Now and then: The Ashburner Inn at Torresdale Avenue and Ashburner Street has a history spanning more than a half-century in the Holmesburg community. The restaurant is shown in 1955 (left) and today (right). SOURCE: CITY OF PHILADELPHIA / DEPARTMENT OF RECORDS (LEFT); MARIA S. YOUNG (RIGHT)
“The Phoenix” may sound like a cliched name for a dish served by a restaurant that nearly burnt to the ground in a freak electrical fire nearly three years ago. Some might even call the name cheesy.
But cheesy actually works pretty well for the Ashburner Inn’s award-winning burger, Chef Bob Delange’s ground-beef concoction that’s topped with Wisconsin extra sharp cheddar among other delicacies. The sandwich and its title also commemorate the rebirth of the vibrant public house at Torresdale Avenue and Ashburner Street that has a history of more than a half-century in the Holmesburg community.
On Sept. 10, guests packed the Ashburner’s Fall Kickoff Party to celebrate the end of summer, the start of a new football season, the recent completion of building renovations including an outdoor deck and bar, and the hard work of owners and staff to bring the business back to life.
“The fire happened on what was going to be our busiest day of the year. We had our Christmas parties all booked,” said Joe Driscoll, one of the managing partners. “A transformer blew. There was a power surge into our building and it blew up our whole electric.”
The flames broke out at about 3 a.m. on Dec. 21, 2012. Fire department investigators said at the time that high winds blew down power lines that landed on a freezer behind the restaurant. Firefighters extinguished the blaze within an hour, but not before it had gutted the free-standing building.
“I got a wake-up call bright and early the next morning,” said Driscoll, who learned of the disaster from one of the partners. “After that I got a lot of calls from people who said they saw it on (the news). I had no idea of the extent until I got here.”
The external appearance offered few indicators of the devastation inside. The structure seemed intact with little if any traces of fire damage or soot.
“But the smell was horrible,” Driscoll said, “a burning electrical wire smell, almost like burning tires.”
The flames had traveled through the utility channels inside the walls. Other than the heavily damaged kitchen, most rooms looked reparable. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.
“I looked around and thought we’d have to replace the kitchen floor, but it was nothing close to (just) that. I had no idea it was going to take a year,” Driscoll said. “It displaced our customers and it displaced our employees, about 20 of them.”
Eventually, with the full damage assessed, the owners faced a critical decision about their future prospects. Would they raze the ruins and parlay their insurance settlement into something new, an apartment building perhaps? Or should they rebuild?
The first option might’ve done a disservice to the community. According to Driscoll, the old building was home to a family restaurant known as McGowan’s for much of the first half of the 20th century. A black and white photo from the city archives shows the place in 1955 with its stone and brick facade, second-floor bow window and “McGowan’s Tavern” sign suspended above the angled entranceway on the corner.
Today, the property still features the same bilco door entrance and fire hydrant that are visible in the old photo, although much has changed, inside and out, since the current owners bought it in 2002.
Over decades, the business had become less of a family restaurant and more of a shot and beer stop for a sometimes dubious clientele, local folks say. The new owners wanted to restore a clean, community-friendly image to attract casual diners and private parties in addition to sports fans and the happy hour crowd. They renovated it and reopened in 2004.
Then the fire happened.
“It was always successful. I believe our loyal customers loved it. We wanted to bring it back but better,” Driscoll said.
Enter Jim Harvey, a longtime employee and manager with Chickie’s and Pete’s, as well as Delange, whose list of past credits include several high-end restaurants downtown and an elite private country club in South Jersey.
“I’m trying to take my past experiences and put it into practice here,” said Harvey, who is a partner in the business.
The post-fire rebuild also offered the owners the benefit of hindsight and the resources to tweak their earlier renovations. The first-floor bar is larger and more open with better sightlines for live entertainment and high-def televisions. Meanwhile, the dining room is more intimate. With a fireplace and seating for about 75, it’s been separated from the bustle of the adjoining taproom.
The Ashburner reopened on a limited schedule and menu more than a year ago and remained largely a word-of-mouth destination. Business has been building since last football season and as workers constructed a new deck with a half-dozen patio tables, full-service bar and wall-size projection TV.
“People love to sit outside,” Harvey said.
The business is working on expanding its parking. The owners have acquired an empty lot on Ashburner Street and are getting city permits in order.
The schedule now features live entertainment five days a week designed to appeal to a variety of audiences. They have Irish folk sessions, a jazz and blues open mic night, cover bands, live DJs on the weekends and Wednesday night Quizzo.
In addition to his now-famous Phoenix burger, which was named a finalist at Philadelphia magazine’s recent Battle of the Burgers, Delange oversees a menu with popular bar fare, affordable to moderately priced entrees and gourmet pizzas baked in a wood-burning brick oven.
“In a lot of ways: the food, the deck, the parking lot, the entertainment, it all went to another level,” Driscoll said.
Harvey credited lenders at Fulton Bank and loyal patrons for returning despite the long closing.
“All of the pieces are in place. We have all the staff and I feel confident now that we’re creating a quality product, service and experience,” Harvey said. “I feel the people make a place — the guests and staff. They make it a great experience.” ••
Chef Bob Delange oversees a menu with bar fare, entrees and gourmet pizzas baked in a wood-burning brick oven. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTOS
Cheers!: The Ashburner Inn’s hosted a Fall Kickoff Party on Sept. 10. The event celebrated the end of summer, the start of a new football season and the recent completion of building renovations including an outdoor deck and bar. The restaurant nearly burnt to the ground on Dec. 21, 2012. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO