th

Stylish New American is the place to see and be seen in the Gayborhood. Interesting array of flatbreads go perfectly with oversized cocktails.

McGillin's Olde Ale House, 1310 Drury

Philadelphia's oldest continuously operating tavern celebrates its 150th with a special brew, McGillin's 1860 IPA, and a fine array of solid pub food.

Raw Sushi & Saki Lounge, 1225 Sansom

Inventive maki rolls and sake flights in a swank lounge setting, plus a nice courtyard for romantic dining under the stars.

Portofino, 1227 Walnut

Suave Italian fare in a perfect spot for pre- and post-theater supping. Show your stubs for 20 percent off the bill.

Aki Japanese Fusion & Saki Bar, 1210 Walnut

Sexy mod setting makes Aki a happy hour fave. Pristine sushi and well-priced cooked entrees, including a whole crispy red snapper with chili sauce for $20.

Maoz Vegetarian, 1115 Walnut

This Dutch-based chain is the spot for killer falafel topped with your choice of fresh coleslaw, beet salad, tahini sauce, roasted peppers, chopped onion and more. (Also at 248 South St.) Best Web site ever,

Caribou Cafe, 1123 Walnut

Simply wonderful French regional fare from Olivier Desaintmartin. Love the warm frisee salad, steak tartare and skate with capers.

Joe Pesce, 1113 Walnut

Family owned modern seafooder with top shelf pasta options, a tasty daily crudo and the freshest of grilled fish.

Garces Trading Co., 1111 Locust

Jose "Iron Chef" Garces' latest is an eat-in or takeaway gourmet food stop serving fresh pastry, charcuterie, cheeses and prepared Mediterranean accented fare. Try the plats du jour for two. Adjacent wine store is an added bonus.

Tria, 1137 Spruce

Always a fab spot for wine, beer and cheese pairings along with eclectic small plates, salads, paninis and the like.

Mercado, 1216 Spruce

Gifted chef Mackenzie Hilton adds freshness, zing and style to all things Mediterranean at this always busy, cash-only BYO.

Valanni, 1229 Spruce

A great paella, along with irresistible bites like lobster and crab mac and cheese, and beef kabob glazed with mole. The crispy Brussels sprouts with marcona almonds are to die for. Knockout happy hour deals. *