A bastion of conservative views, often stridently voiced by generations of residents keen on maintaining a buttoned-up status quo, Chestnut Hill has long prided itself on its strong sense of place, lovely manses and historic pedigree. This is the kind of place where neighbors care passionately about appearances, and an off color shade of paint on a facade is enough to create a petition-waving ruckus.
But on a recent preternaturally warm, early spring day, it was easily apparent that the neighborhood is changing. "There was always a perception that Chestnut Hill was waspy and even a little snobby," said Amy Edelman, who along with her husband, John Millard, has been baking sweet and savory treats at the Night Kitchen for a dozen years. Edelman grew up in Chestnut Hill, and returned after culinary school and confectioning in Paris to open her own place, before fondant was in the common vernacular and bakers had their own reality shows. "Let's just say there weren't a lot of African Americans and Jews here. But that's changed. It's gotten much younger and more diverse."
Chip Roman opened the upscale 30-seat Mica in March 2011, one of the first newcomers on the street in years. Roman, whose other enterprises include Blackfish in Conshohocken, and with Jason Cichonski, Ela in Queen Village, lives in Lafayette Hill, minutes from his upscale eatery. Roman's sophisticated fare already has a regular cadre of fans, including "Treme" actor David Morse, a local resident often spied tucked away in a corner of the chic eatery with his family. "Chestnut Hill is a pretty town," said Roman. "My kids go to school here. I live five minutes away. I wanted to do something in the city, so it all made sense."
Still, where Blackfish took off like a rocket, Mica has been on more of a slow simmer. "It hasn't been an instant thing, even though we don't have any trouble filling our seats," he said. "I think it's great to have new restaurants opening it's good for everybody.
Other than the legendary Under the Blue Moon restaurant, which the late Gene Gosfield and his wife, Phyllis, opened in 1976, restaurateur Paul Roller has had one of the longest fine-dining runs on Germantown Avenue, first with Roller's, opened in 1982, and now with Roller's at Flying Fish. Roller, an alum of Steve Poses' Commissary and Frog restaurants, recalls those early halcyon days as being "very intellectual."
"Remember this was pre-Manayunk," he said. "We were wildly busy. The idea of chef-driven gourmet food was exciting and different from what people were used to." Roller is jazzed about the changes on the Avenue, although he says it's too soon to tell how it will all shake out. "We're coming into peak dining season for us. But having the staying power for a rainy January and February is something else. Those who think, work hard and hustle will survive."
He added, "Drawing more people to Chestnut Hill is always a good thing."
Change is good?
Attracting people to Chestnut Hill means everything to Eileen Reilly, who was hired two years ago by the business association as a retail recruiter. Reilly, a diminutive dynamo with pixie charm and steely determination, is nonplussed by those in the 'hood who resist change. "There are folks who have lived here all their lives and are extremely proud of their community," she said. "They raise their voices to show concern and register opinion, but that doesn't stop thoughtful change. The process is sometimes cumbersome, but we strive for an ultimate gold standard that we can all be proud of."
Chestnut Hill Local editor Len Lear finds the movement in town interesting, especially in light of vocal resistance to past restaurant openings. "About 12 years ago, two young men attempted to open Napoleon Cafe, an upscale 50-seat restaurant on Gravers Lane just off the Avenue," he recalled. "When they announced that they were going to apply for a liquor license, you'd have thought that they were opening a crack house. I don't know why, but that not-in-my-backyard mind-set appears to have dissipated."
Reilly's job - to match-make the right kind of tenant to fit into the Chestnut Hill of both the past and the future - takes her to Main Street communities all over the East Coast, from Brooklyn to Princeton. "We're a great pedestrian experience, and we are building on that," she said. "Restaurants drive growth you see it again and again." Vacancies on the street have gone from 23 percent to 12 percent under her watch.
Reilly helped Kevin Finn and his Iron Hill Brewery partners navigate bumps in the road before the 260-seat restaurant's January opening. "Chestnut Hill is an iconic Philadelphia neighborhood," said Finn. "We like to be in a neighborhood, part of a community. Chestnut Hill fit that pretty well. Every day I hear people say they're excited we've come to town. And I think more people on the street make everybody busier."
A new toque in town
Chef Al Paris, a partner in the new, seasonally driven, 42-seat Heirloom at the top of the hill, loves Chestnut Hill so much he's thinking about moving. "I want to keep bees, chickens, really get into it," said the Philly native, a chef with a long history of passionate commitment to delicious, approachable cuisine. "Heirloom is perfect for where I'm at in my career right now. I'm all about reimagined classic American food. The timing is perfect."
"You can't build what we have today," said Roller. "With the cobblestones, architectural aesthetic, cultural attractions, history Chestnut Hill is an amazing Main Street community."
Tom Ivory, whose Baker Street Bread has been on the Avenue since 1992, sees a clustering concept at work. "There's enough population, including young families with kids, within a three-mile radius to support multiple restaurants," he said. "People around here care about food. We manage to be both urban and a little suburban. Chestnut Hill really does have both a town and country feel."