In what might be one of the most surprising moves of 2016, Josh Lawler, the chef behind The Farm and Fisherman and New Jersey's The Farm and Fisherman Tavern, is forever closing the doors to his Pine Street BYOB come the end of May. It wasn't so much a landlord dispute, nor was it slow business — in fact, with Valentine's Day and two packed butchering classes, Lawler admits to having one of the busiest Februarys in restaurant history. It's simply the matter of a chef with bigger ideas than his space allows, following suit with the growing trend of Philly chef-owners who have merely outgrown their humble beginnings, moving on to bigger and better things.
"When I came back to Philly five years ago, people didn't know who I was. The BYO gave me a platform for people to get to know my food. I never thought it would take off like it did. But on the other hand, I knew one day I'd eventually outgrow the physical space."
Eating at a restaurant with no walk-in refrigerator is somewhat of a novelty dining experience — everything and anything in the kitchen must be of the day, of the moment, and gone by the end of service. Daily menu changes that strictly adhere to the laws of the season were always a reason to visit the space, each menu an exemplary documentation of our region's bounties. But having a tiny kitchen with no walk-in (nary even a mechanical dishwasher) and looking onto a three turn-evening, for a chef, can be a stressful affair.
"The term 'farm-to-table' has been worn out. But I also think a lot of people talk about it but don't always practice what they parade."
"Luckily, we are busy, people have been very supportive. But on the other hand, in order to grow and evolve, we need just a little more room. Running a BYOB requires a lot of DIY, which doesn't allow much time for other projects."
Things have changed for Lawler since he and his wife Colleen opened their jewel box restaurant in 2011. In 2013, they expanded their concept across the bridge with a mammoth of a restaurant in Cherry Hill, N.J.'s The Farm and Fisherman Tavern. And all along the way, they managed to build a family — two twin boys, Oliver and Cole, and a girl, Lucy. Lawler knows that running a small BYOB has a different appeal to diners than a regular restaurant, "At a BYO, there's this unwritten code that the chef has to be there. People want to see the chef and know he's cooking your food. It's a more intimate experience."
Fear not, this is by no means the end of Josh Lawler in Philadelphia. "I've decided to close in order to move forward with new projects." Up first, a second Tavern, still designed for suburban living, with the same successful concept: serious competition for the chain restaurants that crowd Philly's surrounding small towns.
"Bringing the city-feel to the suburbs is a big strategy for us. My partner, Todd Fuller, runs the Tavern's day-to-day operations, and closing the BYOB will give me more time with him in the daily planning of the new location."
Soon after, you'd be safe to bet on a Lawler-return to city limits — he's already been aggressively checking out spaces. "It'll be the next evolution of the BYO in terms of food, atmosphere, and service."
"I'll miss the energy of a small room that reverberates into the kitchen."
Lawler opened the BYOB at the very forefront of Philly's "farm-to-table" movement, and since then, this city has sprouted more similarly-minded restaurant in the last five years than any other restaurant concept — probably something to do with it being a successful restaurant model, combined with the city's location snug among the farms of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and close proximity to the Atlantic.
"The term 'farm-to-table' has been worn out. But I also think a lot of people talk about it but don't always practice what they parade. No one is perfect, but it takes a lot of time and effort to actually apply the principles. I have so many great relationships with producers, and I'm looking forward to having more space to better showcase their products."
But five years running a kitchen with no walk-in, especially in a tight 30-seat dining room, is no joke. And while to some, The Farm and Fisherman was a special occasion restaurant, to many, a dinner at the BYOB became part of their weekly schedule. During the Lawlers' time on Pine Street, they've collected a devout group of regulars, many of whom keep the restaurant full during the slow-seasons.
"I'll miss the staff and regulars. We have so many great regulars, some have come in over 100 times. Colleen has made so many great friendships over the years. I'll miss the energy of a small room that reverberates into the kitchen."
For those of you who haven't had the opportunity, a visit to the restaurant is a necessary one. You have until the end of May to do it, but in case you don't, find solace in the fact that this isn't the end, and we'll be seeing Josh and Colleen Lawler resurface in Philadelphia in the not-too-distant future.