According to www.meaningslike.com, the name Pedrogo represents ambition, independence, strength, reliability, determination and professionalism. That sounds about right for this week’s Portrait, Luis Pedrogo (pronounced Lewis, not Loo-eez). Voted by Best of Philly for “Server of the Year” in 2017, the restaurant veteran has won praise for his amicable and professional service at places like the Union League, Little Fish, and Noord. Now Pedrogo is taking all that accumulated knowledge and putting it to work on his own restaurant, the Mediterranean-focused Olea. A charming BYOB located on Arch Street, it’s just across from the house where Betsy Ross may have (or may not have) first put needle to thread.
I looked up your name and it has some interesting qualities. What’s your background?
I’m Puerto Rican, so that’s funny because I never liked my last name. It just doesn’t seem like a strong name to me.
[Laughs] I guess those “P” sounds are a little airy! Did you grow up in Philly?
Yes, in Frankford. The opposite side of the tracks. In the not so pretty part!
What kind of things were you into as a kid?
I liked to play on my own. I’d take a pile of toys and be in my own little world.
So you were like me, an extroverted introvert. I’m not shy, I can talk or sing in front of hundreds of people, but I really enjoy my solitude.
Definitely, I really do appreciate my quiet time. Especially because I socialize for a living, my time off is very important for me to recharge.
I know that you’ve been in the restaurant business for a while. What was your first job?
My first job was as a busboy at The Union League. My aunt worked there and they needed help for the summer. That turned into a full time gig and 32 years later I’m still doing it!
As a person of color working there back in the day, that must have been interesting. It was known for being, let’s say, homogeneous.
Yeah, I think the only other people of color were working as busboys or on the line cooking food. I think I was the only waiter of color, no that’s not true, I think there were a few Black women that worked on the marble floors as well, but not many. And they certainly didn’t have members, in fact, I was there when they allowed the first female member.
Oh my, is that where you stayed?
Oh god no, I’ve worked everyplace! I’ve done hotels, small restaurants, different BYO’s, Audrey Claire, 20 Manning, places like that.
Did you go to college or just straight into the industry?
Nooooo, I did not go to college, I hate school! I hated it, it felt like prison. I appreciate it for what it is and for other people, but it was just too structured for me. That’s not how I function.
When did you get interested in the food side of the business?
It’s actually not really my thing. I’m more interested in making sure that people have a good time. I’m front of house, the party side of it all. Our chef, Alex, takes care of the menu, he used to work at Casta Diva. I don’t really want any say in the kitchen, I leave that to him. Of course I taste everything and make sure that it works but I have total faith in him. He’s very calm and sweet.
What traits do you have that made you think, you know what, I could be good at this?
I treat people like they’re human, you know? I connect very quickly with people. If you give people respect and kindness and make sure they have a good time, it makes everyone happy. It’s been a dream of mine to do this for a while. There’s so much going on today, the climate, politics; there’s a lot of shit happening in the world but I do not let it come in here.
Was there a catalyst to do it at this time?
Yes, the place where we were working at closed down, so I didn’t have a choice! I had to open a place. I heard about this and I snatched it up. There wasn’t even a plan, we just did it.
Was this previously a restaurant?
It was Chlöe’s for many, many, many years. And they were very loved. Especially by those of us that knew them in the business. They were really kind people.
Where did the name Olea come from?
It’s Latin for olive.
How long did it take to get the restaurant opened?
Let’s see, I signed the lease in October 2021, and we opened the doors February 17th of this year. It was difficult because that’s when Omicron hit and the supply chain to get things slowed down considerably. The lamps, they were on backorder, the ceilings, all sorts of things were delayed.
Speaking of the ceilings, I love that they’re made out of sound absorbing cork. I hate when you’re in a restaurant and it’s so noisy and echo-y that you can’t talk.
Yeah, yeah, I always hand cork in my mind, not only because of the sound, but it absorbs odors too, and it gives a nice texture to the place. My husband and I did everything in this place. We have artwork from a local artist, who I used to work with at Little Fish. My best girl Lee is hanging in the front [pointing to a photo on the wall], that’s probably my favorite piece. She was my mentor, my everything. It was our dream to do this together, but then she passed away from cancer. I gave up on the dream because I didn’t want to run a place without her, I felt it just wasn’t going to be fun, I wouldn’t love it anymore. But then this became available and things just started to fall right into my lap.
How long have you been with the husband and how does he fit into the restaurant?
We’ve been together for 17 years. He is a scientist by profession but he thought it would be fun to renovate this place. He’s very handy and he watches a lot of how-to YouTube videos on what to do. And his parents drove from upstate New York to help us put in the ceiling and the wiring. His dad’s an engineer, so with so many things like that falling into place it was strange but it just had to happen.
And I saw that you do have some other help, someone you referred to as your work wife.
Yes, Jo! [Laughing] She’s off today, dealing with taxes. We’ve worked together for a long time. We also worked together at Little Fish and at Noord, which is the place that closed down during the pandemic. She’s great, and her mother came in here and did all the lighting.
Wow, it really took a village to make this happen.
Exactly. People wanted to help, it was really nice.
What was the hardest challenge getting the business off the ground?
Not the city! Everyone told me that getting through the red tape from the city was going to be the most difficult part, but it was really easy. Maybe the pandemic helped with that since everything had to go online. I think it saved us a lot of time and headaches. I think the hardest part was just waiting for Covid to stop being a bitch so that we could open and the world could keep going. Every day we waited felt like a month. And it was wasted money, I was paying rent on a space that I couldn’t use. I was like, I’ll come in and sell hot dogs and beer, I don’t care, we’ll have a blast, just anything to get going.
That must have been frustrating. Well, I’m glad that you have more than hot dogs. I took a look at the menu and it looks delicious. The Mussels with Limoncello pesto, the rib eye ravioli and the beets with orange vinaigrette all sound delicious. What are your favorites?
I love those beets, they’re sweet and earthy. And yes, the ravioli is ridiculously good and the 14oz pork chop.
So switching gears, tell me about coming out.
I don’t believe in that. The sitting down to tell your parents type of thing? No. I never felt the need to tell anyone, it’s more, this is Jamie. We met at Voyeur, I’m with him.
Valid. When you’re not here, what do you like to do for fun?
I love to go out, I like supporting other restaurant people. I always say that I’m going to stay in and then I never do!
What was your favorite toy as a kid?
I think it was a yellow Tonka truck. It was made out of steel, [laughing] I mean toys were made out of for real stuff back then. It was strong enough that I could put bricks and rocks in it and destroy things!
Such a boy!
I know, I was really rotten! [Laughing] I’m the reason I don’t want kids!
I’ve worked as a bartender, and I know that they’re vulnerable to people hitting on them. What’s the worst line ever used on you?
I was with my friend Lisa and this guy stepped right in between us, we were both like, “Who the fuck is this?” and he said, “Don’t you know who I am? My father is the Mayor of New Jersey!” And he had awful breath, he kept talking and talking and it was like, “Bitch, get away from me, you’re disgusting.” He would have been fine if he weren’t such an asshole. Not having it.
What’s your favorite piece of clothing or jewelry?
Oh, I’m not wearing it but I have a little miniature blade that I wear on a necklace, it’s an actual knife and I love that thing.
A bad habit you’ve broken?
I was a nail biter, as a child. I’d love to say I’ve stopped swearing, but I curse all the time.
Anything you’re binge watching?
Let’s hope not the “My Pillow”…
No, no! Oh, I have been re-watching Schitt’s Creek for about the 10th time! Such a great show.
What’s a favorite place to hang out in Philly?
Ember and Ash over on Passyunk, it’s right by the Singing Fountain. It’s fabulous.
Favorite vacation spot?
What’s a song you’re embarrassed to admit you like?
Stick around, I have a whole playlist full of them. But which one is the most embarrassing? Probably Otto Titsling by Bette Midler.
If you could choose 3 famous dinner guests here, who would you pick?
I’d say Patti Labelle, Julia Roberts and Judy Garland. I bet she knew how to party. Oh, can I add Elaine Stritch to the group? I saw her live on Broadway and she was amazing.
You certainly can. Since you liked her, you should check out the RRazz Room in New Hope, they have a lot of amazing cabaret singers performing there. I got to see Andrea McArdle and Billy Gilman do shows there recently and they were both wonderful. You like music, do you play any instruments?
No, but I always wanted to learn how to play the trumpet.
Why the trumpet?
Because it was the loudest!
[Laughing] I’m learning subtle things about your personality here!
Ha ha, but I loved Tito Puente and Celia Cruz growing up, so that influenced it too. I’d hear him blow that horn and say, “Ooh, that’s what I want to do.”
You said that you met Jamie at Voyeur, but how did it happen?
I was there with a friend who was nursing a broken heart. I told him that he could get drunk and I would take care of him, so he did just that and then left me on the dance floor where some guy touched me. I don’t like being touched, but I turned around and saw his big blue eyes and he was so sweet. But then he asked me three questions and they were so stupid. He asked me my age, and I said, “No.” then he asked, “Did you just brush your teeth?” “No.” “Can I kiss you?” “No.” Three strikes and normally you’re out, but he had such kindness in his face and in his eyes that I gave him my number.
Ever been lost?
Yes. Me and Lee got lost coming home from Brandywine State Park. Somehow we ended up in Baltimore instead of Philadelphia! We did that all the time, we’d get so busy talking and being silly and all of a sudden it would be like, “Where did this toll booth come from? We didn’t pass one on the way there.”
Who would you want to contact in a seance?
You know the answer to that. Lee! But if you mean someone famous, I’ll go back to Judy Garland. I want to know about the Carnegie Hall concert and if she really cursed right before she went onstage. They said she used to wait in the wings and curse to amp herself up. She’d smoke cigarettes furiously and then let out a final “FUCK!” and go onstage.
[As diners enter the restaurant] Well, I’ll let that be our curtain call and wrap this up. Bon appetit!
For more on the restaurant, visit: www.oleaphilly.com/.