Another chapter for Carman of Carman's Country Kitchen

Carman Luntzel in the dining room of Carman's Country Kitchen. She's moving to South Carolina.
Carman Luntzel in the dining room of Carman's Country Kitchen. She's moving to South Carolina. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 07, 2012

It's all going away: the mannequin out front dressed in Christmasy red velvet, the mugs depicting body parts, the larger-than-life Dora the Explorer doll, the red-and-yellow pickup truck.

Most of all, their owner: Carman Luntzel, the tall, saucy, worldly-wise grandmother of four and former cocktail waitress who put the Carman in Carman's Country Kitchen, the pioneering brunch spot at 11th and Wharton Streets in South Philadelphia.

Luntzel said her landlord wanted the building after nearly 23 years. Owner John Angelis said he was not sure what he wanted to do with the curio-cluttered corner.

But Luntzel has made up her mind. No more pan-seared duck breast with South Philly cherry sauce, or Belgian waffles with warm Honeycrisp apples and fresh cranberries with vanilla whipped cream.

Just as she breezed into town 32 years ago with three small children, Luntzel, who turns 62 in January, is packing up and moving. She has found a place in South Carolina, near one of her daughters. She wants to do volunteer work abroad and manage people's houses while they are on vacation.

Dec. 16 will be her last day at Carman's.

"Saturday mornings are going to suck," said Holly Moore, the food blogger and a regular there, who said he has been working through the stages of grief since Luntzel told him a few months ago. Moore loves the "unexpected, occasionally crazy flavor combinations that always work" - such as the Puerto Rican pan-fried chicken dipped in bacalaĆ­tos (codfish fritter) batter that Luntzel happened upon on the way to the San Juan airport.

"More than the food, I will miss Carman," said Moore.

Many of her regulars share that feeling, as most know Luntzel and her open-book life story: She grew up in Paris, the daughter of a military man. The family moved to Indiana when Carman was a teen. She said she moved out at 14 and maintained an apartment, a modest car, and a straight-A average. "My school found out, and I had till Monday to get back home," Luntzel said. With a promise of a '55 Chevy "with headers," she won her freedom by marrying a friend named Jack. Her parents didn't mind, she said. Jack shipped out to Vietnam and returned to enjoy the car, but the marriage didn't last. ("He wore his wedding band till the day he died," Luntzel said.)

She said she won a scholarship to Indiana University and spent weekends shuttling between Bloomington and Miami Beach, where she was a cocktail waitress on weekends and holidays.

Again for legal reasons - she wanted to own property - she said she found a new husband: Louis, her service bartender at the Marco Polo and 30 years her senior. She and Louis were married for three years - having two daughters before she walked out - but they remained friends, she said.

She married a third time, to an "unattractive but charming" mob underboss with whom she had her son 35 years ago. After leaving him, she said, "I've stayed single since." (She does love men. She has had an all-male staff for years.)

Luntzel and her kids moved to Atlantic City in 1978 for the opening of Resorts International Casino Hotel. Soon after, she moved to Philadelphia, where she tended bar, sold used cars, and opened a club on Sansom Street near 18th called Tiddlywinks. "We hired beautiful, brainy women to treat men as play toys," she said. The club drew attention from the feds because of suspected money-laundering, she said.

After working in catering at the newly reopened Hotel Atop the Bellevue in 1989, she quit and laid low for several months until a friend she knew as Paulie Coffee said: "You have to do something." He urged her to take over an empty luncheonette at 11th and Wharton Streets.

"What do I know about running a luncheonette?" she said she asked Paulie.

"I don't know, but you'll learn," she said he replied.

She cleaned it out and opened Carman's Country Kitchen - the "country" refers more to "different countries" than to "backwoods" - on Jan. 1, 1990. "That was the last time I worked New Year's Day," she said. Mummers don't want hotcakes. The restaurant, which seats about 20, is open Thursday to Monday.

Untrained but possessing a great palate, Luntzel is the sole cook in a galley kitchen that's little more than a flat-top grill and a four-burner stove. When an order comes in, her waiter rings a small Liberty Bell and hands a slip through a small window. When the food is ready, she rings the same bell and hands it over.

"She's almost like my mom," said waiter Alexis Pereira, who has worked for her for more than a decade. "And the money is not too bad." Luntzel said she guarantees her waiters $75 a day, regardless of tips.

Luntzel is quick with the one-liners. She admits to a full face lift about 17 years ago. "I wanted all of it done. Why do a countertop when you can do the entire kitchen?"

Luntzel said she would miss the people, the cooking, and the shopping for ingredients.

But she dashed thoughts of relocating Carman's. "I don't want any comparison," she said. "I dated one Jewish guy, one Italian guy, one this, one that. I loved them all. Carman's? And I want to remember that as that."


Brunch spots A.C. (After Carman's)

Back when Carman Luntzel opened Carman's Country Kitchen on Jan. 1, 1990, brunch was largely the province of fancier restaurants in Center City - not a South Philly rowhouse and certainly not served in a pickup truck.

Other brunch spots followed, including Sam's Morning Glory Diner (10th and Fitzwater) and Sabrina's Cafe (Christian near Ninth).

Now South Philly, especially Bella Vista, has become "Brunchland."

On the BYOB side, there are Green Eggs Cafe (1306 Dickinson St.), Chhaya (1823 E. Passyunk Ave.), Black N Brew (1523 E. Passyunk Ave.), Ants Pants Cafe (2212 South St.), and the vegan Miss Rachel's Pantry (1732 W. Passyunk Ave., which my daughter owns).

Brunch is also de rigueur at the new crop of pubs, including Pub on Passyunk East (1501 E. Passyunk Ave.), Devil's Den (1148 S. 11th St.), Lucky 13 (1820 S. 13th St.), South Philly Bar and Grille (1235 E. Passyunk Ave.), South Philadelphia Tap Room (1509 Mifflin St.), Hawthornes (738 S. 11th St.), Cantina Los Caballitos (1651 E. Passyunk Ave.), Stateside (1536 E. Passyunk Ave.), The Cambridge (1508 South St.), the Sidecar (2201 Christian), SoWe (918 S. 22d St.), The Industry (1401 E. Moyamensing Ave.), and Bainbridge StreetBarrel House (625-627 S. Sixth St.).

- Michael Klein


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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