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A barside seat to city's vibe

At the Copa Too, they know what's lost in these fast times.

Derick Cohen, a regular, lifts a beer with Mark Newton (right), kitchen manager at the Copa Too, a Center City standby trying to endure. "I feel there's a purpose for us being here," owner Lisa DeVicaris says.
Derick Cohen, a regular, lifts a beer with Mark Newton (right), kitchen manager at the Copa Too, a Center City standby trying to endure. "I feel there's a purpose for us being here," owner Lisa DeVicaris says.Read more

It's Friday night at the Copa Too and Henry Seltzer is in his regular spot at the bar.

He sports a houndstooth jacket and two days' growth of bristle. He has tucked a paper napkin into his white shirt. The loose skin of his throat spills over the collar a little. He has polished off the homemade soup and vegetables, and there's nothing left on his plate but the picked-clean Death Valley bones of half a roast chicken.

The bartender and owner, Lisa DeVicaris, refills his glass. Her blond hair is pulled tightly into a bun; she's wearing heavy makeup and a gold sequined tank top.

Seltzer, 70, never married, has no children, and retired 11 years ago from his various semi-invisible jobs - stocking shelves, sorting, running errands for manufacturers. He has a standing invitation to a free Friday night dinner, anything on the menu and unlimited refills of Diet Coke, courtesy of DeVicaris. She does it, she says, because she thought he could use a little tenderness.

That's part of the job when you run a neighborhood joint like this. You let the cook bring in his 5-year-old when he can't find a babysitter. You let the homeless guy use the bathroom. You give jobs washing dishes to young men trying to fix their lives. And you feed a guy like Henry Seltzer.

The Copa and Seltzer are at one in many ways. Humble, gruffly dignified, with more going on beneath the surface than you might guess. They've inhabited the neighborhood long enough to remember when this territory of 15th Street between Spruce and Locust was more heavily traveled by hookers than real estate agents.

Now the city is getting glossier. Big chains like Applebee's and Fox & Hound have moved in. Luxury condos are going up. Rents are rising. And the Copa Too is in trouble.

"All the growth in Center City - the new businesses coming in, new restaurants and improvements - has been great, but it comes at a cost for places like this," says Gov. Rendell, who developed a taste for Copa Too's burgers and fries during his mayoral reign in the 1990s and still makes regular pilgrimages.

"Around election time, he loses weight, we don't see him," DeVicaris says. "After he's elected, he comes back."

Despite the governor's loyalty, business is declining.

DeVicaris cites a variety of factors. The costs of goods and services are up.

The competition is stiffer, too. A study by the Center City District reports that there are 216 "fine dining establishments," a 232 percent increase since 1992, and 187 sidewalk cafes, an 80 percent increase in five years. The percentage of chain restaurants has nearly doubled since 2000 - from 7 to 13 percent.

DeVicaris would rather not talk about Rendell's part in the decision to allow Applebee's to take over the site of the old Bookbinder's up the street, instead of the high-end state wine and liquor store that originally was slated to move in.

"He's been such a good friend to us," she explains.

And she understands that it's a complicated algorithm - whether 100 jobs at Applebee's, instead of 10 at a liquor store, make up for the damage to her, the employees she has laid off, and this little piece of the city's soul.

Philadelphia can't afford to lose small gems like this, says Meryl Levitz, director of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp. "They are the authentic places that give a sense of place and spirit - and make the city different than anywhere else."

But they're fragile, she says. "Anytime something new opens, it's going to take people away. In time, they come back. The key is whether Lisa and other little places like hers can weather it, because larger restaurants are capitalized to be able to withstand fluctuations."

An amiable pub where the food and drinks are reliably good and generous - the small dining room is gently lit, and, most evenings, so are many of the patrons. Copa Too, like a resilient family, tolerates eccentricities and accepts that no conversation is entirely private.

Two years ago, trying to reverse the slide, DeVicaris spruced up the restaurant, replacing a door ($3,000), retiling the bathroom ($2,000), and making new tablecloths (negligible). She offers 20 percent discounts to season subscribers at the Merriam Theater, the Academy of Music, and the Kimmel Center.

"But I can't afford to be in any of the playbills; they're a fortune," she says. "And I can't afford any print or radio ads, either."

Her mother and a partner bought the business 22 years ago. It hasn't changed much since: the exposed brick, the oak floors, the sign over the bar that says, "Live by the sun, love by the moon." It was always filled with local characters, she says. People with small jobs and modest aspirations, big jobs and immodest opinions.

DeVicaris met her husband working here. He's now her ex-husband and still helps run the place. The kitchen manager, Mark Newton, was a student at Martin Luther King High School when DeVicaris' father was the principal.

Three years ago, she bought the place from her mother. "I was never looking to make a whole lot of money." Now 48, she lives modestly - in a trailer on her father's day-camp property in Bensalem. She drives a dented 2003 minivan.

"I used to think that if you worked really hard, good things would come to you. But that doesn't seem to be the case."

Judy Faye, executive producer of the Book and the Cook festival, says she sympathizes. "The Copa Too is the kind of place where time has stood still, which is comforting to me," says Faye. "But with the hospitality industry being so competitive, there's a need to build public awareness. I do think Copa Too has dropped off the radar screen."

You wouldn't know, judging the scene on a Friday night. The bar is noisy and crowded. People in their 20s to 60s who work in law firms and insurance agencies, hotels and real estate companies and who have come here at the spent end of their 40 hours to drink fruity margaritas and beer and talk about office politics and national politics and American Idol and ruined relationships and sex.

Regular patron David Shappell explains his devotion to the bar he has been frequenting on and off since he needed a fake ID.

"There's a vibe," he says.

Shappell, a lawyer who used to work as an agent in Los Angeles, says he missed the grit and edge and honesty of neighborhood bars like this. "I come in just to talk to Lisa," he says. And he brings along his 12-pound, long-haired dachshund-Lab mix, Lexi.

At the other end of the bar, Seltzer is shouting at a Phillies game on TV. A guy named Bernie comes in and lobs him a big hello and a pat on the back.

"A smarter businessperson would get out," says DeVicaris. "But I don't want to get out. I feel there's a purpose for us being here." She shakes her head. "If we weren't here, what would happen to Henry?"