The new kid finds its legs

Owner Harry Darling with the Northern Liberties diners Reuben sandwich.
Owner Harry Darling with the Northern Liberties diners Reuben sandwich.

After a rocky launch, Darling's at the Piazza at Schmidt's is aiming for that diner groove.

Posted: June 14, 2009

At the northern tip of the unfortunately named Piazza at Schmidts (for the former Northern Liberties brewery that once commanded the site), you will find a cylindrical glass edifice, the ground floor of which is occupied by a perhaps overly spotless Darling's Diner.

It is sparklingly brand-new, though sleekly retrofitted, a hint of Los Angeles coffee shop about it, and a color scheme - orange and teal-ish - meant to evoke the Howard Johnson's turnpike chain, which the piazza's developer, Bart Blatstein, recalled fondly from road trips from the city's Northeast to Florida.

It is a comment more about the passage of time than about Blatstein's honest nostalgia that the manager of the diner, Matthew Arnold, hadn't caught the reference (until it was pointed out), and that youthful patrons (one hesitates to anoint them all "hipsters") ask why it's done up in, well, the team colors of the Miami Dolphins.

Darling's has not had an easy, or forgiving, launch. Along with two other eateries on the sprawling piazza - a moody wine bar/pizza cafe, and a pub near the city's largest outdoor digital TV screen - it was required by its landlord to open a few weeks ago, even though its kitchen wasn't yet at full throttle. Co-owner Harry Arnold (who with another brother, John, also runs two cheesecake shops) cooked burgers and Polish sausages on the grill outside to fulfill the lease obligation.

Since then, the learning curve has been steep. As Harry put it, "We felt we'd do a diner . . . but a diner-plus." The first wave of customers weren't into the "plus." (Eggs came unwaveringly in threesomes, even on the towering, apple-wood-smoked bacon sandwiches, but then had a habit of disappearing from the menu around noon, just as the real hipsters were rousing groggily from their beds.)

The corned beef on the touted Reuben could be leathery. The milkshake machine hadn't made landfall yet. (It has now.)

Even the menu's wording was off-putting. What does one make of an appetizer ($9.95) listed as "Seared Ahi tuna, Piadina, Hass avocado, arugula, sprouts and tomato-ginger jam?"

A gripefest ensued on Yelp.com. The unkindest cut? Darling's was called out - Ouch! - as "a fake diner."

But, ladies and jellybeans, that was then. By last week Darling's had made an ostensible break with its two-week-old past. Clueless servers were handed walking papers. The menu was recast. Eggs? You want them at 3 p.m.? No problem. Coffee refills? They're free!

The open-faced beef brisket on Darling's sourdough was hearty and heavy on the gravy, not bad things for a diner. The Mother's chicken soup with needle noodles (reminiscent of Lipton's Cup-a-Soup) and redolent of scallion, showed originality. The breaded strips of fried calamari (with chili ketchup) had old heads chuckling; they were witty (and tasty) reminders of the signature fried clam strips at HoJos.

You might think: A diner, for gosh sake, that's a no-brainer. But that would be wrong. A generic, formulaic diner is a dishonored diner.

Once upon a time, only a handful of years ago, the Northeast was itself home to a venerable collection of idiosyncratic diners, chief among them the Country Club (with its distinctive Jewish accent), and the Mayfair (where regulars revered the bread pudding, pan-fried crab cakes, and homemade soups).

Now even their menus are blurring, part of the standardization that comes with common ownership, in their case Michael Petrogiannis, a Greek immigrant, who since has added South Philly's iconic Melrose to his portfolio.

There are still classics around. Old-school Bob's Diner, on Ridge Avenue above Manayunk, comes to mind, where breakfast-all-day has never been a problem. And there are diner-esque venues in Northern Liberties that are still evolving personalities - Honey's Sit 'n Eat, the country kitchen under riveted girders, and Silk City Diner, which recently added a funky Caribbean beer garden under strings of lights, a sort of poor man's Piazza on Spring Garden.

It's never easy for the new kid. But Darling's is jotting down the wish list - for a genuine Northeast-style patty melt, creamed chipped beef, more stuff on bagels, bowls of oatmeal.

If that doesn't work, it still has its big gun - arguably the city's most luscious cheesecake; the rum-scented Bananas Foster version at the shimmering top of the heap.


Darling's Diner

1023 N. Second St.

267-239-5790 


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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