Garth Weldon: Elegance and charm

Garth Weldon

I’ll tell you a little secret, as much of a cheerleader and ambassador for this city as I am, I was actually born in North Jersey. Yes, I’m a Jersey girl born on the other side of Lincoln tunnel! I remember my parents frequently taking me to NYC to the theater and to opulent places like the Russian Tea Room, and I remember the memorable times of having lunch in fancy restaurants with white linens and grand pianos playing in the background. 

Recently, I got a real shot of nostalgia and a sense that I was being transported back to another, more glamorous time when I stepped into the Rittenhouse Grill. The restaurant sports a beautiful art deco motif, muted lighting, and hushed tones. Breaking the quiet was a piano player entertaining the diners with flawless selections both classic and contemporary. I was shown to a table where I was joined by owner Garth Weldon, who looks like he could have been a matinee idol from the Rock Hudson era. 

Where were you first cooked up? 

I was born in the suburbs of New York. Five boys, so a busy house. I was the second in line. 

What did your folks do?

My father at that time was an executive at NY Telephone and later on got a job with Southern Railway, which was based in DC, which is how I ended up getting my first real job after college there. I worked at the Prime Rib restaurant which was a couple of blocks from my dad’s office. I wandered in there looking for a job so I could build up my wardrobe until I got a “real” job on Capitol Hill, where I had interned for a semester, and I ended up getting a career. 

I read that you had an interest in politics, and that you’d once written Ben Bradley from the Washington Post. 

Yes, I wrote to him about his take on the presidential race between Humphrey/Muskie vs Nixon/Agnew, and he graciously wrote me back. I’d been active in student council in high school, and back then they had something called “Boys State,” where they would take us to the state capital for two weeks in the summer to study government. We were living in Maryland at the time, so I got to go to Annapolis, and it was fun because we got to stay in the barracks at the Naval Academy. 

What were some of your other interests? Academic? Sporty? 

My brothers were the athletes more than me. I did play some tennis when we lived in Florida for about 2 years, and I got to travel all over the state with the team, but that was about it. 

With five boys in the house, it had to be rowdy. Who was the biggest troublemaker? 

[Laughing] My brother Jolly, number four. I was more the peacekeeper in the family. 

With a name like Jolly, you’d think that he would have been the gay one! 

Right? His name is actually Jolyon, it’s from the Forsyte Saga, a character from the book. My parents were very well read and they liked that name. I don’t know what they were reading when they came up with Garth! 

[Laughing] Were they into country music?

No! No one had even heard of that guy back then. I would get mad because everyone used to butcher it. They’d say or write Bart and Girth and all kinds of stuff. I used to have a little bulletin board with all the things I got with my name misspelled!

How would your parents have described you?

The good one! The principal would call me and say, “Garth! Get your brothers to the school” or “Garth, your brother Jolly is streaking through the parking lot on a motorcycle. And the only thing he has on is a helmet!” I would get all the calls because I was the responsible one. 

And what did you do after high school?

I went to college at Duke University as a history major. I still love it. I read a lot of biographies and books about history. 

Who was a favorite teacher?

Mr. Clarke, from high school. He’s the one that turned me on to history. He’d be at the front of the class and if we were talking about the Revolutionary War, he’d act it out with a pretend musket in his hands. It would just bring the stories to life. I loved it. It’s funny how just one teacher can have such an impact on you. 

Have you ever thought about teaching?

No, not me. My father was, in a way. His job was to train people. Though now that you mention it, he actually was a school teacher at first. I’d forgotten about that. But with five boys to feed, I guess he had to go corporate to make ends meet. He was also really into the arts, the American Academy of the Arts in NY, but he gave all that up to support his family. 

So, you got your start in the restaurant industry at the Prime Rib in DC. 

Yes, they were just opening in DC that week, that was 1976, and I got in there as a busboy because they’d already hired all the waiters. It was owned by two brothers and they were interesting. They were pioneers in that they were willing to hire openly gay staff, which was not common in fine dining in those days. I remember going into the changing room and seeing the names on the lockers, Bubbles and Dolly and other made up names that the staff used in private. I wasn’t used to that. I was tentatively starting to come out but I didn’t really know how. 

When I was at Duke in Durham, NC, the one gay bar was in the next town over and didn’t even have a sign on the door! It was hard to find your way. It wasn’t until I got to DC that I really started to come out. The terrible part was that it was at the start of AIDS and people were dying all around me. I used to drive people home and their mother’s didn’t want them back. And they would die in a matter of months, not years because there was no treatment then. 

When did you come out to the family?

There was never a sit down “Come to Jesus” moment. It just kind of happened. I think the first thing was when one of my younger brothers came to visit and I was living with a guy I was seeing, so it was pretty obvious. But there was never any issue, I mean they had four other heterosexual sons to give them grandkids, so that took the pressure off.

What was your first impression of Philadelphia?

Well, the first time I came here was for the Flower Show. I used to do flower arrangements at the bar and dining room, grand scale arrangements, so I’d come up here to get ideas. And I’d spend time downtown, but it was like tumbleweeds back then. There was nothing going on, it felt like the streets were deserted, so I’d just get back on the train. Years later, when we wanted to open another location, we were told that Philly was on the upswing, and so we opened here with Mayor Rendell doing the ribbon cutting. He still comes here for the prime ribs! 

What sets your place apart?

We had a concept that didn’t exist in Philadelphia at the time. We dressed up the steak house, which is what we’d done in Baltimore and DC. At the time most steak houses were pretty bare bones, but we introduced the atmosphere of a classic supper club in Manhattan in the 40’s and 50’s. We had beautiful decor and quiet lighting with a live trio playing every night. People really responded to it and we quickly gained a loyal following. 

What was a favorite celebrity encounter?

Frank Sinatra came in when I was at the DC place. It was funny, I’d gone to his concert at the Kennedy Center and was kind of hanging around the stage door thinking maybe I’d have a chance to see him. After a while I gave up and walked home. On the way, I walked past the restaurant, and by that time I was the manager, so I figured I’d stop in just to check on things, and there he was at the bar! So that was kind of cool. They even wrote a story about it in The Washington Post! Then, that very same night, the Baltimore location called and said, “Liberace is here!” He would come every year when he performed in Baltimore and he had everyone call him Lee. 

Did he tinkle the ivories when he was there?

I don’t know, Diana Krall did when she was in DC. What a beautiful lady. At this location, we’ve had Patti Labelle and a lot of politicians and sports figures. Mike Tyson sat right there [gestures]. I’d like to see more come here, but often these days, when celebrities come to town, the people hosting them, whether it’s a school or a venue, they don’t want to share them with the public. They take them to private events. When the Gay and Lesbian film festival was going strong, they used to bring people here, John Leguizamo, Steve Buscemi, whoever they had in town. That was nice. 

What are some of the changes you’ve seen?

Well, when we started we were jacket and tie required. We had it written on the door in gold leaf. But I quickly realized that this was not Washington, DC. We took a razor blade and carefully scraped off the very expensive lettering that said, “and tie” but left the jacket required part. That lasted about 12 years until 2009 when the recession hit, and that’s when I took my little razor blade and scraped off the rest. We needed to put people in the seats so we didn’t have the luxury to tell people they had to wear a jacket. To this day I have about 50 blazers in the closet, all different sizes.

My father is a New Yorker and was a regular on the supper club scene there. One afternoon he took me to lunch, and it was the rare occasion when he wasn’t dressed up. I remember being so impressed that they had a jacket and tie waiting. Because it fit so well, I thought they kept it there just for him. Little did I know they had multiple jackets in the back. I also remember often going to the Russian Tea Room where they named a drink after me. Instead of a Shirley Temple, they had a Suzi Q!

That’s sweet. Shirley Temple came into the DC restaurant when she was working as an Ambassador. I kept sneaking a look at her to see if she was going to order a Shirley Temple, but no, she had a martini, straight up! 


Yeah, but it’s a different world now. I wore a tie for 40 years and the other night I came in on a busy Saturday night and I couldn’t find another gentleman wearing a tie, so I took mine off because I didn’t want other people to feel uncomfortable.

Aww, that’s a shame. Well, next time I come, I’ll wear a tie! Changing gears, I know you’ve always been supportive of the community. I was first here for what I believe was an IBA event, which is like the Queer chamber of commerce. 

Yes, we host a lot of groups here, which is nice because in addition to helping out the community, we have fun and it introduces new people to the place! Not a donation thing, but we just had the crew from the Tavern Group here, and all the employees from the piano bar and their different venues here. They were a lot of fun. 

What’s a favorite compliment that you’ve received about the place?

It’s kind of what you were saying: it’s nice when people get nostalgic, when it takes them back to their childhood or a good memory. They can step back in time a little when they come here. And people like the fact that they get impeccable service here, which can be hard to find these days. We want our customers valued and pampered. And the food of course. I always tell the staff, we’re not selling prime rib, we’re selling consistency. 

That’s so important. Okay, let’s do some random questions. Did you have a piggy bank as a kid? 

[Laughing] It was probably a cigar box. 

Who’s your favorite superhero?

Does Robin count, the Boy Wonder? 

Yes, he does. Would you rather swim in a pool or ocean?

Ocean. I like to scuba dive. It’s exciting to be in the water with sharks swimming all around you. 

That sounds a little precarious.

Well, apparently I’m not that appetizing. Though in general they don’t tend to attack you under the water. They attack the surface because they think you might be a seal but down in the depths I haven’t heard of many attacks.  

What’s your number one travel destination?

Probably going to Cuba, I’ve been there three times. Talk about traveling back in time, Havana feels like you’re back in the 50’s with all the classic cards. And in the outskirts, the country, it feels like you’re going back 100 years! There are guys out there plowing up and down the fields with mules! It’s like vehicular or technological advances don’t exist. You see a lot of suffering, but also the resiliency and spirit of the people. And they can really party! 

When I first went, back in 2005, there were no gay bars, so people would party on the beach. The gay party would move every Friday, and the word would go out to those in the know where it was going to be that weekend. You’d go and pass around the rum and have a great time. Over the years it’s gotten more liberal, Castro died, things loosened up a little, and the first gay bar opened. In fact, Raul Castro’s daughter was an ally and did a lot for changing the laws to support LGBTQ people in Cuba, and she was given a big award here in Philadelphia as part of the Equality Forum. 

I didn’t know that. What’s a chore that most people hate that you enjoy?

I find doing the dishes relaxing. At a party, I’m happy to go over and do the dishes! I know, it sounds weird. I don’t like to vacuum, I don’t like to clean, but I’ll wash some dishes. 

My ex was like that. She found it therapeutic. 

Yeah, I don’t even use the dishwasher any more!  

What else do you enjoy doing to relax? 

I like doing crossword puzzles, but my favorite thing is sitting on my patio, in my hot tub at midnight when I get home from work, with a cigar in my hand and maybe a glass of wine, and look at Liberty Place and the skyline. And I didn’t even want a hot tub; a friend talked me into it! But it’s been life changing. 

Favorite saying?

At the start of the night, sometimes I’ll gather the staff and say, “It’s showtime!” Just to get everyone in the right frame of mind.