Up from tuxedoes and canned peas: The forgotten father of informal dining

Steve Poses and his "informal restaurant revolution'

2 minute read
Poses: Ten years before Spago.
Poses: Ten years before Spago.
The tables: Bright green. The chairs: Mismatched, and some were pews. I vividly recall the evening a longhaired blonde waitress took a seat at our table and asked what we'd like to eat. That was heart-pounding intimacy back then. That was The Frog in 1973.

A few years later came The Commissary (cafeteria service, no blondes). These were the restaurants that exemplified the dining revolution that made Philadelphia, in the mid-1970s, America's most significant restaurant city. The Commissary even had sushi, which I never ordered, having no idea what it was at the time.

This exercise in nostalgia is prompted by Dan Rottenberg's recent list of "Momentous local events since 1908," in which Dan chided Philadelphia magazine for overlooking Steve Poses while rightfully celebrating such Philadelphia restaurateurs as Georges Perrier, Neil Stein and Stephen Starr. A few years ago Philadelphia magazine called me and asked who I thought was the most important dining/food (I can't recall the exact wording) figure in the history of Philadelphia. I said Steve Poses.

Steve Poses's places weren't the first of their kind, but they were the best and most revered among such fabled spots as The Black Banana, Lickety Split and Astral Plane. They were earlier than Wolfgang Puck's original Spago, ten years ahead of New York's Union Square Cafe. Before their appearance, informal dining in America (not just Philly) was rarely desirable and never chic.

Poses couldn't cook like Georges Perrier, but his places helped change the way we ate, ending an era of tuxedoed waiters and canned peas. He succeeded, he later suggested to me, thanks to a combination of enthusiasm, curiosity, integrity and naiveté.

"It was a very '60s attitude," says Poses, who now operates Frog Commissary Catering. "We were all so bright-eyed."

And those seated waitresses— just whose dazzling idea was that? "Not mine," Poses told me. "Our waitresses never did that."

Well, maybe that happened to me at Friday Saturday Sunday. Nobody's memory is perfect— certainly not mine after more than 30 years.

Alan Richman is the longtime food and wine critic for GQ magazine and a native Philadelphian.

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