After 31 years at 200 S. Broad St., the Palm Restaurant, where the Philadelphia power lunch began and arguably ended, has closed.
Opening in the lobby of the Bellevue Hotel in 1989, the Palm came along during a time when lunch mattered. It was what distinguished professionals who were beholden to the clock from those who seemingly made time work for them.
For the better part of the next decade, the Palm was the place where you almost had to be seen eating — or drinking — if your aims were to be noteworthy in Philadelphia business, law or politics.
Timing was right for the Philadelphia Palm. This was before the Vernicks and the Vetris and the Starrs, the Schulsons and the Solomonovs. Jose Garces hadn’t yet won “Iron Chef.” There was no “Iron Chef.” There was the tempestuous French master, the staid club for rich Jewish men and the staid club for rich gentile men. Rittenhouse Square had a Houlihan’s.
The Palm benefited from an environment ready to sustain it, and its atmosphere and mystique transcended the sum of its tangible parts.
But Palm regulars will tell you that the food was actually really good, maybe even better than really good.
“They used to come for the gossip,” recalled Bruce Cahan, former owner of Southwark Paint Co., “but also for (Chef Jeff Bleaken’s) meatloaf. The food really was phenomenal. There was just no better food at that particular time.”
And the service was especially celebrated.
“The staff was absolutely great,” recalled Sayde Ladov, former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “If you were a regular, they knew the little things: how you took your salad, if you wanted anchovies. They were warm and caring and they took care of you.”
“The servers used to go back to the chef and say, ‘This is for Bruce and Andy,’” said Cahan, “and they knew exactly what to do for us. Not a lot of people can say that at a restaurant of that nature, and now we’ll lose that altogether.”
But, ultimately, there were other places in town to get a steak with a smile; it was about the scene.
“It was the place to be,” said Cahan, who along with his husband — musician and former owner of Queen Village Recording Studios, Andy Kahn — became “part of the Palm family” by doing interior design work for Palm restaurants all over the country as well as hotels in the Hamptons owned by the Bozzi and Ganzi families (the Palm’s original owners). “We knew everybody who came in, and everybody got dressed up. It was like a country club in Center City. And it was mostly Jewish people.”
The weekends might’ve been one kind of scene, but the weekdays were something else.
“The place got mobbed at 11 o’clock, five days a week,” Cahan said. “Lunch was the time for the power brokers. Of course Ed Rendell — Ed Rendell used to get pick-up and eat it in his car. His lunch he’d eat there, and then he’d get his dinner and eat it in the car.”
At the restaurant’s peak, which longtime patrons say spanned from ’89 to about 2000, part of being in Philadelphia’s political arena meant a certain amount of face time at the Palm.
City Hall intrigue and waiters privy to the latest political scuttlebutt were de rigeur at the Palm.
“You never knew who you’d see in there — lots of politicians making strange bedfellows,” said Philadelphia lawyer Vito Canuso, whose office is in the Bellevue. “One of my favorites was seeing now-Mayor (Jim) Kenney and Bill Green III. They used to have bitter fights in city council. One night I walk in, and they’re both at the bar drinking. I said, ‘I never expected to see you two guys here,’ and I’ll never forget Kenney saying to me, ‘what’s so strange about two Irishmen at a bar drinking?’”
“That was just how it used to be,” echoed Ladov. “There was a group of regulars you’d always see, from Rendell to (former Philadelphia District Attorney) Lynne Abraham to Johnny Doc (union boss John Dougherty). It was always a happening.”
A happening yes, though not the place for a quiet, private meal, she added. “If you didn’t want to have your business in the streets, you didn’t go to the Palm.”
The good times for the Palm didn’t last forever. Patrons recalled that the restaurant’s cachet seemed to be on the wane in the early 2000s, around the time Philly mob boss Joey Merlino was being tried in federal court.
“Many of the defendant’s lawyers started to frequent Capital Grille,” Ladov recalled. “And, for some reason, the Palm lost a lot of that business to Capital Grille, and it never seemed to come back. I have nothing to prove that, but, anecdotally, that’s my sense.”
Others have said changing tastes, coupled with a year-long renovation in 2016, constituted the final death knell.
After a 2019 bankruptcy, the Palm chain of steakhouses was purchased by Landry’s Inc., the company behind Del Frisco’s, which operates a restaurant across the street from the Bellevue. Landry’s promptly closed the Palm’s Philadelphia location, though other Palm restaurants, including Atlantic City’s, remain open.
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