Hinge heralds Port Richmond urban renewal

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Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world. ” Partners M.L. Simone and T. DeLuca are doing just that and so much more.

As the proprietors of Hinge Café, 2652 E. Somerset St. in Port Richmond, they have opened a charming BYOB that feeds not just the stomach but also the soul.

An eclectic place that serves many functions, Hinge hosts familiar Philadelphia musicians who enjoy playing the intimate upstairs Listening Room and neighborhood kids who come to take free art classes. The schedule changes as often as the menu and can include activities like yoga classes and massage sessions, depending on what’s booked for that month. A quick peek at their “In the Listening Room” CD gives you an idea of the caliber of musicians who have played at this off-the-beaten-path spot. Our own Kelly Ricketts, Lynn King, Marc Boucot, Katie Barbato and the Nora Whittaker Band, just to name a few, have graced the Listening Room.

I took a moment to speak to Simone before my dinner.

PGN: So opening a restaurant is a piece of cake, so to speak, yes? MLS: [Laughs.] Oh sure! It took us a full year just to get all the paperwork done and figure out how to deal with L&I. We did the majority of construction work ourselves. We opened in 2004 as a coffee shop. We thought we’d keep it simple and served coffee, desserts and egg sandwiches. That didn’t fly with the neighbors, who wanted more, so we kept adding things — first more sandwiches and then comfort-food-style dinners. Over the course of the years, we’ve had to remodel the kitchen five times to enable us to expand the menu. We started out with two electric burners and a cookie oven, then we eventually put in a gas stove with a hood so that we were, for the first time, literally cooking with fire. As a result, the menu became more diverse and, in turn, our clientele became more diverse. This area was not originally an area known for its fine cuisine. Over time, it has changed: There’s been a great turnover in the housing market in this area and there’s been a shift in the population. Also, as we get new staff members, it influences the menu. We encourage people to share any particular culinary talents they might have. We’re now doing a full-out Sunday brunch with omelets and all sorts of interesting specialties.

PGN: How do you accommodate the tastes of the neighborhood regulars looking for comfort food and the newcomers who are more used to eclectic fare? MLS: We always have two styles running on the menu: the standard menu, which pretty much stays the same, and a more transitional menu, which plays to a few different markets — people in the neighborhood who want to try new things and those that come in from outside the city who are used to a little bit more fancy fare.

PGN: Has being a lesbian-owned restaurant been an issue? MLS: Well, I wouldn’t exactly say this is a gay mecca, but it is indeed a comfortable place to be. We don’t consider this a “gay” restaurant per se; we want to be all-inclusive. We get calls from people who have heard that we are a gay-friendly establishment and we host a lot of events that are predominantly gay. We host musical acts that are gay and support gay organizations as well. There are a few women’s groups that do brunches around the city and they have met here as well. We have a nice mix of people.

PGN: Not to disparage, but I remember I was in this area once and went into a grocery store for hummus. It was a little bit like a “Beverly Hillbillies” episode: “Hoo-muss, I never heard of no hoo-muss.” They called three different store people and all three scratched their heads as if it was a difficult math problem. MLS: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was a little like that when we first got here. People were like, “What the hell is a latte?” It’s a very homogeneous area, populated by families that have been here for generations. Change doesn’t come easy. We couldn’t sell anything but plain bagels and American cheese at first. I kid you not, when we suggested something else, we were asked, “What other kind of cheese is there? What are you talking about?” I was like, oh my goodness, this is going to be a challenge. So we had to work hard to slowly change people’s palates. We gave them enough good comfort food in order to gain their trust to try something new. We were not locals, so it took a while to prove ourselves to people in the area. When we first got here, things were a little rough. We paved the way by taking the first punches for a number of the new upscale businesses who came after us. The neighborhood didn’t know that urban migration was coming, but we did, so we helped smooth the way. We knew it was going to be an up-and-coming area, but they didn’t yet, and were suspicious of it. For us, an area like this was the only way we’d be able to afford our own place, so we had to make it work. As outsiders, we really stuck out. At the time, my best friend and I both coincidentally moved within a block of each other. Between us all, there were six lesbians moving into the area: I think people felt like we were surrounding them! It didn’t help that five of us were bald. Five of us drove motorcycles and we were all doing construction, so we were walking up and down the street covered in dust and muck, carrying drywall. It confused people greatly, so it took us even extra time to earn their trust once we got underway.

PGN: How did you accomplish that? MLS: It was a slow process but, in addition to being willing to compromise on the food to offer what the locals wanted, we got involved in the community. In my normal life, I work with kids, so we instated an after-school program here for the local kids. We hosted a block party, we hosted an arts festival, we got involved with the parks, we did a lot of things to show that we were invested in the community. It made people feel that instead of just being outsiders who sold food in their community, that we were part of the community. I live here too, so we made sure people knew that we were residents as well as shop owners. We do a lot of events that we don’t make money on but are part of our commitment to a social model for improvement. We finance the after-school program voluntarily out of pocket. Some of the staff helps teach, some help with homework; we all pitch in.

PGN: Are you and T partners in life too? MLS: Yes; in the restaurant I’m the predominant one, but she helps out with the kitchen and helps out with the musicians. She has technical expertise with the sound equipment, so she handles all that sort of thing. She also manages our Web site. I actually met her here shortly after I opened. She was with one of the bands performing here.

PGN: It sounds like a family affair; you mentioned to me that your mother is involved? MLS: Yeah. I asked her if she’d help us get started by making her famous carrot cake. It’s hands-down the best around — we get raves over it. She also makes cheesecake and oatmeal cake. I promised her it would only be for the first year until we got going, but people love it so much that we can’t let her stop. It’s been almost five years now. I don’t think she likes me anymore!

We decided to start our meal with an offering from the small-plates section. Hinge has a menu that changes on a monthly basis, so if there is something you want to try, you’d better jump on it. I started with the beet salad ($8), roasted beets with watercress and arugula salad topped with shaved fennel and served with a ball of pistachio-dill goat cheese and honey-orange vinaigrette. It was presented nicely with the goat cheese placed atop lemon wedges and the fennel decoratively crossed on top of the salad. Our server also brought us a large basket of bread sprinkled with garlic, Parmesan cheese and parsley.

I also ordered the Hinge-made pirogies ($8). These were the chef’s handmade potato- and cheese-filled pirogies and were delectable. Sautéed with butter and onions and served with horseradish sour cream, they were not exactly what the weight-conscious diner might order, but thankfully I don’t have any such worries. (Not that I shouldn’t — I’ve gained about 20 pounds since I started this gig — but I just don’t.)

My dining companion ordered the beef Wellington au Hinge ($12). This was a 4-ounce filet mignon wrapped in baked puff pastry finished with mushroom Burgundy beef reduction. I didn’t have much of this, being stuffed with pirogies, but it was flaky and tender, kind of like my dining companion. (I jest.)

We also partook of the eggplant French fries ($6), thick, crispy-battered eggplant strips served with a spicy aoli sauce and shredded beets on the side. These were part of the vegetarian menu, as were the pirogies. Hinge has a fairly large selection for those who shun meat. Additionally, a number of the dishes at Hinge are made to order and can be served without meat upon request.

For my dining companion’s main dish, she chose the handmade ribbon pasta ($15) with a tomato-basil sauce. They strive to accommodate at Hinge to the extent that the chef came out from the kitchen to let us know that he had some different styles of pasta left over from a private event that he’d be happy to add if we wanted to try something new. She opted for the original order, but it was nice to be asked.

I opted for the November scallops ($23). The pan-sautéed scallops were topped with warm apple-smoked bacon and Brussels sprout slaw over honey-roasted butternut-squash risotto. A very flavorful dish and filling to boot. I’d order it any month.

Hinge is BYOB, but we were teetotalers for the night. I had their iced tea, reasonably priced at $1.25 (I had lunch in the ’burbs recently and was charged $3 for a glass of iced tea), and my dining companion had the chai latte for $3.50.

We also sampled dessert: a homemade apple-crumb crisp à la mode ($5, plus $1 for the ice cream) and the chocolate torte ($4), a rich chocolate-lover’s dream.

After dinner, we took a tour with Simone. Hinge is comprised of a number of small, comfortable rooms that connect throughout. It’s a little like if your cool eccentric aunt opened her house and cooked dinner for you and your friends. The room where we dined was filled with small tables and lined with a comfortable banquette strewn with mismatched throw pillows. I asked Auntie Simone about the future …

PGN: What are some of the other things you’re anticipating adding? MLS: I want to expand our arts programs. I want every wall in here filled with art. We try to promote local artists that are moderately priced. I want people in the neighborhood to see it and if they are inspired by it or have an appreciation for it, I want them to be able to afford to take it home. It’s been successful so far: I’ve had people do shows and sell two-thirds of their art in one show. I’m also looking forward to expanding the music program and have a number of house bands that rotate. That way we can get to know the band and help develop their audience and they can get used to us. It’s not your normal music venue. It’s very intimate. You listen, you eat, you interact with the artists. We like the scene that we offer. Tin Angel proclaims themselves the smallest listening room in the city, but I think we have them beat.

PGN: You’ve poured your soul into your efforts here; what does it mean to you? MLS: Everything. This is not just my store, it’s my home. Which is why it feels homey. I had to build a place that I would feel comfortable being in day in and day out. The front room where people dine is my dining room, the kitchen is literally my kitchen. I wanted to make sure it was a place where other people would feel at home as well. Part of gaining that feeling was building the relationships with the people who come here. It’s funny, the kids in the after-school program feel so at home that they’ll walk right into the walk-in and grab a yogurt or sit down and talk to the staff. Even when they’re not in classes, they feel comfortable here like it’s a second home. And that’s a nice feeling for me. We do eight-week programs for the kids and at the end of our courses we have a big party and everyone participates. The kids in cooking class, which is our most popular, make the food, the kids in the singing classes perform, the visual-arts kids decorate and everyone has a part. The kids are already finding their niches: We have some who want to be in front to interact with guests and some who want to stay in the back and be responsible for the preparation. It’s a great feeling to know that we’re training these kids to be functional, that they can take the skills that we’ve given them and use it to help them find their place in the world. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.

Hinge Café 2652 E. Somerset St. www.HingeCafe.com (215) 425-6614 Open for breakfast and lunch Monday and Tuesday; breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday