Break On Through

Words by
Brett Martin
Images by
Mo Smith (Phobymo)

Chloé Grigri, Amanda Shulman, and Ellen Yin on upending the rules of the game.

The paradox of restaurants is that they are the most regimented of worlds—governed by health codes, portion controls, strict division of labor, endless repetition—and, at the same time, complete and utter Wild Wests. It’s this bizarre blend that makes the business the province of improvisors, innovators, and renegades the world over.

Still, there is something about Philadelphia that seems to especially develop, encourage, and reward a breed of rule-breaking restaurateur. Part of the reasons are practical. “The cost of opening a restaurant here allows you to have some freedom,” says Ellen Yin, who has been a mainstay of the city’s hospitality scene for over 25 years. “It allows for more risk-taking.”

But as important, says Amanda Shulman, of the restaurants Her Place Supper Club and My Loup, is the presence of a robust, supportive, and adventurous tribe of diners and fellow restaurateurs and diners. “There’s a community here. Everybody’s interested, everybody’s supportive. They get excited to be a part of something.”

Or, as Chloé Grigri, owner of three wine-centric businesses puts it, “Philly loves Philly.”

These three women stand out among Philly’s breakers of rules—the literal kind, the kind that form because of the way things have always been, and even the kind we impose on ourselves.

Crushing It

To start with the first category: Nobody would argue that Philadelphia is not a drinking town. But Grigri says that when she and her father, a native of France, opened their first restaurant, The Good King Tavern, in 2013, it wasn’t much of a wine town. “Philly was known for its BYOBs, its beer culture, maybe for a little bit of the cocktail culture that was cool at the time, but not so much for restaurants that put wine at the forefront,“ she says. “A big part of why we opened was my dad saying, ‘There’s no place I can walk into, blindly order a glass of wine, and know that it’s going to be half-decent.’”

In part this gap was cultural. “Philly is still a very blue-collar, working-class town,” Grigri says. “And it’s always kind of anti whatever might be perceived as too cool or trendy.” But there’s another factor that diners may not be aware of but every restaurateur in the city certainly is: Selling wine in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a royal pain in the ass.

Chloé Grigri

This is a result of all wine and liquor sales in the state being controlled by a body known as the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. It would require a law journal to detail the intricacies and effects of the regulations imposed by the PLCB. Suffice it to say that they demand, if not somebody exactly breaking rules, then at least somebody intimately familiar with their contours and nuances. “Anybody who is able to pull off a successful and involved wine program here has to be nimble,” Grigri says.

What that’s meant for her and her father is developing deep relationships with the network of distributors who can ensure her bars and restaurants get the bottles they need— a necessity in any market but especially under Philly’s circumstances. “Oftentimes, I have first dibs on very cool inventory, and that has definitely helped over the years,” she says. It also means keeping more of that inventory on hand, a luxury of space not always available in places with tighter real estate.

Clearly, it is working. The Good King Tavern just celebrated its tenth anniversary; upstairs from the restaurant is Le Caveau, a wine bar which opened in 2019. Across town, Grigri and her husband, Vincent Stipo, recently opened Superfolie, a 30-seat “sophisticated hole-in-the-wall wine bar.” Maybe most ambitiously, plans are in the works for yet another wine-centric concept, Superette, in which Grigri expects to feature a significant retail section—something that will require yet new permutations of wrangling with the authorities. The bright side, she says, is a community whose natural camaraderie may be boosted by the presence of a common enemy. “I’ve had friends who have moved to Philly from Boston or New York or other markets over the years,” says Grigri, “and they all say the same thing: ‘What the hell? Everybody is so tight and supportive.’ And I think that’s absolutely a function of us all having to share the burden of the PLCB.”

Her Way

When Amanda Shulman began hosting pop-up dinner parties in her University of Pennsylvania dorm room, and later in apartments in New York and Philadelphia, she was following no rules at all—legal or otherwise. By the time she began prepping for the Philadelphia restaurant that would become Her Place Supper Club, the paperwork was in order but her vision for what the restaurant would be was still very much off book. “Everybody has such an archetype for restaurants: what a restaurant is, how a restaurant works, what your experience in a restaurant will be,” says Shulman, who spent time in the kitchens of Momofuko Ko, Montreal’s Joe Beef, and others. “This was my opportunity to be like, ‘No. This is what I want it to look like. And it looked very different.”

What different looks like today is a 24-seat refuge where Shulman and her tiny staff provide a set family-style menu and the vibe, as nearly everybody has written since Her Place opened in 2021, is that of a dinner party. Shulman has felt the freedom to pick and choose which restaurant conventions suit her project. The traditionally strict division of labor in the kitchen is out the window. Dietary accommodations, which have largely returned to the restaurant world after the era of “No Substitutions,” a decade ago, are still out at Her Place. Accommodations are just too disruptive to the tightly choreographed kitchen and service, Shulman says: “We change the menu every two weeks. So if this one doesn’t fit your palate or your diet, there’s plenty of opportunity to come two weeks later.” The traditionally strict division of labor in the kitchen is also out the window. Most famously, Her Place and My Loup, are for the most part, only open five days a week, closed on weekends—a weekly break all but unheard of in the service industry.

Amanda Shulman

She’s a bit ambivalent about her reputation as a poster child for “work-life balance.” She says the five-day policy began simply because she opened during a period when she had too many Saturday weddings to attend and couldn’t leave the restaurant open without her.

“We’re definitely a more life-focused place than many restaurants,” she says. “But the only reason we can get even close to doing that is because when we are working we work hard. It is by no means balanced.” (She also points out that both restaurants do occasional special events and brunches on the weekends.)

The resistance to being placed in that box, just as much as any other the restaurant world would like to impose, is in keeping with Shulman’s insistence on maintaining the freedom to do things exactly as she likes. It is, after all, Her Place.

No Expectations

One could be forgiven for looking at Ellen Yin’s mini empire—which includes the restaurants Fork, High Street on Market and High Street Provisions—and assuming she is the stable establishment. You don’t get much more so than winning the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, as Yin did in 2023.

“As an entrepreneur you do want to portray calmness,” she says, drily.

But when Yin debuted Fork, in 1997, you weren’t supposed to open a restaurant in Old City. You weren’t supposed to be overly concerned with such matters as sourcing locally or about developing relationships with farmers. Tomatoes were meant to be on the menu whether they were in season or not. By then, though, Yin had long been rebelling against rules of a different sort: That the daughter of immigrants should take a safe path toward success and security. That a Wharton School of Economics student shouldn’t dabble in something as risky and low-reward as restaurants.

Yin had gotten the hospitality bug early, though, working in a restaurant during high school. And she had a clear sense of resolve. “I didn’t see it as a risk when I first opened Fork, because I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose,” she says. “But I also had my life to lose if I didn’t. I thought, Why should I take a job that people expect from me instead of something I’m passionate about?”

Ellen Yin

A quarter century later, those early risks have paid off. But the past several years have given Yin an opportunity to break rules anew, the kind that go right to the heart of her identity.

One of those was about the kind of food she serves. The restaurants that she has led so successfully have always been squarely in the Western European model, a natural choice for a woman who grew up in New Jersey and whose formative experiences were in a French restaurant. “I just didn’t have that much exposure to Chinese cuisine,” she says. “Even when we would come to Philadelphia, I loved eating in Chinatown, but even then the food wasn’t anything beyond Cantonese cooking, which is not where my family is from.”

Then came Covid-19 and a nationwide wave of anti- Asian violence and prejudice. One night, Yin received an email from an Asian former employee, angrily asking that she do more to visibly and vocally support the Asian community.

One way to react to such a letter would be defensively. But as Yin began to process it, she realized that it brought to the fore questions of identity that had been nagging her for years.

“It really made me question who I am. How do I view myself? When I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t think about my culture. I just see myself. But how do other people see me? She says. “It was like creating a home that you love and then suddenly something disrupts it. You’re thinking, ‘There’s a new hole in my wall! The wind is going to come in! What am I going to do to readjust?’”

She might find an answer, she thought, in the place where she always had before: through food. Specifically, her mind turned to the wontons which her mother had made when she was growing up, and which remained a deep symbol of home and comfort to her. It would be like nothing served in an Ellen Yin restaurant before. And getting there required breaking another self-imposed rule. A lifelong front-of-house leader, Yin had rarely cooked in her restaurants herself. Now, she trucked bags of Chinese groceries into Fork’s kitchen, idled by the pandemic, and started to secretly develop a wonton recipe. After many tests, she gathered her managers for lunch and asked what they thought. “They were all silent. I was kind of waiting to be blasted,” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘What do you think? Do you think we can turn this into a thing?’”

The “thing” it turned into was The Wonton Project, which operated as a take-out from Fork and later High Street Provisions, and donated its first month’s revenue, and five percent after that, to organizations fighting Asian discrimination. The concept has continued as pop-ups and Yin is currently in discussions about a permanent brick and mortar iteration.

Even after a long career of adaptation and growth, it has been a lesson for Yin: “If you don’t break your own rules, you’re not moving forward. If you’re not trying things outside your comfort zone—breaking the wrong rules—it’s really hard to experience life.”

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