Dine + Design: Get a Lesson in Turkish Cuisine and Eclectic Décor at Irwin's in Philadelphia
On the menu: Small plates, classic cocktails, and character to spare.
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Chef Paul Garberson's culinary philosophy is simple: "The goal of cooking is not to make one thing taste like something else," he says. "It's to use those flavors in combination, but also treat them in isolation." Case in point: The vegetable-forward Middle Eastern-inspired fare he serves daily at Irwin's, a neighborhood restaurant on the eighth floor of the historic BOK building in South Philadelphia.
Philly residents may remember the venue in its former life as a vocational school or as one of the 80-something buildings that architect Irwin T. Catharine designed during his tenure as Chief Architect for the Philadelphia school district during the 1920s and 1930s. Garberson remembers the mere shell of a space the building's owner, Lindsey Scannapieco, dragged him into on one particularly gorgeous afternoon. "It had graffiti everywhere, the walls were crumbling, the ceiling was falling, there were no real light fixtures… just garbage," he says. "But the room was on fire because the sun was setting and it had the most glorious view-it was jaw-dropping."
Years would pass before Irwin's was born. In the interim, Garberson, who was in culinary school when Scannapieco first showed him the space, took the time to hone his entertaining chops as caretaker of an old upriver cottage with a garden and farm, an outpost of the Frank Furness-designed Undine Barge Club on Boathouse Row, where a monthly family-style dinner tradition dates back some 150 years.
With a location, and all its potential, in mind, and a chef whose background is family-style meals and entertaining, "We thought, 'What's a vegetable-centric menu that's meant to be shared?' Garberson recalls. "We immediately went to the mezze," the platter of small dishes common on Turkish and Mediterranean menus and perfect for grazing alongside Irwin's Art Deco-era cocktails.
The restaurant's most popular dish, the Grand Mezze, features Turkish classics like hummus, baba ghanoush, and ezme-a red pepper, pomegranate, and walnut salsa-along with grilled vegetables, carrot fritters, crispy olives (a fan favorite), and house-made flatbread and soup crackers.
Nothing strays too far beyond appetizer-size, including the manti, beef and onion dumplings served with garlic yogurt and chili oil, and the stuffed mussels, inspired by Turkish street food. "You take live, fresh mussels, open them up and stuff them with aromatic rice," Garberson explains. "Give them a quick steam… squeeze some fresh lemon into it… it's kind of a conversation piece."
The cocktail menu takes somewhat of a turn, however, nodding more to the decade in which the building was erected than to the rest of the menu's Middle Eastern roots-think: Negronis, Sidecars, and French 75s-with the exception of the "Golden Horn," a gin and tonic with honey, lemon, ginger, and turmeric that references Istanbul's famous waterway. "We like to pull from the classics and imagine that Irwin Catherine was drinking some of these more so than some of our modern spins on cocktails," Garberson says.
He admits: "We kind of backed into the food concept to some degree thinking about what we have and where we are… and what I know and do." Irwin's décor, on the other hand, was a little more premeditated.
"We were able to literally go out into the streets and flea markets and find really special items that spoke to us," says designer Kate Rohrer of Rohe Creative. "That isn't to say, we ran out there and just winged it because that isn't what we did at all," she adds. "We did plan out the space first." Irwin's was hardly her first rodeo, after all. The designer, whose team is behind dining experiences like Louie Louie in Philadelphia and Monkitail in Miami, found the more freestyle approach energizing.
"This was more about curating an overall experience and for it to feel as though there was a sense of discovery for guests as they made it to the top of the eighth floor." To that end, Rohrer left the backdrop with all of its raw, gritty, scholastic charms intact and offset it with the kind of furnishings you'd find in an eclectic-style living room. "My team and I were looking for things that felt a little more luxurious to offset that educational look," she says. "When we were starting to reupholster some pieces, we were looking at velvet and things with a little more of a jewel-tone or bold color to really create that interesting energy and juxtaposition of that school atmosphere and a luxury restaurant."
With that being said, Irwin's décor is not without its quirks. There is, for instance, the mannequin casually (and perhaps creepily) hanging out in one corner of the room and the school library carts that sometimes get used to haul food around. "We found our host stand down in the basement," Rohrer adds. "And the bar top is from the old chemistry science lab. So you get this bit of nostalgia when you're in there."
"Scouring the school, thinking of what we could adapt or put different fabric on, finding pieces that could actually work throughout the building and the basement, the three levels of sub-basement… that was my favorite part," Garberson says, relishing, no doubt, in how simple furniture pieces, like his recipe ingredients, can hold their own in even the most eclectic mix.