Friday, August 14, 2015

The Flight of the Chains

Closing-signs are usually a bad omen, right? Not always. More than half of the Gallery's businesses have closed for upcoming renovations, and better retailers. Less-than-stellar shopping across from the Reading Terminal head-house closed for NREA's grand East Market development. And nearby on Chestnut Street, developers are following suit.

The onslaught of new residential development means new residents. That's great for Philadelphia's astonishing restaurant scene. But with more hotels, come more tourists. And with tourists come the corporate trappings of Middle America. 

But Philadelphia's an outlier when it comes to chain dining. Our residents are ferociously opposed to Market East becoming a beacon of corporate flair. With the exception of the new Cheesecake Factory at 15th and Walnut, I don't remember the last time a strip-mall minded dining option opened in Center City.

In fact since our rise began - let's say around 2003 when my bad ass moved to town - chain restaurants have taken a hit, even fast food options. Has a McDonald's ever gone out of business? At least one has, and it was on Philadelphia's most nefarious tourist drag: South Street.

Buca di Beppo closed. Ted's Montana Grill shut down. And I swear there was a Bertucci's around the corner from Applebee's at some point, but I can't seem to find any reference to it. That's not to say we don't have our Ruby Tuesday's, TGIFriday's, and Chili's, and they're exactly where you'd expect them. But with improvements to the Parkway District, new residents moving to our central business district, and pop-up beer gardens infiltrating our most corporate addresses, will they go the way of my mythical Bertucci's? 

"When ya heah, ya fam-i-ly!"

They just might. In a sign that East Chestnut is finally emerging as the hip equivalent to Walnut Street's posh Rodeo Drive, trendy furniture stores, German beer halls, and luxury apartments are finally making use of this once inexplicably seedy corridor. In with the new, and out with the old, and in this case the old would be Olive Garden.

Despite the Olive Garden's consistent crowds, it always drew sneers from locals. Perhaps it's the Garden's laughably stereotypical commercials, the absurd fact that their chefs really do train in Italy, or maybe it's just because the food really isn't that great. But in a city with more Italians than you can shake a broom at, and seemingly as many authentic Italian restaurants, the real question is why anyone would pay $20 for a dish from the Olive Garden when Little Nonna's is a short sashay away in the heart of the Gayborhood.

The answer is predictability, and it's closure simply means that there aren't enough people in Center City - local or otherwise - looking for the boringly expected. That's not to say it won't return. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is finally booking the kind of exhibitions they'd been hoping for since 1993, and that means more hotels. If the Olive Garden ever decides to revisit Center City it's going to be eying anchor opportunities on Market East, Arch Street, and North Broad. Just like a bevy of chains Center City's never seen, like Fudrucker's California Pizza Kitchen, and - apparently - Bertucci's. 

And that's just fine. Philadelphia's restaurant scene rivals the best in the nation, maybe even the world. But one reason we're so great is because our food scene is local, and by that I mean it's enjoyed by locals. When the Gackerack's are in town from Omaha to see the Liberty Bell, looking for familiarity in an Olive Garden, do we really want to point them to Vetri? Do we really want them there, complaining that they don't offer a bottomless salad?

No, we want to give them exactly what they want, on their turf, right outside their hotel. We don't want them going back to Nebraska griping about "some weird place called 'Vee-Tree'," we want to send them home gushing about the amazing Olive Garden beneath the digital twilight of Market East. We want them to say, "Philadelphia's got a great Olive Garden! It's even better than the one in Time's Square, and that one has three floors!"

If they're a foodie, they'll find what they're looking for. If they're not, give them what they want.

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