What’s the Frequency, Alex?

Words by
Jason Sheehan
Images by
Ed Newton

How Alex Tewfik went from being a food editor in Philly to owning one of the best restaurants in town.

Alex Tewfik went from being a food editor to restaurant owner.

“Wait…” Alex says. “Wait.”

He’s gathering himself. We’ve been on the phone for a while, and he’s trying to say something, but he’s trying to say it cautiously.

“Okay, so, like, I want to be careful saying this? I don’t want to sound like…you know.”

And I tell him, “I know.”

“Like whatever, right?”



This is our shorthand. I’ve known Alex Tewfik for a long time. We have spent ages on the phone together plotting revolutions, talking nonsense. A dozen years ago, he was my intern at Philadelphia magazine when he was a kid and I was the food editor. Later, he was my boss when he was food editor and I was his restaurant critic. In between he’s been a lot of other things (a server, FOH manager, PR copywriter for some company that sold shirts or something), but now he’s something else. Now, he’s the owner of Mish Mish, this gorgeous little two-year-old Mediterranean restaurant down on East Passyunk that he built over the bones of a different restaurant (Noord) where, once upon a time, he used to wait tables.

“Restaurants aren’t art,” he finally says. “I’m not saying restaurants are art by any means. Restaurants are businesses.” Pause. “But they’re barely businesses. And if you peel away that business part of it, it’s not a lot different than producing an album or making an hour-long comedy special. It’s a compulsion.”

Left: Mish Mish’s chef Kyle McCormick. Right: A leafy lettuce salad with apples, puffed farro, sherry vinaigrette and aged pecorino.

Alex opened Mish Mish at the worst possible time and for the dumbest possible reason.

(No, it’s okay. He knows this already. It’s become part of the lore.)

He was the food editor at Philly mag when the pandemic hit. He was in that chair when the industry that he’d spent most of his life working in or writing about or (when he was doing that thing at the shirt company) thinking about, looked like it might end. If he’d told me then that he was going to bail out, leave, abandon journalism to open a restaurant at what, historically, was maybe the stupidest time ever, I would’ve said he’d lost his mind. But Alex will tell anyone who asks that opening Mish Mish was something he had to do. It was his love letter to restaurants. To food. To an industry that, on certain nights, looked like it was going away.

“The plan was certainly not buy low, sell high,” he tells me, laughing about it now, at this distance. “It was something I’d thought about for a while. I’d even got close to it a couple times. But this was different. This was like, ‘I’d better do this before it all dies.’”

So he did. Quit the job, gave up the desk, found a space he knew in a neighborhood he loved. Everyone told him he was crazy. Everyone. But there was this incredible energy in the air. “You know how it is,” he says. “People are in the industry. They’ve been there for a long time and they don’t ever leave. It’s like a stock just boiling and boiling, concentrating. Everyone knows everyone. But now there’s these young people—new people—and they’re saying, We’re just going to try it and see what happens because what was there to lose? I mean, I didn’t even know if money was going to be real in the next few years.”

Both of us crack up at that. Because it’s weird and it’s messed up, but if you remember those days, it’s also so, so true.

“I love that energy,” he says. “That’s what gets a place open. That’s, like, the ground state.”

And I was curious. I mean, he wasn’t just some guy opening a restaurant, right? He was a big-city food editor entering the conversation from the wrong end—a guy who’d spent years of his life judging restaurants from the outside now taking everything he’d loved and hated and everything he’d learned across years and opening a place of his own. He came to the corner of East Passyunk and Tasker from a privileged vantage—one that very few other restaurant owners have—and I wanted to know what that view looked like from where he sat. What lessons he carried from one job into the other.

Chocolate cake with chocolate pastry cream and sprinkles.

You’d think we’d talk about the importance of outstanding service or his Top Ten Tips For Navigating L&I. But no. Instead, for 20 minutes, we discuss a doorknob.

Not a specific doorknob, but a hypothetical one that might’ve started as an actual doorknob from a restaurant that Alex remembered from somewhere, but quickly became a conversation about perfectionism and the smooth, slick soullessness that comes from chasing that particular dragon.

It goes like this: You will, in your life, interact with a million doorknobs and, if every single one of them works perfectly, you will remember exactly none of them.

What he’s saying is that the things that make restaurants feel real—that make them feel worn and loved and alive—are those moments that diverge from perfection.

But if somewhere there’s this little restaurant—some small place where the hospitality is warm and the food is great—and it has a loose doorknob? You will always remember that doorknob even when you forget all the others.

Alex is by no means saying that restaurateurs should all go out and loosen their doorknobs. What he’s saying is that the things that make restaurants feel real—that make them feel worn and loved and alive—are those moments that diverge from perfection. The places where small things (a doorknob, a mismatched fork) remind you that you are in the world, not the Matrix, and that in the world not everything is smooth as glass.

Which is strange because for… I don’t know…ever? Restaurateurs have been chasing perfection like a dog that slipped its leash. Perfection has been the goal in ways that have probably always been counterproductive. And exhausting.

“I would leave Philadelphia sometimes,” Alex goes on, “and there would be…an easiness? I don’t know. You’d go somewhere else, to some other small restaurant, and it would feel like they weren’t trying as hard as they were in Philly.”

Sirloin steak with anchovy mayo, grilled scallions and fried potatoes

So the first thing Alex wanted Mish Mish to be was easy. “A place that was small, easy, comfortable with itself.” He wanted to remember that over years of eating for a living, the places he loved most and remembered most were the ones he could sink into like an album or a movie; that felt not like reflections of the world, burdened by that uncanny valley effect of trying too hard to look like reality, but like pieces of it.

“Because perfection can be exhausting to the customers, too.”

He would tell his staff, “It’s just a restaurant,” and what that meant was that they needed to stop trying so hard. That there was going to be no canned spiel for the servers to say at every table, no ‘Have you dined with us before?’ or explanation of the menu or statement of values. There would be no barrier to entry because the menu would explain itself. It would just be food that (he hoped) people would want to eat, described in ways a human might describe them. Slow-cooked cod with fancy beans. Fried string cheese. Duck and endive salad with persimmons, crushed hazelnuts and white balsamic.

“I don’t want anything in French. I don’t want anything that people will be embarrassed about if they pronounce it wrong.” Anything else, Alex says, is performance. And what he wanted with Mish Mish was to remove the performative aspect, dismantle the structures that most restaurants use to control the floor. He wanted to make eating there feel good. Which sounds simple but sit and think for a minute: When was the last time you really felt good at a restaurant? Think of a specific place. Got it? Cool.

Now, did they have to explain how the menu worked before you ate?

Did they ask if you’d dined with them before?

This dismantling extended to the wine list, too. Mish Mish’s lambrusco is called “All smiles.” He’s got a Greek white that’s named “Dip ur toes” and none of them—NONE of them—will ever be tasted at the table. There’ll never be the small pour, the sniff, the sip, the nod, because that’s stupid. It’s bullshit and people hate it. He tells me, “If it’s bad, they’ll let us know, right? And 100 times out of 100, [the customers] say, Oh, thank god. They don’t want to have to go through that. And we want a constant state of Oh, thank god.”

Maybe you have to eat at 10,000 restaurants to recognize it, but, ultimately, what we’re all looking for is somewhere we can breathe out. A restaurant we can fall into like we’re falling in love.

We talk for hours, Alex and me. He tells me about his crew, about his chef, Kyle McCormick, and how Mish Mish wouldn’t be Mish Mish without him because Kyle is a lifer and he understands what Alex is trying to do here. Eventually, we circle back to food writing and we talk about how the last thing you learn, usually right before you leave the game, is that everyone, everywhere is looking for exactly the same thing. And maybe you have to eat at 10,000 restaurants to recognize it but, ultimately, what we’re all looking for is somewhere we can breathe out. A restaurant we can fall into like we’re falling in love.

And that, more than anything, is what Alex brought from his previous life into this one: The idea of Oh, thank god. Of that moment when a customer relaxes into the night you’ve built for them. And when he talks about it, he describes it like music. Like a communal thing. How, on the best nights, when it all comes together, it’s almost otherworldly.

“It’s like they’re hearing one sound. They’re all hearing the same sound. The same frequency. And that makes it so worth it, Jason. To see that? And feel it? So worth it.”

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