A Philadelphia Bistro That Feels Like the Set of "Boardwalk Empire"
In Fishtown, a former whiskey factory is now the Italian restaurant Wm. Mulherin’s Sons.
BY LAURA ITZKOWITZ
September 22, 2016
Entering brick-fronted Wm. Mulherin’s Sons feels like stepping onto the set of Boardwalk Empire. The turn-of-the-century millwork leads to a space awash in restored architectural details from its pre-Prohibition heyday: exterior terra-cotta signs, arched windows, hand-clipped mosaic floor tiles, reclaimed wooden planks, and the original safe door, which now serves as a coat closet. While the historical touches spin a compelling narrative that links to the Fishtown neighborhood’s industrial roots, local architect Richard Stokes and Method Hospitality cofounder Randall Cook took pains to integrate contemporary elements—like Stacey Rozich’s folksy mural, reminiscent of the illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are—to avoid making it too antique-y. “We wanted it to feel like it’s always been there, but not like you were stepping back into 1923 either,” Stokes says. “It’s a modern version of the original that feels natural; there’s nothing overly jarring that looks out of place.”
Cook notes the thin line they navigated between honoring the building’s legacy and bringing it into the present day. “The inspiration behind the design is really the bones of the building itself, but we made sure it felt fresh and not like some Disney World-esque period piece.”
To lend it an air of modernity, he collaborated with Brooklyn-based lighting designer Jason Miller of Roll & Hill on globe fixtures, hung next to cinematic photographs by husband-and-wife duo Formento & Formento to create a dramatic effect; a poured concrete fireplace in the dining room gives the space a sense of intimacy at night, though during the day a prodigious skylight opens it up.
A view of the booths. (Photo: Matthew Williams)
When Cook got ahold of the erstwhile whiskey blending and bottling factory in a down-at-the-heels part of town, he knew it could be a harbinger of the area’s budding evolution. Though it needed a major overhaul, its original woodwork was remarkably intact, as were vestiges of its past. Cook, who owns the Roost hotel group, a long-stay concept that has garnered high marks for its refined residential aesthetics, set about transforming the dusty interiors into an Italian restaurant, helmed by Stephen Starr alum Chris Painter, that takes a wood-fired approach to cooking. He ended up with a polished design that raises the bar for the neighborhood, which until now was best known for its beer gardens, BBQ joints, and gastropubs. Adds Stokes: “I’ve had my eye on that building—it’s basically been abandoned for 20 years—for a long time. It’s one of the most evocative structures in Fishtown, which never really had a destination restaurant bringing people in from Center City.”
In October, several spacious hotel rooms will be completed upstairs with exposed brick walls, live-edge walnut beds, antique rugs, and kitchenettes. Guests will check in with the restaurant staff downstairs—a hospitality model inspired by classic English pubs. As he proved with Roost, Cook is especially adept at breathing new life into historic spaces, a method that reaches lofty heights at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons. “What’s interesting about design today is that it incorporates history as opposed to rejecting it. This is a much harder endeavor,” Miller says. “If you get it wrong, it’s just kitsch.”
(Photo: Matthew Williams)
Inspired by WM. Mulherin's Sons
Dish by Chris Painter
20 g anchovy fillets
30 g dijon mustard
65 g parmigiano reggiano
35 g red wine vinegar
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 ice cubes
1 pint extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1 veal tenderloin
1 loaf sourdough bread
1 head romaine lettuce
How To Make
Using a food processor, purée the anchovies, mustard, parmesan, red wine vinegar, egg, egg yolk, and ice cubes.
While the processor is on, slowly drizzle on the extra virgin olive oil so it fully emulsifies.
Add salt and pepper, and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Place veal on a cutting board and trim excess fat around the outside.
Finely dice into small cubes.
Slice a loaf of sourdough bread one ¼ inch thick.
Drizzle with olive oil and place directly on grill.
Drizzle romaine with olive oil, season with salt, and place on grill.
Grill until romaine is lightly charred.
Place veal and Caesar dressing into a bowl.
Use enough dressing to fully coat the veal.
Mix with fresh lemon juice, chives, and salt.
Cut toast into desired serving size portions and spoon veal mixture on top.
Place grilled romaine on top of veal.
Chris Painter is the head chef at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons.
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons was restored and designed to reflect its deeply-rooted American history and location in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Fishtown. From the interior to the exterior of the building, we feel like we hit the perfect balance between old and new—respecting the past, yet making improvements for the future. This balance is also one of the driving forces behind our menu, and is particularly highlighted in our veal tartare on toast. For this dish, we take the elements of a tartare and a Caesar salad, both classics of Americana cuisine, and modernize them with a forward-thinking presentation.