Maybe you remember the '80s. You're familiar with the music, anyway. And, the hair. But, what about the food? Kevin Sbraga wants to refresh your gustatory memory. In a good way.
The Philadelphia-based chef is opening a new restaurant dedicated to resurrecting the "quintessential dishes" of the Reagan era, albeit with some much-needed modern refinements. The place is called Juniper Commons, and it comes decorated with vintage chevron patterns, Tiffany-style lamps and wallpaper made from decades-old newspaper clippings: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily News, The Bulletin. Newspapers! So retro.
"I wanted to do something that brought me back to my childhood," says Sbraga, 35, whose other Philly-area restaurants include The Fat Ham and the eponymous Sbraga. He believes the new restaurant will be especially popular among diners around his own age group, roughly 30 to 45, for whom the idea of baked flounder may actually sound appealing, at least in a reminiscent sort of way. "I kind of feel like we're the movers and shakers now," Sbraga says. "And we want something that's fun, that's funky and kind of brings us back to our youth."
Blame it on Lionel Richie. The whole throwback idea came about, Sbraga explains, because of his general manager's soulful, '80s-heavy playlist for the office. "He was playing some old-school Lionel Richie and Chicago, and we all knew all the words to it," Sbraga recalls. It got the team thinking about the restaurants where they used to eat back in the day, he says. One place, in particular, stood out: The Pub, a mammoth 500-seat dining hall in Pennsauken, N.J., which notably features two huge salad bars, a popular concept in the days when Lionel Richie ruled the airwaves.
"As a kid, if we were going to The Pub, that was serious," Sbraga says. "Like, we were getting dressed up. We were going out to dinner. That was huge!"
Of course, what seemed like "fine dining" to a doe-eyed boy in South Jersey back then doesn't exactly ring true to a grown-up cosmopolitan chef in the new millenium.
Moreover, banking on consumer nostalgia can be risky. Consider the recent case of Golden Cadillac, the ill-fated New York cocktail bar that attempted to bring new glory to the drinks of the disco era. After barely eight months in business, its operators decided to shut down and reopen as "something new."
Sbraga, smartly, seems to be hedging his '80s bet, at least somewhat. Though the concept is inspired by flavors of the bygone decade, the chef is being careful not to take the nostaglia too far. In a press release touting the new concept, Sbraga says his goal is to "reinvent dishes that have been deemed passé, into quality dishes that guests will relate to today."
Baked stuffed shrimp, for instance, might trigger fond childhood memories. But, to the modern palate, the classic preparation can come-off rather dry and rubbery. Sbraga and his team have been tinkering with baking temperatures to ensure a more succulent version at Juniper Commons, he says.
The prime rib, too, gets a technical overhaul. "Instead of just baking prime rib in a hot oven at 500 degrees, where it's raw in the center and well-done on the outside, we'll be slowly roasting it over an open wood hearth, so it gets those flavors and cooks evenly," Sbraga says.
And, the "salad bar" will be vastly different from the DIY buffet of yore, which required patrons to actually get up from their seat, grab a plate and hand-select their own individual salad fixins from an array of open containers, using commonly shared tongs. Back then, this was considered healthy eating, even if the buffet's glassy "sneeze guard" barrier afforded merely a dubious level of security.
"Honestly, we almost built a salad bar," Sbraga says. But, he thought better of it: "You've got to watch people go up and they're sneezing in their hands and touching the food and that's just gross."
Instead, Sbraga came up a whole different routine: "I went back to the team and said, 'Listen, let's make the salad bar come to the people.'"
No need to get up, or share tongs with greasy-palmed strangers. Your server will bring some 19 different ingredients to the table for your choosing. Worried about table space? Don't be. "They're really, really small containers," Sbraga says. "I mean, it's maybe a tablespoon of this, a tablespoon of that. The cucumber is maybe two slices of cucumber. The tomato is like four grape tomatoes cut in half."
It may not offer the same heft as an old-timey all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, but at least it conveys the feeling of being at the salad bar, Sbraga says.
Where does that leave the sneeze guard? Surely, there's some clever way to send-up the old-school salad bar's most revolutionary design element as part of the more modern tabletop presentation.
"We haven't figured that out," Sbraga says with a chuckle. "That would be interesting, though."
Juniper Commons is expected to open in late November at 521 South Broad Street in Philadelphia.
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