[ veterans ]
For the hospitality-industry lab coats who developed fine dining's hoary "steps of service," and for every restaurant operator who treats those stuffed-shirt recommendations like they're The Beatitudes, Friday Saturday Sunday (FSS) should probably be filed under H, for "hemorrhage-inducing."
On a recent busy Friday night, when nearly every seat in the humming dining room was occupied with boisterous hungry people, there was no beaming co-ed hostess to punch us into the POS and escort us in, breezy small talk on tap. We were instead drive-by greeted, warmly but briskly, by Danny Promutico, who nodded to our seats as he tore across the floor. Maria Marioletti showed up soon after to take orders for cocktails, making a couple stops (including one to joke with her friends seated across from us) before those brimming glasses materialized.
From here — it's a bit of a blur, I think I'll blame the Manhattan — a shapeless, zig-zagging combination of visits from veteran servers Russell Meyer and Bill Sarkis results in us pulling the trigger on a bottle of Willamette Pinot (just $10 above cost, their set-in-stone policy), starters, a mid-course, entrées and dessert. No single server saw us through the evening. No Windsor-knotted managers came over to emptily schmooze. No one "crumbed" the table. No one folded my napkin into a geisha fan when I walked off to the restroom.
And it was fun as hell.
Celebrating its 38th year in business in 2011, FSS is rivaled only by Le Bec-Fin in Center City restaurant longevity. It's gotten to where it is by remaining unequivocally itself, a welcoming, eccentric and slightly dated Rittenhouse corner rowhome, run by a loyal, long-tenured staff that stands out in this era of front-of-house impermanence. (Meyer, for example, has worked there for 34 years; Promutico for 28.)
"When we opened, there were 10 restaurants in Center City, and half of those you would not want to eat in," says owner Weaver Lilley, a photographer who in 1973 partnered with six also-artistically-inclined friends (a journalist, a graphic designer, a carpenter, etc.) to open FSS. He bought them all out a few years later; in 1978, he purchased the building, and the restaurant's been kicking since. "Now there are probably 400 restaurants in Center City, and some damn good ones, too."
So what helps fill the seats at FSS in such a competitive climate? Proper operating hours, for one: During the restaurant's infancy, it was open only on the three busiest nights of the week, hence the name. Didn't last too long: "That showed a level of naÏveté," chuckles Lilley. "If you're gonna make any money, it's gonna be on the weekdays. The weekends just pay the bills, [when] you're supposed to be busy — if you're not, you have a real problem."
They're not suffering from that problem, if my recent frenetic Friday night there was any indication. So comes the issue of classifying what FSS actually is — they self-ID as "American cuisine," but as we all know that could mean anything. "The destination restaurant is dead," Weaver concedes. "Fortunately, we're not really that."
What FSS is, for sure, is a place that understands what it does well, a restaurant that circumvents trends in simple favor of food it knows people will (a) like, and (b) come back for. The cream of mushroom soup and paté maison, both fast movers, have been on since the outset. An old-school 6-ounce filet with a red wine demi. An older-school chilled poached salmon with dill crème fraîche and French potato salad. ("Her name was Rosie, the salmon that gave her life for you," Sarkis intoned in mock eulogy when he saw my dining companion hadn't made much of a dent in her fish. The huge-portioned PEI mussels over coconut cellophane noodles killed us, and we wanted to tape off room for choco-cherry bread pudding.) An oldest-school chicken Dijon, with buttery mash and braised Swiss chard. Reese Skulteti, who's been at the kitchen wheel for about seven years (FSS has had only four chefs in nearly four decades), also offers a generous number of nightly specials, scribbled up on the dining-room board in neon marker. Like those well-heeled FSS servers with their regulars, you recognize them all.
Lilley laughs when asked if he's ever considered opening a second restaurant. Absolutely not, he says — running this one, and keeping it exactly where he and his diners want it to be kept, is enough for him. "It's always a process of reinventing yourself without changing who you are," says Lilley, now 67. "It's really not much different than it is for any young person — you're always changing. But there's part of you that stays the same."
Friday Saturday Sunday, 261 S. 21st St., 215-546-4232, frisatsun.com.