The new Silk City: No diner, but better

Posted: July 08, 2007

In the great American roadside idiom, the diner is sacred ground, stainless in a rusting world, unchangeable and enduring, a waitress named Mary watching over you, dispensing a bottomless cup of joe (= love).

So of course the recent relaunch (after 15 months downtime) of the Silk City Diner at Fifth and Spring Garden was bound to set off an intense round of grousing: What, no breakfast hours? Or lunch, either (at least for this summer)? What's with the prices?!

Even the vegetarians had a beef: A few old favorites had been 86ed.

Diner change is traumatic, no getting around it. But by Week Two, the puckish new owner, Mark Bee, a plumbing contractor who'd opened N. 3rd in Northern Liberties three years ago, had heard enough.

He picked the brains of his staff of merry pranksters; jotted down ad copy for the local giveaways: "If you miss the old Silk," one line went, "quit your bitchin', and get in touch with our kitchen. . . ."

Well, I decided to do just that one morning, stepping past the conjoined lounge (where Bee is staging late-night DJs, rock bands, and drag queens), and the blinding glitter - on a column up front - of disco-ball tile.

The vintage Formica counter has been jacked up slightly. The place has been spiffed up (but not gutted like the old Continental was in Old City). Its harsh, Night Hawks fluorescence, happily, has been softened to a cherry-pink blush.

In the kitchen, chef Peter Dunmire was scraping the bottom of a big stove-top pan, sizzling backs and wings with rough-chunked carrots, onions, and celery for the rosemary chicken gravy he'd be serving with the roasted chicken (with mashed potatoes and sage stuffing, $16) that evening.

He was building flavor the classic way: In went the homemade chicken stock, and syncopated glugs of Chateau Luzerne, the jug wine, coincidentally, that they used to serve by the glass at Eden, the Chestnut Street eatery where Dunmire first worked in his teens.

He'd reduce the stock for four hours or more.

So, no, he's not turning out your usual diner fare; none of that yellow, bagged gravy-glop here. And no mushy frozen fries (they're hand cut), or store-bought flatbread for the Mediterranean special tonight. Dunmire patted a mound of sticky dough rising in a bowl like a baby's tummy. Later, it would be flattened and grilled, topped with the plum tomatoes roasting in the oven, some grilled onion, and curried lamb tenderloin.

No, it ain't the old Silk, where at the end of its days discerning regulars refused to venture beyond the safety of its grilled cheese and OK cake.

Dunmire did the stations of Philly's classic French kitchens - Deux Cheminees (three years), and its updates, Brasserie Perrier, Blue Angel and Rouge, before signing on at Bee's good-time N. 3rd.

But he's also a connoisseur of the street, conversant with Lil' Pete's and the Penrose Diner, and an admirer of the practiced short-order moves at Snow White, the lunch counter at 19th and Chestnut.

So he's not on a mission to reinvent diner cuisine so much as to add some French technique and reconnect it with its from-scratch roots - in the baked beans, even, and applesauce and coleslaw (though he's not averse to a dash of Asian spice).

You will find specials of crispy fried-oyster salad with frisee and arugula, red onion and chopped egg ($8.50), or a dense, chilled gazpacho with spicy crab salad ($6). But the entrees tip their hat to the diner genre - a great, gutsy steak frites with medium-rare hanger steak; five truly jumbo shrimp in a basket with hand-cut fries, corn on the cob, and coleslaw; meat loaf with portobello gravy; the roasted chicken and mashed.

Sometimes Dunmire picks up the diner motif in a side: He was making teardrop croquettes out of the salmon trimmings from the five-ounce servings of line-caught sockeye he was serving the night I dropped in.

But, no, Silk City is no longer a diner by any conventional measure, unless you count San Francisco's Fog City Diner (with its mac and gouda cheese) or Brooklyn's trendy Relish as "diners."

On the other hand, it is serving good-quality, from-scratch New American platters, way better food than the original Silk, in a tarted-up diner shell.

If you think that's bad news, if you can't find a silver lining there, go ahead, pal, cry me a river.


Silk City Diner

Fifth and Spring Garden Streets

215-592-8838


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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