2 Philadelphia restaurants face the spotlight - & glare - of TV makeovers

Chef Gordon Ramsay reviews menu with Zocalo staff on "Kitchen Nightmares" show.
Chef Gordon Ramsay reviews menu with Zocalo staff on "Kitchen Nightmares" show. (   JEFFREY NEIRA)
Posted: March 01, 2012

FAME-SEEKERS know there's no such thing as bad press. As long as you're on a page or a screen, you're making headway. Just ask Kim Kardashian. Or Snooki.

But what if you're a chef or restaurant owner? Should you go on a reality show called "Kitchen Nightmares," where hot-headed, food-spitting British chef Gordon Ramsay will rip your menu and then rip you a new one? Do you really want 3 million viewers, including potential customers, peeking into your pantry, watching you lose your cool in the cooler, thinking your kitchen is a . . . nightmare?

Apparently so.

Later this month, the Fox production, now in its fourth season, will star two Philly restaurants in as many episodes.

March 23 will feature Chiarella's, a family-run operation that existed for 40 years in Wildwood and has spent the last five on South Philly's bustling East Passyunk Avenue.

March 30 will highlight 24-year-old Zocalo, an upscale Mexican restaurant at 36th and Lancaster. How these places got on the show's radar is a made-for-TV mystery. Why their owners decided to go through with it is the bigger question.

"Nobody recommended that our kitchen was a nightmare," said Dina [Chiarella] DeFino, who grew up working in her family's eponymous Shore trattoria and now owns and operates an Italian BYOB with her husband, Tommy. When "Kitchen Nightmares" producers first approached the DeFinos about doing the show this spring, the couple hesitated.

Said Tommy, "Everyone was like, 'They're gonna make you look like an idiot.' "

But the DeFinos decided the opportunity to get Ramsay's expertise (and the national exposure) outweighed the risk. They wanted business to be steadier, busier. Tommy told his doubting pals, " 'Youse are crazy. I'm taking a shot. Why not?' "

So when the producers told Chiarella's, one of 33 Italian restaurants within 1 1/2 miles of each other, to ditch some of their favorite family recipes to become more modern, the DeFinos obliged. When the crew kept them awake at all hours, when they made the dinner-only trattoria open to serve the boss lunch, when Ramsay goaded Tommy into a mid-dinner shouting match, the couple "took it on the chin," said Dina, because "guess what? To have [Ramsay] come here - it was a really good thing."

Across town, chef Greg Russell, who owns Zocalo with his wife, Maria, had a similar outlook. The couple met while working at the chic cantina, one of the first of its kind in Philly. Four years ago, they bought the place and soon discovered the business had been steadily losing money, in part because of competition from similar eateries.

Then the recession hit.

By the time "Kitchen Nightmares" called, "our numbers were plummeting," said Russell. "We needed financial help, redoing the dining rooms, tweaking the menu." Like the DeFinos, these business owners recognized an opportunity for free advice - and free advertising. "For me, [the show's] an hour-long national TV commercial for Zocalo," Russell said.

Immediately after the "Kitchen Nightmares" crew departed last November, both restaurants experienced a big, buzz-related bump. "That first week - forget about it. You couldn't get in here," said Tommy DeFino.

Since then, Chiarella's owners reported sales have been up about 20 percent. Russell said he's noticed increased volume at Zocalo but not increased profits. Both sets of owners believe their TV debuts will make them busy again, at first. But their big hope is that Ramsay's changes will improve things long term.

A reality (TV) check

Neither free advice nor free press guarantees a restaurant's success. In 2009, "Kitchen Nightmares" featured Girard Avenue's Hot Potato Café. In 2010, the café closed.

Show executive coproducer Lindsay Kugler, who stays in touch with restaurateurs after her crew has moved out, said that despite Ramsay's help, debt, a rent hike, the chef's departure and its owners' commitments to other jobs and family life devoured the Potato. She noted that most of the 47 eateries that have been on the show are still up and running.

The trick to surviving post-"Nightmares," said Kugler, "is really about their follow-through." Maybe a better trick: Making your restaurant good enough to get it on a different show to begin with.

In November 2010, Center City's Good Dog Bar appeared on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives." Now, 18 months later, any day after the show reruns, "we are absolutely slammed," said chef-owner Dave Garry.

Coming in are a new crop of customers, mostly out-of-towners who, the chef said, "are a little more experimental with their food." One fan called to ask if Good Dog would ship their duck pot pie to California. (They wouldn't.) Garry estimated that the show has increased overall sales by 15 to 20 percent.

A couple of blocks away at South Broad's 4-month-old Sbraga, chef-owner Kevin Sbraga said winning season 7 of "Top Chef" gave him the opportunity to open his own business.

"I was able to find investors," he said. "All of a sudden, I've become a brand." He believes the show made him more guest-focused - and has helped book all 60 seats in his bistro two to three weeks out on Saturday nights.

Said Sbraga, "We've been lucky. I have friends that are incredible chefs and have incredible restaurants, and they just don't have the market that I have because of the show."

Still, the biggest local TV success story has to be "Iron Chef" Jose Garces, who already had several restaurants under his belt (Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey) before he won the Food Network's biggest honor. Now, he has seven places in town (plus a taco truck). He's opened spots in Chicago, Palm Springs, Scottsdale and Vegas, and has a couple slated for Atlantic City.

"It definitely helps to build business," Garces said of his television fame. Nowadays, when he walks through one of his dining rooms, he has to stop at every table for a photo. He's even has been swarmed by fans abroad.

During a recent trip to a food festival in Trinidad, Garces and one of his chefs required a security detail to keep the crowds at bay. "It was crazy, ridiculous. I feared for my life at one point," he said. "I wouldn't think being an Iron Chef would reach that far, but it did." He was similarly overwhelmed last August in Panama, where, said Garces, "They were really proud to have a Latin Iron Chef."

Back in Philly, the Russells and DeFinos can only hope their first time on national TV will make a fraction of that impact. For now, they're not planning any official celebrations.

When "Kitchen Nightmares" airs the Zocalo episode, "I'll be in the kitchen working," said Russell, adding, half-joking, "The first time I watch it, I'll be alone in my basement at home, with a bottle of Jack Daniel's, saying, 'Don't make me look bad. Don't make me look bad.' "


Contact Lauren McCutcheon at 215-854-5991 or mccutch@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @LaMcCutch.

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