Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Melograno Loses Lease, Neighborhood Loses A Lot More

melograno byob in philadelphiaWhen it was first reported back in May, we were very sad to hear that the awesome Italian BYOB, Melograno, had lost its lease to its current location in the (West) Rittenhouse / Fitler neighborhood after five extremely favorable years there.

And our disappointment at the news has not diminished, now that we’ve had a few months to deal. Mainly because said location — the northeast corner of 22nd and Spruce — is, in a word, perfect.

Perfect for Melograno, that is. Perfect for Melograno’s concept. Perfect for Melograno’s execution. And perfect for the neighborhood’s residents and visitors to experience why Philadelphia and its BYOB scene are so invaluably and irreplaceably awesome.

If you’ve been there (and we imagine most of you have), you know this. The set-up at Melograno is great. Large glass windows allow diners to see the neighborhood and, similarly, allow passersby to see the experience of dining inside. A clean, airy interior includes an open kitchen, which produces some consistently exceptional contemporary Italian fare.

But even more awesome is the scene at Melograno during warmer months, like right now, when sidewalk tables wrap around the storefront restaurant’s corner location and diners enjoy the scene, both inside and out.

Prospective diners patiently wait for their tables outside the restaurant — Melograno doesn’t take reservations and waits can approach an hour on busy nights — while enjoying a glass of wine.

This is the stuff that great evenings in Philadelphia are made of. Showing up to Melograno on a Friday night around 8 p.m. Taking in the picturesque location on a tree-lined corner of Center City. Waiting for a table with your party of four (give or take) outside for a half-hour or so. Basking in the neighborhood’s ambiance while enjoying a glass of wine.

Maybe chatting up others doing the same, perhaps even enjoying a glass of wine on the front steps of Trinity Church, which is just across Spruce Street. And then partaking in a delicious dinner without worrying about being rushed to have your table turned. And all the while, the pitch perfect set-up of Melgorano making you feel like you truly belong in Philadelphia. And making you feel like this city is truly one of best places for young people anywhere.

This description might seem a little melodramatic, but it’s also true. Melograno, in its current manifestation, is (and, soon to be, was) a perfect microcosm of why so many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are burgeoning with new life. A great neighborhood restaurant/bar is, literally, priceless. That’s not an overstatement. They do amazing things for making a neighborhood a great place to live. And “making a a neighborhood a great place to live” is pretty important to getting more residents to live in the city.

So why does Philadelphia make it so frickin' hard for neighborhood bars and restaurants to open??

This is a huge problem and Melograno’s story is kind of a roundabout way of getting at it. But it will have to do.

The point? Basically that Melograno, through a series of unfortunate events, was forced out of its invaluable location by Philadelphia’s terribly shortsighted lack of a retail/restaurant strategy.

To clarify: the events that lead to Melograno losing its lease began when Fitler neighborhood residents (most likely a total of 2 or 3 people — seriously, that’s all it takes) opposed a restaurant concept with a liquor license for a space at 24th and Locust. (You may recall, we were, uh, disappointed upon first learning about it.)

So Andrew Krouk, the landlord/owner who was planning on opening the restaurant with a bar in this location at 24th and Locust (currently Sandy's), subsequently gave up on his idea of bringing a new restaurant to that corner of the city. (Bear in mind that openng this new restaurant to replace the stale Sandy’s was something that pretty much everyone with half a brain agreed would be a very positive thing for the neighborhood. Except for about three extremely reactionary local residents who opposed the idea of a nice restaurant opening in their neighborhood. Why? Who the fuck knows. But NIMBY objections, however irrational, always carry enormous weight in Philadelphia.)

So instead of dealing with the gargantuan headache of fighting the residents before the Zoning and Liquor Control Boards, Krouk decided it would simply be easier to do the restaurant in the other piece of neighborhood real estate he currently owned, which happened to be the corner building that houses Melograno at 22nd and Spruce.

Thus, Melograno’s lease was terminated so that Krouk could open his own restaurant in the Melograno space — all because it was too much of a hassle to open the new restaurant a few blocks away on account of the objections of a few obtuse neighbors.

So instead of having two vibrant new restaurants in the West Rittenhouse neighborhood, now there is only going to be one.

And a few old, crotchety, deadbeat neighbors are to blame.

Which is very much a shame. And quite unfair really.

While plenty of people realize how valuable restaurants and bars are to making an area livable and attractive, restaurants and bars never really have anyone in the city in their corner ready to help them navigate through the Byzantine process of actually opening a business in Philadelphia.

And that’s what is missing. A retail czar of sorts to advocate and stand up for restaurants and bars that are trying to open in Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Because it’s not like the Sandy's thing is an isolated incident. Idiot neighbors opposed 1601 when it opened a couple years back in South Philly. Imbecile neighbors opposed Sidecar when it was trying to open in G-Ho. Johnny Brenda's had to jump through hoops when it wanted to expand. Every restaurant and bar applying for a liquor license has to go through it to varying degrees. And a lot of times it proves too costly to manage.

A progressive solution would be for the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to step in, recognizing just how hugely important good restaurants and bars are to the overall health of the city's burgeoning neighborhoods, and decide to facilitate the opening of small businesses, instead of sitting idly by while entrepreneur after entrepreneur is bankrupted by the process.

Kirsten Henri has been talking about this problem forever. And rightly so.
Philadelphia is completely void of any kind of cohesive retail strategy.

If you want your neighborhoods to be vibrant, and to attract the precious kind of smart, mobile and young residents a city must have in order to prosper, you need to incubate small businesses, not terminally frustrate them.

A retail czar would be able to shape and implement policies that make it considerably easier for a neighborhood-catalyzing restaurant (or other small business) to open in Philadelphia.

And it's not that we expect residents to not be able to object — we don’t, because residents will always object, that’s what old people do, they hate fun — we just recognize the need for a retail czar to make it easier on both sides. And to properly weight the objections/arguments.

It's pretty simple really: if you want to encourage businesses and residents to locate in your city, how about trying something different than the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket approach of throwing huge tax-break incentives at giant corporations and instead attempting to create sound economic policies that incite organic economic growth.

Maybe create a position that would actually be charged with assisting small businesses navigate the unholy nightmare of opening a restaurant, bar, tea bar or other small business in the city. Adding a concentrated campaign to attract, assist and retain these small, local businesses could would be a lot more effective than the millions spent chasing the Unisys’es of the world.

Because it's not like Philadelphia is the only city that has very treacherous openings — it's not. But by instituting a smart, forward-thinking retail and restaurant strategy with corresponding policies, Philadelphia could certainly send a very positive message to creative entrepreneurs: "Hi, we are going to make it much, much easier for you to open your restaurant/bar/business here. We shit you not. Come see."

In the end, Melograno’s story only somewhat illustrates the consequence of Philadelphia’s total lack of any kind of cohesive retail development strategy.

And it’s really just one of countless examples of why Philadelphia needs a Retail Czar. (Really, really badly, we might add.)

But it's an example nonetheless. And one that definitely disappointed the hell out of us.

Melograno's last night at its current location will be this Sunday, July 27. We recommend you stop in for a farewell meal, pour a little of your wine out on the curb to pay respect, and wish them luck in their new location.

Related:
Melograno to move this summer [ Food and Drinq ]
With all the money, media attention and excitement restaurants and bars bring us, why does the city make them so hard to start? [ Philadelphia Weekly ]
Build a good bar, and they will come [ Joe Sixpack ]

Previously:
Eating the Illadelph: Exercises in why neighbors slash NIMBYS suck, part six billion, eighty thousand, four hundred and seventy three

[ Photo via PhillyEats ]

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