Not Out Of The Blue In Family Tradition, The Bynum Brothers' Unique Restaurant-jazz Cafe Speaks For Itself.

Posted: November 03, 1991

Back in the mid-1980s, when Robert Bynum was working in the import-export business, he spent a couple of years in Togo, Africa. The experience was a kind of cultural shock, but not the way you might think.

"I noticed there was a lot more happening there at night than here in Philadelphia," Bynum said. "All the hotels had things going on and there were tons and tons of French restaurants."

When Bynum, now 34, got back to the States, he decided he'd try to do something to reshape Philadelphia's nightlife. A little more than a year ago, he and his brother, Benjamin, 28, opened Zanzibar Blue, a unique and very cosmopolitan restaurant-jazz cafe in Center City.

Since that time, Zanzibar Blue, 305 S. 11th St., has been moving to its own special beat. And it has been doing it with a huge degree of success.

What the Bynum brothers (dare we call them Philadelphia's Blues Brothers?) have done with Zanzibar Blue is create an entertainment package. The place offers a dining experience that - based on serious culinary standards - gets high marks: excellent food, service and wines. And then there is the jazz cafe with live music nightly and its own special menu.

A kitchen staff of eight plus 27 servers take care of a dining room that serves 68, a lounge that seats up to 40 and a jazz cafe that holds 55. There's live jazz seven nights a week and at Sunday brunch. Groups such as the Tony Williams Quartet featuring Juanita Holiday, the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble and Bootsie Barnes entertain.

It might seem strange that two men appear out of the blue and open a successful restaurant-club the likes of Zanzibar Blue. In the case of Robert and Benjamin, business and music seem to be a family tradition.

These two grew up in a family where jazz was the soul of the household. Their parents, Benjamin Sr. and Ruth Bynum, operated the Cadillac Club at 3738 Germantown Ave., founded in 1965, which became Impulse Discotheque 14 years ago. (The elder Bynum recently retired, and Robert has taken on the extra responsibility of running Impulse in addition to Zanzibar Blue.)

During a recent midweek break between the lunch rush and dinner, the brothers spoke about their humble beginnings at their father's club and their thoughts leading up to the opening of Zanzibar Blue.

While they chatted about their personal lives, customers leaving the restaurant stopped by the table to compliment the men on food and service. The brothers accepted the accolades graciously and modestly.

Robert's and Benjamin's unpretentious behavior appears to be an indelible mark of their character. Both are modest, soft-spoken and tend to downplay things. Getting them to recite anecdotal recollections is as difficult as executing a horn riff with a sore lip.

Though the two are quiet and unassuming, they draw eyes to them. Aside from physical good looks, they combine jazz-cool garb with stockbroker conservative. In the proper surroundings, either one could easily be taken for an investment adviser.

Such an impression is not too far off. Robert is a graduate of the Wharton School. And both brothers appear extremely methodical and surefooted when it comes to business.

For example, when it was agreed that they would open a restaurant-jazz cafe, it was decided that Benjamin would attend the Restaurant School. Though each had worked at their father's club as a child, they felt one of them needed a strong restaurant-food background to make Zanzibar Blue work.

Then, after graduation, Benjamin worked in city restaurants from Apropos, recently of Center City, to Zocalo, the hip Mexican restaurant in University City. It was all part of a well-executed plan.

Working in the restaurant kitchens as an adult was quite different from their experiences at Cadillac-Impulse. Their introductory work there was nothing more memorable than sweeping floors at their father's direction. "I swept floors and emptied trash," Benjamin said matter-of-factly.

Robert interjected that they didn't get paid much for doing it, either. ''When I started working for father, he made it apparent that I was going to work," Robert said, emphasizing the word work, "and that the learning experience would be worth much more than what he could ever pay me in money."

But even before they began their chores at their father's club, they were part of a family life intrinsically connected to the business. Entertainers - such as Aretha Franklin - routinely visited the family home when they were in town to perform.

Both brothers were very young then, Benjamin explained, and neither can recall much about the visits. "Most times I was in bed," Benjamin said. ''Mostly I look at pictures and remember stories about how my mother pierced Aretha Franklin's ears for the evening. But I don't honestly even remember how old I was when that happened."

When the two embarked on their Zanzibar Blue venture, there were hitches, glitches and even second thoughts.

"There were periods when I was asking myself if this was something I was sure I wanted to get involved in," Benjamin said. "Just two days ago I was rereading an article that had been given to me (before the restaurant opened).

"It told of the incredible amount of money one must generate to open a restaurant. It was pretty frightening, actually. Also, this business is high on the list of high-level pressure jobs. But I have no regrets whatsoever. Where we are now has surpassed even our wildest dreams."

Both men agree that the key to Zanzibar Blue's success has been commitment, which begins with themselves. "When the people who work for us see how important this place is to us," Benjamin said, "they then realize the importance."

Robert recalled the days of putting together the concept. He wanted jazz, he said, but he also wanted a first-class restaurant, with dishes based on classic French cuisine. He also wanted the food to reflect African influences.

The African flavor has been accomplished with such signature dishes as Bantu shrimp pate, a chilled shrimp terrine served with warm, steamed papaya; and Pollo Pan-Do, a West Indies dish featuring sauteed breast of chicken flambeed in coconut rum, flavored with curry and spiced with cayenne pepper.

To spend any time at Zanzibar Blue is to know that things haven't come together by happenstance. Each detail, from the decision that the restaurant would have its own taped music - not jazz piped in from the cafe - to the concept of fine dining and vintage wines, has been thought out.

As the Blues Brothers reminisced about the formation of the place, their manager Bruce Roberts interjected a thought about a dream that Robert had about the concept of Zanzibar Blue.

Robert seemed uncomfortable detailing something so personal. "It had something to do with 'Blue Gardenia,' by Dinah Washington, one of my favorite songs. In fact that was going to be the name, but it was already registered," he said.

When the Bynum brothers opened for their trial run last April 1, there was only a limited menu that night. The idea was to get the staff accustomed to the menu and service. The evening turned out to be one that neither brother will forget.

"Everything went wrong that first night," Robert said. "A lot of friends said we were foolish to open April 1. Our initial intention was just to have a few friends for a trial run, but it got out of hand. Something like 300 people came through that night.

"We had enough food and people enjoyed themselves, but it got pretty hectic for a while. In fact, we had two waiters decide they couldn't handle it and walk off the floor. All the waiters were overwhelmed by the number of people," Robert said. "That night, my brother ended up waiting tables."

And even sweeping the floors, just like the old days at the Cadillac Club.

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