It’s still the Tavern, only better
● By J. Chambless
Philip Ferro is chef-owner of Chadds Ford Tavern. Ferro has kept the original feel of the Tavern, much to the pleasure of longtime patrons. (Photo by Natalie Smith)
It could be intimidating to purchase a longtime area institution. Do you keep it the same, knowing how fond people were of the original? Or do you make changes, hoping the public will appreciate something new?
For Philip Ferro, chef and owner of the Chadds Ford Tavern on Baltimore Pike, melding what people loved about the popular restaurant with his own high-quality dishes can, by any definition, be called a success. And it turns out, it was just what folks in the Chadds Ford area were waiting for.
“We were supposed to have a soft opening [this past] April 6,” Ferro said with a smile, referring to the business practice of an initial opening without flourish, often for family and friends. “It was after nine months of renovations and we put it on social media. Of course, it turned into a grand, grand opening from day one. Everyone’s really, really, really supported us in a way greater than I could imagine.”
The Tavern had been long been known a place to grab a bite and have a drink. Owned and operated for a half-century by Tommy Drane, it was a popular neighborhood hangout and counted among its patrons performers, sports figures and artists, notably the Wyeths and George “Frolic” Weymouth. But 50 years is a long time, and Drane decided it was time to sell, but not to Ferro – at first.
About three years ago, Ferro found out the property was for sale from his mother, whose work commute from Lancaster to Newtown Square regularly took her past the Chadds Ford Tavern, and she noticed the sign stating it was for sale. “So I stopped in and met with Tommy and he said, ‘You’re too late.’ He’d sold it to someone else,” Ferro said.
But Ferro wasn’t idle. The Media man was chef-owner of both Edgewood Café and Vida, two very popular BYOBs in the Brookline neighborhood of Haverford Township, Delaware County.
His mom kept giving him updates on what kind of renovation work she saw at the Tavern. Then, at one point, it looked as if it was vacant again. Ferro got in touch with Drane, who told him the other sale hadn’t worked out. Ferro was interested. After dealing with some zoning issues, in 2017, Ferro became owner of the Chadds Ford Tavern.
It was always Ferro’s intent to keep it the same, comfortable, welcoming pub it had always been, with a few tweaks here and there.
“All the support we're getting … everyone loves the Tavern and what we've done,” he said. “We kept the feel of he Tavern and just updated all the infrastructure – the HVAC, the water system, the kitchen, but it still has the Tavern feel.”
It was also important to keep the same furnishings, although they have been reupholstered and refinished. One wall is covered with metal stars. “The star wall was my idea. I hung them all,” Ferro said.
Although Ferro had never been in the Tavern as a customer, that didn’t stop him from appreciating its history. “I've never dined in here or anything. But I've heard from many, many people that in the ‘80s it was the place to be,” he said.
As chef, Ferro is especially excited about the new menu. “We’ve kept all the items that people are really drawn to, and we added a couple more selections on the steak and seafood end,” he said. “We still have our sandwiches and the raw bar's doing very well, with the oysters and the clams and the shrimp. The roast beef sandwich was a staple here. We just took the Tavern roast beef sandwich and we use choice Angus ribeye, which we shave down. We make a real nice au jus … it’s one of our top-selling items. We make 20 or 30 of them a day.
“We added a couple soups for the fall -- the mushroom bisque and lobster chowder.” A longtime favorite is on the menu, too. “French onion is on there, of course -- that has to be on there.” The soup’s popularity is unwavering. “French onion moves even through the summer,” Ferro said. “We were [serving] 20 bowls a day, even though it was 100 degrees out.”
Another well-liked dish uses arguably two of a meat-lover’s favorites: Bacon and filet mignon. “It was a staple at my Edgewood Café,” Ferro said. The perimeter of the filet is wrapped in applewood bacon and served with cheddar-chive mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus.
“One addition we’ve made is a 40-ounce Tavern Tomahawk ribeye,” he said. “It’s a bone-in ribeye that looks like a tomahawk.” Ferro joked that he was considering awarding a T-shirt to any customer who finishes the steak in one sitting. Sundays and Mondays through the winter are all-you-can-eat prime rib nights for $39.95.
If the food isn’t enough to bring you in, Chadds Ford Tavern offers entertainment every day of the week, and it runs the gamut.
“Monday nights, we do a blues open mic night where all the local musicians come in and they take turns playing. They’re top-notch,” Ferro said. “Tuesday night is Anthony Caserta, the ‘Boy in Black,' doing a Johnny Cash tribute. Wednesday night is country night with Brian McConnell. Thursday, Friday and Saturday is just any live local solo or duo. Sunday, we do a jazz brunch from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with a saxophone player.”
Ferro’s interest in food was piqued when he was a young teenager growing up in Upper Darby. It was in 1993 when the then-burgeoning Food Network on cable TV caught his attention. “I started watching when I was 13 years old. Emeril Lagasse was on there with his very first show, ‘How to Boil Water.' I just got glued to it. And then I excelled in home economics class,” Ferro said.
When Ferro was 15, he had the opportunity to go to Delaware County Technical School in Folcroft to study culinary arts. “I did very well in vo-tech,” he said. “I learned all the fundamentals, the basics -- how to make a vinaigrette, how to make your five mother sauces [basic sauces of French cooking] … I had the opportunity to go to some contests and I did very well.”
A teacher, Andrew Subashi, saw something special in Ferro, and asked him to work part-time in his side catering business, which gave Ferro his first taste of working in the food world. “He would do little events on the weekends and he would take me along with them to help them do the catering, setting up trays of pasta, trays of roast beef,” Ferro said. “I’d go and help set up and work with him and his wife, who was the waitress.”
Ferro continued to watch Food Network while regularly reviewing his copy of the Culinary Institute of America book from school. Early jobs busing tables put him in Delaware County restaurants, where he could watch the chefs. The owner of a few of these restaurants, Pat Burns, saw he had potential, and at 17 he was tapped to run a “monster of a food court” in a supermarket.
It wasn’t always easy. Gaining the respect of the employees doesn’t come automatically to someone so young. “That’s always been the issue because I’ve always been the youngest one,” he said.
At 22 he left to work at Anthony’s in Drexel Hill, becoming head chef at the Italian restaurant. After leaving there and working in catering, he opened Edgewood Café in 2014 and Vida, a Mexican taco spot, in 2016.
In Ferro’s new venture, he has carryover employees from previous restaurants, and family as well. His sister, Jillian Maher, is general manager. His wife Kristen – with whom he has son Vincent, 2, and daughter Giovanna, 4 – works at the Tavern a couple of nights a week, picking up a few tables. But he couldn’t convince his mother to work there, he said with a laugh, even if it would cut down on her commute.
Plans for the Tavern include constructing a patio in the spring, Ferro said. Former owner Tommy Drane stops in once a week, and Ferro said he’s great for pointing out local celebrities. After 50 years, not surprisingly, “He knows everybody,” Ferro said.
“He's happier than ever,” Ferro said of the former owner. “He finally sold the tavern and it's doing better than ever. So he's beside himself. You know, it really helps that he spent 50 years here. So for him to be happy means a lot. He's just thrilled that the tavern’s living on. We didn't change it and make it ultra-modern. It's the Tavern.”
Natalie Smith may be contacted at natalie@DoubleSMedia.com.