Philadelphia's Iron Chef follows Marc Vetri in staking out new territory
Eater is reporting that Jose Garces, Philadelphia's own Iron Chef and restaurant empire-builder, will be joining fellow chef and Marc Vetri in opening a location in the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey (about 14 miles East of Philadelphia). Earlier this year, Vetri announced that he would be opening a second location of his popular Italian eatery, Osteria, in said mall. It looks like Garces was inspired by this unconventional location, and is close on his heels with plans for a Distrito outpost (which has other locations in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Scottsdale, AZ). There is no firm opening date for this iteration of Garces' psychedelic Mexican wonderland, but chances are it won't be until some time in 2014.
These two chefs are some of the most respected names in Philly. Will other restaurateurs follow suit, and look to suburban retail megaplexes as viable locations for business? Perhaps one day, interesting, creative dining choices will take the place of the Ruby Tuesdays and Bahama Breezes that have come to define sit-down eating in American malls. With Vetri and Garce blazing a trail, it just might be possible.
Jose Garces Joining Marc Vetri at the Moorestown Mall
Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) announced during an earnings call that the Moorestown Mall is getting another well known Philadelphia chef. Jose Garces will bring his third location of Distrito to the mall. Garces is joining Marc Vetri who is opening Osteria at the mall later this year. In addition to Osteria and Distrito, PREIT has landed Firebirds Wood Fired Grill as it seeks to add more draws to the South Jersey mall than just shopping. The Distrito announcement brings the number of spoken for liquor licenses to three. Moorestown, which had been a dry town, awarded PREIT four liquor licenses at the mall.
More on Vetri’s Osteria project at the Moorestown Mall
Construction is now underway at the Moorestown Mall’s Osteria. And Vetri has announced that Michael Deganis will be the chef at the New Jersey Osteria. Deganis has until now been in the kitchen at Vetri’s Italian gastropub, Alla Spina. The move has had ripple effects as Pat Szoke, who was the executive chef at the Industry is coming back to the Vetri fold to take over Alla Spina.
If all goes well, Osteria will open at the Moorestown Mall before the Holiday shopping season.
Two Jose Garces Restaurants Are Opening in Atlantic City
When the Revel casino-hotel in Atlantic City shut down in 2014 after just two years in business, it took four of Jose Garces’ restaurants with it. The chef, who is filing for bankruptcy and cites the casino closure as the start of his financial woes, gets a partial comeback to his name when Ocean Resort Casino opens in the former Revel space later this month with 16 bars and restaurants, including outposts of Garces’ Amada and Distrito. Both were in Revel.
Garces is providing “culinary expertise and menu consultation” at Amada, Distrito, and a barbecue restaurant, Pit Boss BBQ & Beers, under a restaurant management agreement, says Ocean Resort Casino owner Bruce Deifik. The restaurants themselves are not directly part of the bankruptcy proceedings. As a representative for Garces Group explains, Ocean Resort Casino owns the restaurants. Garces Group holds the management contracts and the contracts are included as assets in the sale of Garces’ restaurants (likely to Louisiana-based food company Ballard Brands). The auction will take place on June 26.
The Garces restaurants at Ocean Resort Casino “will open and operate as normal — as all Garces restaurants are during this process,” the rep says.
Revel also included the Iron Chef’s Village Whiskey, also in Philly, and his AC-only noodle bar, Yuboka, but neither are part of the Ocean Resort plans. The original Amada, Garces’ first Philly restaurant, is in Old City. The original Distrito is in University City.
A New York location of Amada closed in March and the Distrito in the Moorestown Mall closed last month.
Early last year, Garces opened seafood spot Olon and Japanese eatery Okatshe in the Tropicana Atlantic City.
The full lineup of Ocean Resort eateries includes high-end steakhouse American Cut from Marc Forgione, which was in Revel, along with Italian restaurant Dolce Mare, bruncherie Harper’s, burger chain Wahlburgers (from Mark and Donnie Wahlberg and their chef brother, Paul), the 24-hour Café 500, Zhen Bang Noodle & Sushi, and the rock ‘n’ roll-themed Villain & Saint. Italian cravings can be sated at LaScala Pronto. For dessert, Sweetie Pie Creamery should hit the spot. And, presumably for cereal, there’s Cereal Town. Starbucks and grab-and-go spots round out the offerings.
Ocean Resort opens June 28, the same day as Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, going into the former Trump Taj Mahal.
Despite all the changes to the Moorestown Mall facade, you can’t miss the new and noted Distrito. After closing its doors at the now shuttered Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, Distrito Moorestown is the only New Jersey location for Iron Chef, James Beard award winner and culinary celeb Jose Garces. Located next to Marc Vetri’s Osteria and opened at the start of July, the patterned pink front is just a start to the playful, bright and exciting glimpse of Mexico City that awaits you inside.
On nice nights, the front windows open up to outdoor seating, where an always-bustling crowd packs benches and the restaurant bar for stellar happy hour specials, including deals on tacos, cocktails—like their margarita, which packs a serious punch courtesy of quality tequila—beer and dips. Meanwhile, an accompanying dining room—which can get pretty loud when happy hour is in full swing—features more than enough space for the dinner crowd, with an upscale and modern feel that pays homage to the refined food coming out of the kitchen without appearing stuffy or over-dressed.
Garces has earned a reputation for his food, in particular the tapas style that he’s embraced at several of his Philadelphia restaurants. It’s a concept that’s too often criticized, largely because most small plates seem too small for anyone to really enjoy with a price that’s better suited for a larger dish. But that isn’t the case at Distrito, where a tapas-sized plate of tacos comes with three fully-loaded shells, averaging at about $9.
And if you’re coming to try Garces’ food, you can’t go wrong with the tacos, which picked up steam in South Jersey with the installation of the Distrito truck at Revel. They remain one of the most popular items on the Moorestown menu. That and the guacamole, hand-crafted with roasted jalapeno and served with crumbled cotija cheese which didn’t seem to stay on a table for long.
Tacos come in five varieties, including classics like shredded chicken and carnitas, or pork. Then there’s the pescado, or fish taco, featuring fried mahi-mahi. It came with a crisp red cabbage slaw that added some freshness and balances out the fried fish and creamy slices of avocado, along with a smear of a smoky chipotle remoulade. And the cordero taco, featuring lamb braised in spicy adobo, a mint pipián sauce with crumbled queso panela, is unlike any variety you’ll find in the area. But be warned: It packs a ton of heat, so much that the cheese and mint sauce were lost entirely. For best results, try splitting a few varieties with friends, going for bolder flavors. But don’t neglect the classics, like the JG steak supremo tacos, which pile on thin-sliced skirt steak, refried beans, sliced avocado, salsa and a bit of Mexican crema to create a cohesive balance of heat and cooler flavors.
Of course there is more to the menu than tacos, and small entrees and sharing plates add plenty of variety. There’s the salsas and guacamoles, served in playful metallic spheres that seem to dot every table in the restaurant, which came with the option of adding crab or extra accompaniments for a small fee, and then there’s entradas like gorditas. In traditional Mexican form, a masa cake is stuffed with ground beef and melted cheese and fried, but Distrito serves their piping hot cakes with a crunchy, acidic slaw that wakes the dish up.
The queso fundido—a traditional Mexican dish featuring lots of melted cheese and spicy chorizo, broiled and served with chips or bread for dipping—has the tendency to be very greasy, but this particular preparation, served with freshly grilled tortillas and featuring roasted duck instead of sausage, was salty and creamy with a nice bite of spice from the gamey protein. I could see the big downside to sharing plates: What do you do when you want to devour the whole thing yourself?
But if a full meal is still more your style there’s a list of entrees designed to feed just one. The veneras, or diver scallops, arrived lightly pan-seared and look almost too pretty to eat. The delicate scallops sat on a bed of smoked corn puree, and were drizzled with bright green cilantro oil and a deep, black puree of black-truffle and huitlacoche jus, an ancient Aztec preparation that uses an actual fungus grown on corn to boost the corn’s earthy and sweet flavor. Everything combined creates a very natural plate that plays with the balance of sweet and savory in all the right ways.
If you’re not feeling adventurous enough to dive into some corn fungus, the pollo a la brasa is an equally pleasing entrée. A half-chicken rubbed in herbs and chili and roasted arrived with a “drunken salsa,” similar to pico de gallo simmered in a rich adobo sauce.
The tomato and onion still had plenty of crunch to it, and the sauce was smoky and smooth, but the chicken was fairly dry and could have used more of the actual salsa to help add some much-needed moisture. It fell short alongside the star of the entrees, the Iberico secreto. A massive, grilled pork chop coated in an achiote paste and pineapple sauce came alongside pickled jalapenos with thinly sliced onions. The char from the grill, blended with a sweet and spicy sauce and the fresh pop from the pickled pairing, was hard to resist.
Desserts like churros with caramel and chocolate sauce and rotating flavors of snow cones add some finishing touches to the menu, along with tequila flights and of course more margaritas. This new addition to the mall seems like a perfect fit. Its sharing-sized options are great for diners-on-the-go or people looking for a mid-shopping snack but its ambience and refined palate completely takes diners away from the mall. And most importantly, it’s a fun place to eat, with options that can please most palates in a space that’s all too easy to enjoy.
Photo: The iberico secreto (pork chop) at Distrito
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine , Volume 11, Issue 7 (October, 2014).
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Jose Garces Joins Marc Vetri at The Moorestown Mall
The PREIT Quarterly Earnings Call is normally of no use to the food industry, but this week's entry dropped a big nugget of info: Jose Garces is opening a Distrito in the Moorestown Mall. That's right, the Iron Chef is joining fellow Philly culinary icon Marc Vetri in becoming the first two lab (mall)rats in this crazy experiment.
While the Vetri announcement was a huge shock and looked like an anomaly, adding Garces to the roster points to a paradigm shift in the way local mall operators hope to bring a different crowd to their properties. It's a great way to change the public perception of what malls can offer, too.
There's no timeline for the Distrito opening as of now, and Osteria is just in the early stages of construction, with holiday 2013 as the target for ribbon cutting. Either way, if these endeavors end up being a success, look for more high end mall operators to try and tempt star chefs to open restaurants inside their monuments of consumerism, just like the casino model.
There was no point in standing around waiting for a reaction, so Jose Garces stayed in the kitchen. He served plates of piquillo peppers, brochettes and garlic shrimp for the Spanish tapas concept he was pitching, and chicken ropa tacos and fried mahimahi for the Mexican idea. Stephen Starr ate.
Starr, a former entertainment promoter, was just growing into his legend in early 2003, with the breakout hits Continental and Buddakan signaling his skill. He came into the lounge at another of his restaurants, Alma de Cuba, twice, with “an entourage of whoever he felt like eating with that day,” remembers Garces. Dressed in his signature black, Starr ate one forkful of each dish. Garces had two possible restaurants in the offing when, about a day later, his phone rang.
“I loved the food,” Starr told Garces. “And I’d like to go forward with the Mexican concept. But I don’t think Philadelphia is ready for a Spanish tapas bar.”
The “Mexican concept” turned out to be El Vez, a restaurant that helped cement Starr’s reputation. But Garces’s reputation was growing, too. He was already executive chef at Alma, and El Vez gave him a second kitchen to run. The Spanish tapas place, though, felt personal. The food Garces prepared was an homage to his grandmother, who had helped him, as a child of Ecuadorean parents who was growing up in Illinois, to understand and taste his roots. So in 2004, Garces scouted for a building that might house the dream Starr rejected.
He thought he found it on the 200 block of Chestnut Street in Old City. “Good bones,” he remembers. “It just felt right.”
He called Starr, who knew of his ambitions, and asked for his advice. “That stretch of Chestnut was kind of a dreary block in those days,” Starr says, “and there had been some other places that failed there. I’m sure I advised him against it.”
The rest is city culinary history. Garces pressed forward, naming his restaurant Amada, Spanish for “beloved.” When the doors opened in 2005, the food was a marvel, a rush of “tapas,” or small plates, with dramatic flavors Philadelphians hadn’t encountered before. The total experience was transporting. The “dreary” block worked in Garces’s favor, fostering the illusion that Amada really was a step into something other, even illicit. Entering the front door was like embarking on an evening’s vacation in Southern Europe. The decor was dark and rustic, worn just so giant hams hung from the ceiling the prematurely aged tables and wine barrels suggested that something old and distant had been conjured anew.
“It was hugely exciting,” says Philly food writer Drew Lazor. “They brought in a flamenco dancer, and music, and there was this tremendous stomping you could hear outside its doors. … It was a very personal, chef-driven restaurant, and it seemed tremendously important.”
Jose Garces, the chef, had the vision to see what Stephen Starr, the great restaurateur, had not: Philadelphia was ready for this Spanish tapas place.
A dizzy run of success followed. Garces, over the next four years, opened three additional hit restaurants in Philadelphia. By 2010, he wasn’t just one of the leaders in Philly’s second restaurant revolution he was a face, nationwide, on television. He became one of the Food Network’s Iron Chefs, an esteemed role in the firmament of TV cooking stars, and went right on expanding — opening more than a dozen additional restaurants here, in Atlantic City, in New York and Chicago and beyond.
Failure seemed unimaginable, till it didn’t. By March of this year, Garces was making headlines for all the wrong reasons: closings, lawsuits, signs that his restaurant group teetered on the brink of ruin. His relationship with his investors grew so fraught that one even filed an over-the-top lawsuit alleging that Garces’s restaurant group was in fact a “Ponzi scheme.” The news provoked obvious questions: Just where was Jose Garces headed, and how did he wind up in such a precarious position? The answers, it turns out, don’t just explain Garces’s predicament. They reveal the absurdity behind our fascination with celebrity chefs, people who by definition do one thing so well — cook! — that they somehow become responsible for everything else that makes a restaurant work.
In person, Jose Garces retains his defining character traits — exotic looks, heavy brow and wavy black hair, offset by a regular-guy, beer-drinkin’ demeanor. TV chefs generally boast outsize personalities picture Gordon Ramsay yelling cruel invective. But even on TV as an Iron Chef, Garces managed to remain amiable and chill. Famously, he expects his managers to be kind, too, encouraging them to read Setting the Table, a book by legendary New York operator Danny Meyer, who argues that the hospitality industry must be hospitable, first, toward employees.
That’s the Garces — the chef Philly adopted and rooted for — who shakes my hand when I enter his offices at 24th and Walnut streets, where his pizza restaurant, 24, is also located. His demeanor is warm, keynoted by an ingratiating and expressive smile, and he sits me down to talk in an office made cheery by natural light and bookshelves loaded with cooking tomes. But there’s little time for get-to-know-you chatter. Garces is scrambling between various meetings associated with running his restaurants and saving them, too. And once the conversation starts in earnest, a new aspect of Garces’s personality, a side never seen on television, emerges.
Lawsuits have been landing: At this stage, his restaurants face claims by three produce suppliers, for instance, alleging failure to pay more than $220,000 in bills.
While Garces remains bullish — “I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’m proud of the catering business we’ve developed, and there are new restaurants in the pipeline that I hope to be able to tell people about soon” — he’s also in clear crisis mode. His voice takes on a slight whinge, his face scrunched, almond eyes pleading, when the subject turns to his restaurant group’s debts. If he appears a touch wounded, defensive, who can blame him? The Jose Garces I’m meeting has been shouldering financial challenges for years.
In 2014, the Revel casino in Atlantic City closed, shuttering four of Garces’s most profitable restaurants at once. Further, his efforts in other markets — D.C. and Chicago and Scottsdale, Arizona — have failed. His New York version of Amada chalked up approximately $1.3 million in construction overruns, according to Garces one week after I meet him, he announces that restaurant is folding, too.
The result, for Garces, is a professional near-death experience with personal ramifications. According to public records, in summer 2017, Garces signed over the deeds to his $2 million Philadelphia home and a 40-acre Bucks County farm as collateral against a $7 million loan from M&T Bank. In that same time frame, according to people with knowledge of the restaurant group’s operations, M&T Bank asked Garces to bring in a financial adviser — a turnaround specialist named John Fioretti — whose role included the power to make financial decisions for the restaurants. Last summer, Garces’s CEO, Rob Keddie, and CFO, Yousuf Hasan, left the company for undisclosed reasons. By this spring, the suits against him, including one from an investor, began to stack up, seeking damages of more than $5 million.
“I’m working to recapitalize the company,” Garces tells me, “and fix this.”
Fixing it, of course, would be good for Philadelphia. Garces’s best restaurants help comprise the fabric of the neighborhoods they occupy. His restaurants employ about 750 people — in the kinds of manager, server and bartending jobs people rely on to support families — and give business to other outfits, like those produce companies. In short, bankruptcy and/or closings aren’t something anyone in Philadelphia wants, and even the possibility of failure probably comes as a surprise.
Jose Garces is no ordinary business operator, after all. He is, within modern American culture, exalted, a celebrity chef. His rise and this steep dip in his fortunes serve as a cautionary tale — an object lesson in the distorted nature of our current cultural obsession with celebrity chefs.
For starters, says Yale professor Paul Freedman, whose expertise extends to ancient eating habits, the number of chefs now called “celebrities” surpasses reason. “It used to be,” says Freedman, “that when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the ’70s, or when Thomas Keller opened the French Laundry, and they became stars, you knew it was because they’d achieved something truly significant. But now, what makes a chef a celebrity? Is it a culture-changing restaurant or just appearing on TV?”
At the same time, our culture’s focus on chefs obscures the effort required to sustain a great restaurant. Moguls of every stripe are losing money betting on food. A 2014 study by a Berkeley statistician using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that restaurants shutter in their first year 17 percent of the time. The median lifespan for restaurants is under five years, rendering opening one something like a cancer diagnosis.
The key to outliving the short-term survival rate isn’t the chef. It’s everything. “There are so many decisions required to make a restaurant work,” says Starr, “that don’t have anything to do with the chef. And you need to get them all right. Without getting spiritual, it’s a bit like an act of God. It’s magic.”
The magic act is getting more difficult. Not only do modern-day diners expect a transcendent experience rising costs make turning a profit tougher than ever. “Maybe 15 years ago,” says Philly chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson, “you could look for profit margins of up to 15 percent. But now? Ten percent would be killing it. If you can achieve four to seven percent, you’re pretty happy.”
These realities can drown any restaurateur, and Garces is clearly gulping for air. In recent weeks, rumors swirled that he was about to sign a deal with Ballard Brands, a Louisiana-based company, to recapitalize and perhaps help manage his business. That development suggested salvation of a strange kind. Ballard, established in 2012, runs around 150 locations, like Wow Cafe, PJ’s Coffee, and a “fast casual” outlet called Boardhouse Serious Sandwiches. Ballard, it would seem, is an odd fit — an act of desperation, or at least a downward step in terms of cookery.
“I want to tell this story,” Garces says of the challenges he’s faced in the past few years. But he offers what sound like feints and evasions first: “I have to take responsibility for the position the company is in, and I do. … But I’m a chef. I’m creative. And I hired people to take care of the business side so I could focus on creating concepts for the company.”
Of course, the financial people reported to Garces further, as PR strategies go, I accept responsibility for the fact that these other people really let me down probably isn’t found in any crisis management handbook. But over time, Garces would open up enough about his past successes and his missteps to provide a fuller, more self-aware account of his journey. And something else would emerge: a vision of the Garces Philadelphia first saw — the man who understands the magic of a great restaurant and whose transformation into a chef wasn’t just professional, but personal.
There’s a romance to Jose Garces’s beginnings. He took a job, in 1990, with his friend Joe Erlemann as a lifeguard on a Lake Michigan beach. In those days, Garces’s friends knew him as “Joe,” too he’d taken an Americanized name to fit in.
The lifeguard group these Joes joined, mostly young men fresh from high school, often lingered on the beach after work to talk and drink beer. Someone decided they should eat. Garces volunteered to cook, and Erlemann expected him to return from a grocery run with pre-formed burger patties and hot dogs. But Garces fired up a little charcoal grill they acquired and turned out marinated skirt steak and chicken, tacos and brochettes.
Erlemann’s voice rises delightedly as he remembers those charmed evenings, Garces’s first “restaurant,” idyllic, with brilliant sunsets, slowly cooling temperatures, and a view of the water.
Garces’s life to that point was both odd and ordinary. His father, Jorge, an engineer by trade, emigrated from Ecuador at age 19 to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago. Garces’s mother, Magdalena, followed him a few years later. Both spoke heavily accented English as a second language. Jorge was a technician at a packaging firm, providing a solid middle-class life. All year long, Jose’s mother and paternal grandmother cooked, filling up the house with the aromas of South America: garlic, cilantro, and dishes like ceviche and empanadas.
Some kids know what they want to do after high school. “Joe” Garces wasn’t one of them. His dad’s packaging outfit held no appeal, and the activities he enjoyed most in school, like football and wrestling, offered no path forward. He enrolled in junior college, lifeguarding for money, and visited the culinary school at Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, without much optimism. Then he saw a group of students parade by on campus in uniform chef’s whites.
“It appealed to me right away,” he says. “The uniforms reminded me of being on the football team and suggested structure, and I wanted that. I think I needed it.”
He enrolled a week later, keeping his lifeguard gig, making a little money and practicing his cooking chops with friends. The rest is the usual climb. He took on internships in Dallas and, after graduation, overseas in Puerto Banús, Spain. People he met in college had started to call him “Jose,” and of course in Spain everyone did, and so Jose Garces got his name back. He then moved to New York, the epicenter of America’s restaurant universe. He served as a line cook, then as a sous-chef. His nascent leadership skills were so apparent that at age 27, he received an offer to work as chef de cuisine in the Manhattan restaurant Bolivar. But he lacked experience and lost the job, then shuffled, despondent, into the biggest break of his career.
“I really admired Douglas Rodriguez, a chef who was known as a leader in the ‘New Latin cuisine,’ and I called him,” he says.
Garces was honest about his failure, and Rodriguez took him on board at his restaurant Chicama. “There was just something about Jose from the moment I met him,” says Rodriguez. “He had very quiet, natural leadership qualities. Immediately, the other chefs just seemed to gravitate to him and follow his lead. And he never raised his voice.”
Rodriguez was more than impressed. “I was like, ‘This guy is gonna be huge,’” he says. “And I started thinking of ways I could put him to work for me.”
The pair became close friends, and after Rodriguez got a call from Stephen Starr, in 2000, about helping to develop what would become Alma de Cuba, he took his protégé to Philly with him. “I was a sponge, all that time,” says Garces, “just trying to learn everything I could.”
He worked with Starr for a couple of years, developing his own reputation. But all the while, he held onto a business plan he’d developed back at Kendall. It was for a Spanish tapas place, and it described what would become Amada.
Chefs are often compared with great artists, a conceit that can seem — and probably is — overblown. But in Garces’s case, the comparison seems apt. His business plan and recipes, carted from job to job, functioned like the notebooks filled with songs that Dylan and Springsteen developed as they gigged around New York and New Jersey, angling for their big chances. By 2004, when Garces decided to ignore Starr’s advice and open Amada, he was ready: a unique talent, itching to put his carefully crafted songs out into the world.
There was a time, more than a decade ago, when Jose Garces claimed he’d stop. In summer 2006, when he was just 33 years old and Amada was brand-new, he let reporter Karen Heller of the Inquirer follow him through a dinner shift. He’d open four places, he told her, establish himself as an authority in Latin cuisine, and be satisfied.
His mentor, Douglas Rodriguez, happened to be in town after a shift at Alma de Cuba. “He’ll do more,” Rodriguez told Heller. “It won’t be enough.”
“Watch,” Garces responded. “I’ll be very happy.”
That night, Garces and Rodriguez were the epitome of high-flying chefs, chatting amiably, eating paella and dry-aged rib eye for two at the tremendously European hour of 10 p.m. Want to step back in time and encourage Jose Garces to trust his instincts? This would be the night to visit. Because his best restaurants — in Philly, at least — were the early ones. Between 2005 and 2009, the food scene’s new darling suffered but one miss — Chifa, a Peruvian flavored restaurant — which was quickly forgotten among his wave of hits: the iconic Amada Tinto, a luxe Spanish wine bar Distrito, a temple of Mexican street food served in a dizzying blitz of bright colors and Village Whiskey, an old-timey cocktail hang.
Fusty old food castles, like Georges Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin, demanded that customers dress up. Garces’s restaurants, like Starr’s, were joints: They swung, flamenco-danced, and dazzled us with color.
As Garces pushed out hit after hit, his personal life blossomed. He married Beatriz Mirabal, a woman he met at Alma de Cuba while she was waitressing her way through dental school. She’d encouraged him to open Amada, and together they comprised a modern “it” couple: she, the learned dentist of Cuban descent he, the dreamy-eyed restaurateur of Ecuadorean parentage, the emperor of empanadas.
They had two kids, a girl and a boy, and started the Garces Foundation, a small nonprofit that provides medical care and English tutoring for the city’s immigrant community. And the momentum just kept building. In August 2008, with five Philly restaurants either open or in the pipeline, Garces appeared as a challenger on Iron Chef America — and bested the renowned Bobby Flay. The next year, Garces won a multi-week competition to become an Iron Chef himself, one of the culinary masters — Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, Cat Cora — who pose at the show’s start, arms folded, daring challengers to call them out for a five-course cooking duel.
The show is silly. Even stupid. But it’s on TV. That’s enough to make a guy president and bring 1,001 opportunities to a chef’s door. But is that making it, or a path to destruction? The answer is a field of probabilities — the five-year survival rate, and a million looming choices flickering into view.
Becoming a celebrity chef didn’t propel Garces into a downward spiral. But the show did heighten his profile, affording him more opportunities, not just to succeed, but also to fuck up in a field where each project requires multitudinous decisions and the margin for error is minimal.
“It’s hard,” says Schulson. “I’ve done the TV thing, and it brings a lot of opportunities. In general, you need to remember that you can only do so much.”
That’s a challenge. Local chef Kevin Sbraga, who briefly served as Garces’s
culinary director, exploded out of Top Chef in 2010, opened five well-reviewed restaurants of his own, and ultimately closed them all — in just six years. Celeb chef Luke Palladino blew up the Borgata with his twists on Italian cooking, opened a series of his own places (including a namesake restaurant on Passyunk), then closed them and filed for personal bankruptcy protection, claiming $59,000 in assets and more than $1 million in debts.
Both men work now as executive-chef employees. Sbraga, who accepted a post at Philly’s new Fitler Club, declined to be interviewed for this article but has said that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have grown so quickly.
By March of 2014, Garces, too, had grown quickly — a chef rock star with 16 restaurants around the country, including in his old home, Chicago, and far-flung locations like Scottsdale and Palm Springs. He’d also become entrenched in Philadelphia, opening the combo package store and restaurant Garces Trading Company, and rustic JG Domestic in the Cira Centre lobby. He’d opened four additional restaurants in one spot, the Revel casino and resort in Atlantic City. And Philly was about to view perhaps his most ambitious outlet ever: Volvér, with a tasting menu, planned near-nightly personal appearances by Garces and a policy requiring would-be diners to pay up front, like theatergoers.
The growth rate was spectacular, and it masked problems. Yes, Garces was opening new restaurants at a wicked clip. But he wasn’t necessarily making good decisions about them. For a while, that didn’t matter. The financials looked good.
Then, in September 2014, Revel closed. Garces admits those four Atlantic City restaurants raked in a disproportionate share of his restaurant group’s profits. “We made plans, and hires, in late 2013 and early 2014 based on the amount of revenue we were generating,” he says. “Then those places were gone but we still had those people and those obligations.”
The cascade of problems brought on by Revel’s closure illuminates the kind of high-wire act that even the most successful restaurateurs must sometimes perform. Garces’s old boss, Stephen Starr, could have become an example. “I did something once I had never done and never thought I’d do,” says Starr. “I signed a loan, personally, to get a couple of restaurants opened.”
It was in 2006, and Starr’s Buddakan and Morimoto restaurants in New York’s meatpacking district had construction costs so large, he had no other choice. “If those restaurants hadn’t been hits,” he says, “I could have lost everything. It could have all been over.”
Revel’s closure brought Garces this same brand of stress — a financial reversal, wholly unrelated to being a chef, that threatened his entire enterprise.
There had been rumors that Revel’s owners might declare bankruptcy pretty much from the moment the $2.4 billion resort and casino opened. Perhaps Garces should have planned accordingly? He argues, fairly convincingly, that back then, casinos generally stayed open even after declaring bankruptcy. “Someone usually steps in and buys the place, or they recapitalize,” he says. “We figured the same thing would happen here.”
Someone did step in to buy Revel — Florida developer Glenn Straub. But he never reopened it, and the closing left Garces and his team scrambling to make up the lost revenue they’d projected. And the chef became perhaps even less discerning in the opportunities he chose.
“We knew we needed ways to make up that shortfall,” says Garces, “so when we got a call about bringing a ‘Jose Garces concept’ to New York, we went for it.”
That New York Amada, in Battery Park City, opened in spring 2016. But just like Starr’s first New York ventures, it incurred large construction costs. It also never hit, failing to earn enough money to keep itself afloat even as a Stephen Starr El Vez (whose original menu had been developed years earlier by … Jose Garces) continued to chug along right across the street.
These woes laid some of Garces’s financial agreements bare, in dramatic fashion. The business entanglements of chef-operators are usually byzantine. Publicly, the Garces Restaurant Group appears to be the umbrella organization overseeing the workings of Garces’s restaurants. But each restaurant could be owned by any one of over a dozen different LLCs, each of which might include any number of possible investors. Garces has worked primarily with two: Jim Sorkin, a co-owner of Julius Silvert, Garces’s major food supplier and Spinner Family Holdings, an investor group that includes Thomas Spinner, the father of Tim Spinner, a chef who once worked with Garces at El Vez.
Spinner Family Holdings, one of those initial investors, filed a suit earlier this year alleging that Garces had been funneling money from these separate LLCs to the overarching restaurant group. The suit is a tempest, raging that Garces committed “fraud” and was running that “Ponzi scheme.” But it is curiously absent of detail. Garces called the allegations “unfounded,” but there is real pain in them: restaurant dreams, gone unrealized.
Garces might overcome all this. But the financial stresses have revealed something else that cropped up after he became an Iron Chef: a weakness that had developed in his overall body of work.
The story of Jose Garces will always be different from that of someone like Kevin Sbraga. Garces enjoyed real success, boasting four restaurants that have been open for nine years or more. But the early, inspired visions, the precise marriages of location and concept that conjured dining magic, have given way to spots mired at meh.
Mercat a la Planxa and Rural Society in Chicago.
A Rural Society in Washington, D.C.
Old Town Whiskey and Distrito in a Scottsdale, Arizona hotel.
Tinto and the El Jefe bar in Palm Springs, California.
Chifa and Rosa Blanca in Philly.
The Buena Onda taco shop in the King of Prussia mall.
Eleven restaurants. All conceived, developed and touted under the Jose Garces brand. All closed or marching on without him. The problem was never the food, which almost always earned good, even great, reviews. The problem was that great restaurants require something more — that gift of discernment, the devotion to detail that gives rise to the restaurant as art form.
Tom Sietsema, food critic at the Washington Post, and Pete Wells, of the New York Times, say essentially the same things about Garces and the restaurants he opened and shut in their cities: The food was very good. The locations were difficult. In neither case did Garces create a restaurant that could overcome that challenge.
The truth is cruel, and it’s this: Outside the Philadelphia region, Jose Garces has mostly flopped. And locally, it’s been nine years since he offered up a bona fide hit.
Garces gives a vigorous but limited defense of his later work. He firmly believes in his taco concept, Buena Onda, which still has a Philly outlet near Logan Square. The mall version he closed this spring was just something they decided to “give a shot.” His pizza restaurant, 24, was constructed “in collaboration,” he says, with the owner of the building where he leases office space. But his defense also amounts to a confession: His heart hasn’t been filled with a burning desire to open many of these restaurants. He’s been chasing lost revenue, throwing up outlets rather than measuring every choice against an unyielding aesthetic.
Lazor, the food writer, remembers the opening of Village Whiskey as a major event. His phone lit up with messages from people dying to get the scoop. “To hear the time frame out loud,” he says, “and realize it’s been almost a decade since he had a big hit — that’s a staggeringly long time ago.”
The realization triggers a kind of reverie from Lazor, who muses that Garces’s continuing allure is a testament to the strength of his first four hit restaurants. “But the question becomes,” he says, “when have you made it? Aren’t four successful restaurants enough?”
Greg Vernick opened his namesake restaurant in Rittenhouse Square in 2012, winning plaudits in the New York Times and Food & Wine and a coveted James Beard award. But he didn’t announce his second restaurant until he’d spent five years perfecting his first.
When people asked Vernick about a second restaurant, Lazor says, “He would say he had some new development, and it would turn out to be a new set of plates for Vernick. … It just speaks to the necessity of obsessing over every detail. I don’t think Jose has done that for a while.”
Obsessing is the right word. Think Stephen Starr, testing seats throughout every new restaurant to understand each customer’s experience. Maybe obsession doesn’t sit so well with Garces. He and Beatriz separated in 2012 and are now divorced, but they remain amicable, co-parenting their kids and foundation. Garces takes his kids, now 15 and 11, for a week at a time and still delights in cooking them chef-quality breakfasts. He also has a long-term girlfriend, Jill Schmeltzer, who used to work in sales at Garces Group. Perhaps the ordinary guy in him has been dragged along on the celebrity-chef ride.
But that doesn’t seem exactly right. After all, he chased down that ride, and despite his steady, down-to-earth demeanor, he has an ego to satisfy. Even when it opened, Volvér — that ode to chefly ambition he announced when all seemed swell in 2014 — bore a whiff of self-important bloat. It didn’t just require diners to pay in advance they were subjected to servers who accompanied dishes with stories about … Jose Garces.
One might suspect that today, Garces, with his house and farm signed over against debts, would be willing to admit his younger self had been prescient. Four! That was a good number. Still, over the course of about six hours of interviews, conducted in August 2016 (after he’d already begun to hemorrhage revenue) and in March of this year (as his restaurant group hung over the abyss), he resisted — for a while, anyway — any meaningful admission of his own mistakes. “It wasn’t just me sitting there in a vacuum, making these decisions by myself,” he says. “When we were reviewing opportunities, it was our entire team, and our investors, saying, ‘This looks good. Let’s go forward.’”
Finally, though, he seems to cave, his voice lowering a measure as he tires of denying the obvious. “I think it’s been location more than anything else,” he says. “We picked some locations that weren’t great, and I think in general, things became too opportunity-focused, just looking at whatever opportunities were presented rather than being strategic and asking, ‘How does this fit in with the larger vision or goal?’”
He even admitted that sometimes, he does think he should have stopped at four, or even at one — after Amada. “I think it’s natural to think about that,” he says, “but the truth is, because I’m a chef, and I always want to find new ways to express that, I don’t think it was ever in me to stop at four.”
The admission is an indicator that the Jose Garces who first thrilled this city isn’t gone. He can discern his own mistakes, knowledge he can put to use preserving what he still has: a future.
Perhaps, even in the midst of failing, closing restaurants in seven states, Garces has just been figuring out how to succeed. He’s kept up appearances at chef- and food-related events, for instance, smiling and shaking hands even while in arrears. This might sound difficult to most of us to Garces, it’s just another Tuesday — a great chef maintaining his brand and saving his businesses.
In this light, Garces, one of America’s too-many celebrity chefs, actually begins to look like CEO material. He was even “right” about Revel — just four years late. Recently, Colorado developer Bruce Deifik stepped
in to buy the old Revel location from Glenn Straub he has since committed to letting Garces reopen three of his old A.C. spots, which just might turn on a powerful money spigot. And the Ballard fit — if it happens — could be better than it first appears. Garces was talking about further exploring the “fast casual space” back in August 2016, when the crisis only loomed he says Buena Onda is “perfect” for Ballard, and a project for which he feels “real passion.”
He might not know everything, but he’s learning, and he’s got the ramrod spine necessary to hold up under weight that would bow most people’s backs. “I do think I’m getting better at this, and I’ll be better going forward,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Garces reinvented himself after a failure once before, rising up after he lost his first chef de cuisine job at Bolivar to become a celebrity chef. Could he do something like that again?
Starr, his old mentor, still speaks highly of him, declaring that he has “a good business mind, a better business mind than most chefs.” And even his ex, Beatriz, says his restaurant group’s current turmoil will ultimately “look like a bump in the road. … Jose is tremendously talented … this will all work out.”
“Jose will always have another idea,” says Douglas Rodriguez, the mentor who first introduced Garces to Starr so many years ago. “He wants to achieve and do a lot. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s very ambitious. That’s really who he is, and I don’t see anything changing that.”
Whatever happens, Jose Garces will still be Jose Garces. Failure might batter his brand. But America also loves a good comeback story. He can carry the lessons he’s learned forward, yes. But regardless, he’ll always have talent at a pursuit we prize. He’s a chef. That means he’ll be able to cook, and people will come, and they’ll eat.
The rest, without getting too spiritual about it, is just hard work and acts of God.
Published as “The Hard Days of a Celebrity Chef” in the May 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Catelli Duo latest business to leave Moorestown Mall
Just three weeks after Jose Garces' Distrito abruptly closed at Moorestown Mall, neighboring Catelli Duo has also locked its doors.
"It is with a heavy heart that we are closing the doors of Catelli Duo Moorestown Mall as of (today),'' the restaurant announced in an email.
"We are so very grateful to our guests who have dined and drank with us,'' says the statement. "It is our privilege to serve the Moorestown/Maple Shade community, to actively take part in charity affairs in the mall, and Moorestown proper, to participate in holiday events and to donate to many fine local groups. We will miss being there.''
According to mall representative Heather Crowell, replacements for the dining establishments are underway.
“Moorestown Mall is undergoing a significant transformation as construction on the Macy’s box replacement is in full swing. Sales at the full-service restaurants currently in operation at the property exceed the overall mall average, so we are confident in the strong demand for quality dining establishments and will continue to deliver these dining concepts to the community, alongside the new retail joining the mall.”
Fans of the restaurant can visit Catelli Duo at Voorhees Town Center, which remains open seven days a week and is offering summer specials and a popular outdoor space.
Catelli Duo had opened at the mall in November 2015, replacing Marc Vetri's Osteria. It is just across a mall entrance from the former Distrito.
Garces Restaurant Group closed Distrito at the Moorestown Mall on May 31. An Atlantic City location of the Mexican eatery will reopen at Ocean Resorts Casino later this month. (Photo: Jim Walsh/Staff photographer)
Distrito closed on May 31 in the wake of celebrity chef Garces' financial crisis. The Mexican restaurant, which opened four years ago, was a "troubled" operation that previously negotiated a rent reduction at the Route 38 complex, Garces said in a statement filed as part of an ongoing bankruptcy action.
Garces has blamed his financial woes on the closing of Revel Casino in 2014, which meant the shuttering of four of his restaurants.
Two of those restaurants — Atlantic City versions of Amada and Distrito — will reopen with the launch of Ocean Resort Casino in the former Revel location. They will be owned by the resort.
A mall representative has said the shopping center's owner "is working with a replacement."
"It's a really great opportunity for a new operator given the overall restaurant business conducted at the property and new anchors under construction," said Crowell, who is senior vice president of strategy and communications of mall management company Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT).
PREIT, which also owns Cherry Hill Mall and Vineland’s Cumberland Mall, posted a net loss of $10.2 million, or 15 cents per share, for the fiscal quarter that ended March 31. The company has said it is considering residential units or hotels for some of its holdings.
Meanwhile, the Macy's wing of Moorestown Mall is being renovated to include the area's first Homesense, a home decor discount store, as well as Sierra Trading Post, an outdoor gear discounter, and a third tenant so far identified only as a food market.
In addition to its food court, mall eateries remaining include Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill and Yard House.
Courier-Post reporter Jim Walsh contributed to this report.
Tammy Paolino: [email protected] (856) 486-2477 @CP_TammyPaolino
Moorestown Mall has lost two restaurants in under a month. The mall developers say they are undergoing a major transformation that will include new restaurants and the arrival of at least three new retail partners. (Photo: File photo)
Can the Moorestown Mall make a comeback?
The owners of the Moorestown Mall are hoping a facelift and higher end restaurants will help attract more customers. (Alan Tu/WHYY).
If the Moorestown and Cherry Hill malls were people, Moorestown would play the role of the little sister with an inferiority complex. The malls, which share PREIT as their corporate parent, opened in quick succession in the early 1960s and inhabit parcels less than five miles apart on Route 38. But Cherry Hill basks in its glory as the first modern mall in the Northeast, as well as one of the ten biggest in the country.
The retail center that regularly lures shoppers from Philadelphia recently underwent a $220 million renovation that brought it a Nordstrom — ranked as the nation’s top luxury retailer in a survey by the Luxury Institute — and several high-profile national chain restaurants whose power lunches, enviable wine cellars and valet parking restored any gild that had faded since its last major remodeling in the 1990s.
During this time, Moorestown Mall underwent a beautification to its exterior yet couldn’t manage to lure Nordstrom when it came courting, and vacancies began to accumulate through the recession and post-recession period. Though they both occupy affluent suburban communities and share many of the same stores, Cherry Hill boasts a Coach and an Henri Bendel while Moorestown supports a dollar mart and a wig shop. Put simply, Cherry Hill was originally designed as a fashion center Moorestown, a family-friendly destination, and to this day, it’s just not cool to hang out there.
But that’s likely to change over the coming months, now that not one but two of Philadelphia’s most desirable chefs are committing to Moorestown and aren’t ashamed to admit it.
“There are so many great plans in store for the Moorestown Mall now, including the Osteria project just next door, and we wanted to be a part of that,” says Iron Chef Jose Garces, who’s opening the fifth location of his festive Mexican cantina, Distrito, in the mall. “We are excited to be a part of this fundamental shift toward offering high-quality, thoughtful food at places where that wasn’t always a priority, like casinos, stadiums, malls…. PREIT is leading the charge on this culinary front and we are proud to be their partner.”
When it opens early next year, Distrito will join the first location of Marc Vetri’s Osteria outside Philadelphia. Vetri’s partner, Jeff Benjamin, agrees there’s no shame in helping to transform a mall that’s underperforming and notes that shoppers and diners should expect to see more high-end food offerings in malls of the future.”We’re happy to be the first someplace and let others come,” says Benjamin, a Cherry Hill resident who attributes some of that mall’s success to its strong retail and restaurant anchors.
He finds that despite the sluggish economy, suburban restaurants stay full. “People are eating out,” he says. “Developers see the economic impact of having a full mall and are saying to themselves, ‘We kinda need to get a better offering than a food court.'”
PREIT president and CEO Joe Coradino says popular mall restaurants attract crowds that tend to stay and shop, so to that end, managers try to cultivate an experience for patrons rather than a simple shopping trip. At Moorestown, PREIT is also adding a steakhouse and a spa, upgrading its movie theater with first-of-its kind technology and comfort, and negotiating with additional celebrity chefs and retailers. He says this approach worked in Cherry Hill, whose key measurement for a mall’s quality rose 50 percent after the renovation.
“Studies have proven that shoppers who dine at a mall stay longer, are more likely to spend money and spend more money,” says Coradino. “(At Moorestown) we are really going to create something that we think … will serve as a model for creating a truly differentiated shopping experience by merging best in … local, artisan-owned restaurants, regional boutique- and unique-to-mall retail, a state-of-the-art theater, and an award-winning spa.”
But while Moorestown’s new restaurant tenants clearly believe in Coradino’s vision, they needed his company to meet certain demands before they bought in entirely.
“I can say unequivocally we wouldn’t have gone into it without a liquor license,” says Benjamin, “and we told the town that.”
Until earlier this year, Moorestown was a dry municipality and technically still is. But under pressure from PREIT, town leaders allowed for an exception that awarded the mall – and the mall only – four liquor licenses, for which PREIT paid $4 million.
“Having a liquor license plays an important part in creating the Distrito experience that everyone knows and loves. As Distrito will introduce the town’s only premium tequila bar, it will give the people of Moorestown a fun, lively spot to hang out,” Garces says.
But even the most fashionable malls are still, well, malls. So Benjamin says his team insisted on having doors that open to the outside and front-facing facades to catch the attention of drivers on Route 38. That, plus the fact that many of Vetri’s dinner patrons come from South Jersey, assures Benjamin that his engagement may help transform the Moorestown Mall from a pauper to a princess.
Jose Garces to open a Distrito in the Moorestown Mall - Recipes
It’s taken more than seven years, two heated elections and countless hours of work, but construction is well under way for a new, mega-improved Moorestown Mall. Shoppers, diners, movie-goers – you’re about to be really happy.
It’s a project that almost didn’t happen. About seven years ago, Joe Coradino knew the key to improving the Moorestown Mall was enticing high-end restaurants to open there. Coradino, CEO of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), the owner of Moorestown Mall, had just proven this at another of PREIT’s properties, Cherry Hill Mall. Only problem was Moorestown was dry.
Actually, that wasn’t the only problem.
“Restaurants are the new anchors for malls,” says Coradino. “They are tremendous traffic generators, and they don’t compete with mall stores. Bringing the liquor licenses, and thus fine-dining restaurants, was critical for the mall’s success moving forward,” So PREIT filed a petition asking Moorestown voters to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Sixty-two percent of voters said no. “We lost that one,” Coradino says, “but were determined to keep trying.”
In 2011, PREIT again campaigned for a referendum allowing alcohol sales in Moorestown, only this time limiting those sales to four full-service restaurants at the mall.
To say many residents were against the referendum is an understatement, and a volatile public debate ensued. “We were passionate about the referendum, but I think the opposition may have been even more passionate. They were very vocal about their views. Thankfully, we had a handful of local residents who really took on the cause,” says Coradino.
Even with their active campaigning, Coradino says, “I was always nervous we wouldn’t prevail. On the night of the election, I was so unsure I went home before the results were in. I was getting ready to go to bed when I got a phone call from someone telling me, ‘You won.’ I said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’”
Roughly 60 percent of Moorestown voters chose to lift the township’s century-long ban on alcohol sales.
“This was a big deal for us. I had already decided I was going to pursue the liquor licenses again if the referendum didn’t pass, and I was very excited we didn’t have to do that. It was a lot of work, and I don’t want to do it again at another property,” says Coradino.
Just months after the referendum passed, PREIT’s work began paying off in a big way when the firm executed a lease with renowned restaurateur Marc Vetri. The acclaimed chef agreed to replicate his Philadelphia eatery Osteria at the Moorestown Mall.
“We had already been in talks with several well-known restaurants ahead of the referendum being passed,” says Coradino. “Our mission was very clear: to bring quality restaurants that fit with the residential culture in and around Moorestown.”
“Marc Vetri is a visionary,” adds PREIT Senior Vice President Joe Aristone, “and he saw the potential and opportunity at Moorestown Mall. Not only that, his restaurant concepts are outstanding, and the food and atmosphere will be a great fit. Osteria is going to be an amazing culinary experience right here in South Jersey – not to mention convenient and without the traffic and parking headaches you have in Philadelphia.”
The high-end eatery is slated to open its doors by the end of the year and will occupy 5,000 square feet and have an outdoor dining area. The menu will include Italian-style food like homemade pastas, thin-crust pizzas, wood-grilled meats and fish, and an extensive wine list.
Just weeks after inking the deal with Vetri, PREIT added another high-profile restaurant to the mall line-up, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill. The chain currently operates 25 restaurants and offers an upscale, casual interior with features including an exposed kitchen, an indoor stone fireplace, a wine wall and an expansive bar. The restaurant is on track to open at the same time as Osteria.
“Like Osteria, Firebirds will have outdoor dining,” says Aristone. “It adds a nice element to the dining experience.”
Corner Bakery Cafe, a fast-casual restaurant, will be added alongside the existing Pei Wei Asian Diner just outside the mall. The eatery, which will be the first Corner Bakery in SJ, will serve sweets, sandwiches, salads, soups and pasta.
The largest renovation at the mall, which has been underway since the beginning of the year, is the 56,000-square-foot, 12-screen Regal Premium Experience (RPX) Theater that’s currently under construction. The high-tech theater will feature digital projectors, surround sound and stadium seating with high-back rocking recliner seats.
“It’s the first RPX theater in the entire Philadelphia market, and I think families and couples are going to be amazed by the picture, sound and entire experience,” says Aristone. “I foresee this becoming the go-to theater in our area. Already, I get more questions about the theater than any other questions about the entire mall renovation, so clearly people are excited for it.”
The buzz surrounding the mall experienced got another boost this August, when PREIT announced that Iron Chef and James Beard Award-winner Jose Garces would also be opening a restaurant, Distrito, at the mall.
“Together, Vetri and Garces are a fantastic draw,” says Coradino. “You’ve got these amazing, world-class chefs in one spot where there’s free parking and a weather-protected environment.”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Vetri and Garces signed on to join the mall,” adds Aristone. “It’s a little unorthodox for high-profile chefs to open new locations outside of the city, especially at a mall. I think that speaks to what we’re doing here.”
Distrito, which is already a favorite in Philadelphia, will occupy 7,500 square feet and feature contemporary interpretations of regional Mexican dishes and a premium tequila bar in a modern setting. The restaurant, which Aristone says will open in early 2014, will be located on the Route 38 side of the mall by Boscov’s, right next to Osteria.
While PREIT has already secured an impressive list of restaurants to join the mall, Coradino says, “We’ll be naming a fourth restaurant by the end of the year. It will be in the same vein of the restaurants already coming to Moorestown.”
Though construction at the restaurants and theater is still ongoing, several well-known retailers, including The Walking Company and Crazy 8, have opened at the mall ahead of the surge.
“We’re also working to bring in a number of boutiques and specialty stores,” says Aristone.
In a surprise announcement, PREIT also reported that one of the region’s best-known salons, Rizzieri Salon and Spa, will relocate from its flagship venue on Route 73 in Marlton to a newly designed, 12,000-square-foot space at the Moorestown Mall late next year. Rizzieri has been at the Marlton location for X years.
“Rizzieri is such a strong brand in South Jersey, and we’re thrilled to have them on board,” says Coradino. “Women will be able to get their hair and nails done at the salon, meet their girlfriends for lunch at one of our restaurants and then take some time to shop. It’s our goal to make a trip to the mall experiential.
“As we’ve learned more about our customers, we’ve discovered shopping alone isn’t enough. Dining and entertainment are the other key parts of the experience. I think we’ll have people coming across the bridge into South Jersey to be a part of what Moorestown Mall has to offer.”
DINING AT MOORESTOWN MALL
Whether it’s for dinner, drinks with friends, lunch or even a quick bite, check out these new hot spots coming to the Moorestown Mall.
Opening late 2013
This SJ spin-off of the award-winning Philadelphia restaurant of the same name is the brainchild of acclaimed chef and restaurateur Marc Vetri. The menu and décor will be modeled after the Center City eatery, designed to replicate a rustic farmhouse and offer Italian specialties like thin-crust pizzas and homemade pastas. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant will also feature an outdoor dining area.
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
Opening late 2013
With an exposed kitchen, indoor stone fireplace, wine wall and expansive bar (dubbed the “Firebar” by the restaurant), Firebirds Wood Fired Grill will bring another upscale, casual dining experience to the Moorestown Mall. Patrons will be able to enjoy dishes like lobster spinach queso, crab cakes, tenderloin kabobs and wood-grilled salmon. Firebirds, which operates more than 25 other restaurants across the country, is making its first foray in SJ with the eatery.
Opening early 2014
Award-winning chef Jose Garces will be bringing his brand of Mexican cuisine to SJ with the opening of Distrito. Garces owns and operates Distritos in three other locations – the original in Philadelphia, and spots in Atlantic City and Scottsdale, Ariz. – as well as a dozen other successful restaurants across the country. His location at the mall will feature his signature take on contemporary Mexican dishes and a tequila bar in a colorful, modern atmosphere.
Corner Bakery Cafe
Opening late 2013
Though not technically in the mall (the restaurant will be located on an outparcel alongside the existing Pei Wei), Corner Bakery Café will bring another fast-casual option to the Moorestown property. The eatery, which has more than 150 locations nationwide, will be the first in SJ. The bakery cafe menu will feature fresh-made sweets, sandwiches, salads, soups and pasta.
One of Philadelphia's Hottest New Restaurants Is at the Mall
Excellent mall restaurants are on the rise&mdashand we&rsquore not talking about Auntie Anne&rsquos.
One of Philadelphia’s most celebrated new restaurants isn’t in Center City or the hip Fishtown neighborhood. Scott Anderson, the James Beard Award-nominated chef behind the Princeton, New Jersey hotspot Elements, recently opened his third restaurant, Mistral, in between a Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus at the mall.
Situated in the suburbs of Philly, the King of Prussia Mall—referred to by locals as “KOP”—is the second largest in the country, packed with a seemingly endless string of high-end stores like Apple and Gucci, as well as your standards like Hot Topic and Cinnabon. While KOP has historically lured people with a taste for luxury goods, the mall is now drawing crowds of diners eager to taste Anderson’s cooking.
“We wanted to make a smart menu and still stay true to our values and quality and consistency,” Anderson says. “We wanted to put things on there that would be appeal to everybody, but do it in our style.” Anderson, along with chef de cuisine Craig Polignano, offer a menu that is at once accessible and interesting. Many of the dishes have an Asian influence (Anderson grew up in Japan,) from crispy pork riblets and steak banh mi with jalapeño aioli and fermented radish to the pork belly ramen. Polignano’s spin on the intensely satisfying dish has fermented-in-house kimchi (“I allow it to sit for a few weeks, and it starts to get a light effervescence and a delicious funk to it”), a soft poached egg that’s been soaked in a mixture of soy sauce, miso and cherry vinegar for six hours, and cured and roasted Berkshire pork belly and pork butt, both rubbed with a Chinese five spice that’s also made in house. The airy, unpretentious space feels worlds away from the Panda Express.
While retail brick-and-mortar stores have been struggling to attract customers in a world where anything can be delivered to your door in just a few days, if not hours, restaurants may be the key to bringing back people who come to eat and stay to shop. Polignano admits he was initially surprised by Mistral’s location, but he quickly warmed to the idea of elevating mall cuisine. “I𠆝 like to consider us a destination as opposed to just a stop at the mall,” he says. And diners seem to agree. While the perpetually bustling restaurant serves reliable mall staples like a burger and chicken Caesar salad, the chef says his grilled calamari dish with a pickled papaya salad and tamarind brown butter sauce was one of the top selling items when Mistral opened.
The concept of the actually-good mall restaurant is starting to take root. Where there were once only chains offering weary shoppers pizza or endless appetizers, more unique dining options have been gaining traction at malls around the country. At the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey, Jose Garces’ Distrito serves modern Mexican cuisine and fresh fruit margaritas, and Marc Vetri created the menu for Terrain Cafe in Palo Alto, California. Part of URBN (the company that owns Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and now Vetri Family restaurants,) the café is located in a former Bloomingdale’s at the Stanford Shopping Center and serves dishes made with local cheeses, greens from a nearby farm and pork from a ranch less than 100 miles away. There’s also a locally-driven wine list and nonalcoholic spritzers made with housemade syrups and herbs.
Anderson may be more at home in the woods, foraging for ingredients, but he sees the merit in offering an upgraded dining experience to shoppers at the mall. “I think this is a second cycle,” he says. “I remember as a kid, going to the mall, there was always a Bennigan&aposs, or a TGI Fridays. Places like Simon [the property group behind King of Prussia Mall] want to bring that back, but a little more upscale, a little fresher.”