On the corner of Tasker and South 11th streets, right across from the Singing Fountain, a giant stone fruit is hanging outside a restaurant, as if it leapt from the pages of a Roald Dahl book onto a South Philly crosswalk. Except, the blushing fruit isn’t a storybook peach — it’s an apricot — and it isn’t a worrying sign of a tear in the multiverse. Instead, thank god, the apricot is a beacon of welcome to the new Mediterranean restaurant on Tasker, Mish Mish.
“There’s an Arabic saying — ‘in apricot season’ — which basically means ‘when pigs fly,’ because apricot season is so short,” owner Alex Tewfik says of the inspiration behind the restaurant’s name (from the Arabic “bukra fil mish mish”) and mascot. “But it also means it’s an impossible thing. Opening a restaurant felt to me like an impossible thing — and I decided to do it.”
On Friday, February 18, Tewfik will open the 32-seat restaurant Mish Mish (rhymes with “fish fish”) with a menu of what he has conceived of as broadly Mediterranean-inspired dishes, like grilled baby octopus and muhammara, fried Armenian string cheese, and pomegranate-lacquered grilled chicken with leeks and labneh. Taking inspiration from the foods he loved eating with his Egyptian father and Russian mother, Tewfik wants the food at Mish Mish to be approachable, flavorful, and easy to share, with mixed Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. “We’re going for a vibe of the Mediterranean. It’s not specific to any country or region,” he says. “It’s just easy, breezy, light.”
Opening a restaurant is a daunting and expensive undertaking, and for several years, Tewfik understood that better than most. Before founding Mish Mish, Tewfik worked as a food writer in Philadelphia — one year editing this very publication, then five years as the food editor at Philadelphia Magazine. In both capacities, he covered Philly’s ever-evolving restaurant scene, the highs and lows, the good and the bad, the triumphs, the trials, and most recently, the immense impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on food businesses across the city. After 23 months of changing protocols, financial struggles, angry, ungrateful guests, and, inevitably, restaurant closings, one would think such a fraught endeavor would scare off exactly the person tasked with writing about it. Not so.
“I have very romantic feelings towards restaurants,” Tewfik tells Eater inside Mish Mish, a week before opening day. “They’re not business-y feelings. What restaurants do for me — they tug at my heartstrings, right?” Reporting on the COVID-19 crisis only made those sentimental feelings stronger. “The things that I love about restaurants, I’m willing to be a part of that. I want to be a part of that,” Tewfik says. He had long had dreams of opening his own restaurant, years before he got into writing, and even a devastating global health crisis didn’t quite put the idea out of his head.
So in 2021, when Joncarl Lachman — co-owner with Bob Moysan of Northern European BYOB Noord — called Tewfik to say he was closing his Tasker Street restaurant, an opportunity to fulfill that latent dream was presented to him. Tewfik had worked at Noord years ago and had stayed close with Lachman, so when Lachman asked if he would be interested in taking over the space as a sublease, it seemed like a sign. Tewfik had fallen out of love with journalism. He was at a crossroads. “If it weren’t for [Lachman] doing that, I probably wouldn’t be in this position,” Tewfik says. He enlisted Sean Urquhart, a friend with years of experience in the restaurant industry, to open.
Like any new restaurateur — even with the restaurant’s bones already there — Tewfik has faced his fair share of opening hassles. “As hard as everyone says it is, it is as hard, if not harder,” he says. Getting his liquor license in time for opening didn’t pan out, so for the first few months, Mish Mish will operate as a BYOB. Labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and good old Philly bureaucratic communication breakdowns have all played bit parts in the opening process. “Things that should take one phone call — that would take the world outside of the restaurant industry one phone call — take three,” Tewfik says.
But he’s hired a staff of seven — his head chef, Kyle McCormick, worked for Nick Elmi for many years and at Contra in New York — and the menu is set and ready with a mix of small and large-format dishes, with fresh ingredients like local citrus, marinated mussels, and fennel. Already looking to the future, Tewfik is excited for nights where diners can ask for the chefs to just cook for them — no menu, all sharing, like one big dinner party.
Until then, the friendly apricot will serve as Mish Mish’s ice-breaker, welcoming everyone and anyone in. “I’m hoping that people who didn’t love my writing or who didn’t love what I had to say come in and eat and have a good time here,” Tewfik says. “That’s all I can ask.”