Can I nominate Irene Levy Baker for Philadelphia’s official ambassador?
I’m going to do it anyway because the PR professional and certified foodie knows her way around Philly. Over twenty years living in the city of brotherly love has given Irene an insider knowledge that rivals natives’, and she shares her most clutch secrets, tips, and advice to exploring the city in her books, Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia and 100 Things to do in Philadelphia. Readers are taking notice.
FEASTIVAL had the chance to sit down with the Philly aficionado at the Vernick Coffee Bar inside of the new Comcast Technology Center to pick her brain. As we retrieved our hot drinks from the bar, Irene looked over to find the bright green cover of Unique Eats and Eateries staring up at us from a table close by.
After introducing herself to the couple touting her book and signing their copy, we got down to business…
For people who aren’t familiar with you and your newest book, what is Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia about?
Unique Eats and Eateries tells the stories behind 90 Philadelphia restaurants—love stories and longevity stories, restaurants that survived earthquakes, prohibition, fires… (She really does cover it all.) It’s their backstories, the insider scoop.
[The book’s] also full of tips about how to get reservations at Philadelphia’s top restaurants, secret menu items, how to find the city’s speakeasies and how to get into them.
You aren’t originally from Philadelphia, so what brought you to the city and what keeps you here?
So I’m not a Philadelphian by birth, I’m a Philadelphian by choice. I moved here in 1991 and immediately started working through the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. I was there for almost 10 years and had a ball getting to know the city. I think about how the city has grown and changed and flourished in this time—it’s the best time to be in the city [now]. So now I can’t imagine ever leaving Philadelphia.
You’ve seen some of Philadelphia’s restaurant industry’s highs and lows? What has that been like? What most excites you about this chapter of Philadelphia’s food history?
I’ve seen the fathers of the restaurant industry spin-off proteges, and now their proteges are spinning off proteges.
Back then [25 years ago] we didn’t have any outdoor cafes, and now that’s half the fun of the restaurant industry.
[What’s most exciting for me is that] so many adventurous restaurants are opening, so many different kinds of ethnic restaurants are opening, so many chefs are doing new things, and we all get to benefit from that.
Is there anything that the restaurant scene in Philly is missing?
Boy, that’s a good question, Sabrina. I don’t know. I just wish there were more than three meals in a day.
I consider you an expert, what do you think is on the horizon for the city’s restaurant community?
The chefs keep surprising me! I’m just a spectator along for the ride and enjoying every minute of it.
For FEASTIVAL, the blend of the performing arts and the culinary arts is our bread and butter. In the book, you write that cooking has become theatre. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Well, my favorite place to sit in a restaurant is the chef’s counter because, to me, it’s like dinner and a show. You get to watch the beautiful dance that takes place in the kitchen, how everyone works together. They just seem to know what everybody else is doing and how it all just comes together. To watch it being made and the beauty of the dishes being made—to me, that is theatre. In fact, there is a section [in the book] on restaurants that have chef’s counters.
You included 90 restaurants, eateries, and foodie meccas, right, but I have to imagine your original list was much longer? How many did you begin with? How did you decide which restaurants to include?
Well, the format from my publisher was 90 restaurants, so officially its 90 restaurants. BUT I sorta cheated, so there are lots of lists in the book and I did that so it would be more helpful for the reader. There are lists of vegetarian restaurants and gluten-free restaurants. [I included] the things that people ask me the most, like where to go to brunch, where can I have a private party, or places with private dining rooms. So there’s probably about 254 restaurants actually mentioned in the book. You would think I counted… (she giggles) which I did.
So back to the original question. The list was the hardest part and it was always changing as I discovered new places or as I came across new stories. What the book is not: I am not a food critic. I’m a food detective. So in order to be in the book, I looked for restaurants that both had good food—you had to have good food to be in the book—and a good story. So I talk about the cuisine, I talk about the atmosphere, but I don’t rate the restaurants. What I do is tell their stories, whether it is a restaurant that has been passed down through the generations or something else.
So some of those stories I knew going in. Some of those stories I thought I knew and changed. And some of those stories just found me.
Would like some examples?
So, John and Kira’s chocolates…
I thought the story was about how they got their herbs. They buy mint seeds and give them to area high schools. The kids grow them and [John and Kira] buy back [the herbs], sell the chocolate, and give money to area schools.
The story I found was the first month that they went into business, they were on the front cover of Gourmet Magazine’s Valentines’ Day [issue] as the best chocolate in the nation. The fact checker called John and said, “Are you guys married?” John said, “No, but leave it in your story.” Then when the first issue of the magazine came out, John handed it to Kira across the dinner table with a diamond ring taped inside…
I mean it’s a great story especially for someone who makes sweets!
It really is!
Here’s a story that found me. I went to Kennett Square to the mushroom farms to do some work there, to sorta investigate and do some research. I stopped for lunch at Portabellos restaurant. Afterward, it was just so charming that I sat down and interviewed the chef and his wife. They spent about an hour telling me about his work in casinos and catering. It was all very nice, but I wasn’t sure what the story was or if they had one. I was kinda disappointed.
Then, all of sudden someone walked by the window behind us. Sandra, the chef’s wife, jumped up and went outside to give this man a hug. So I was like, you know, “Who was that?”
She’s like “I’m so sorry that was Mr. King and I had to give him a hug.”
“Well, whose Mr. King?”
The first week [Portabellos] opened Mr. King came in for dinner and immediately after dinner he demanded to see the chef. So [Sandra and her husband/the chef at Portobellos Brett] went out there and were super nervous because [they] knew in a small town like Kennet Square if [they] didn’t have good word of mouth, [they] were not gonna survive.
The first thing he said was “I will not be a regular customer.”
And Sandra said her heart just dropped.
“Because,” he said, “I’m 85 years old. I’m sick, and I won’t be around that long…”
And then her heart really dropped. *
He explained that he was a retired opera singer and broke out in song singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
The entire restaurant turned around and applauded. [Sandra] was so taken with him, she threw her arms around him and said, “I think you’re going to make it to 90 and when you do, I’m going to throw you a 90th birthday party!”
And sure enough just the week before I was in the restaurant, he turned 90 and she threw him a 90th birthday party. His family flew in from all around the country to be there.
And I was like wow, that’s your story. And that just happened to find me because [Mr. King] walked by as we were sitting there. It was really amazing. I have Mr. King’s picture in the book along with his birthday cake. It was just a really nice story that found me.
Was that the story that surprised you the most?
That was certainly one of them
What was the worst meal that you had? You don’t have to name names.
The worst meal that I had…(Irene paused to rack her brain). I won’t name names for sure…
Nothing jumps out at me. Maybe I’m really good at remembering the good things and forgetting the bad
That’s a great quality to have.
What’s next for you?
That’s my next question too. I’m not sure. I’m considering writing a second edition of 100 things to do in Philadelphia, my first book. There’s so much always happening in Philadelphia, so I do continue to update the book’s social media. I am always posting new restaurants, new dishes, changes, things that have opened…
Friends of FEASTIVAL can get $1 off both books if you use the promo tag FEASTIVAL at www.UniqueEatsPhilly.com!
*Please note that at that moment, Sabrina’s heart also dropped.