[ review ]
On a hot, malarial Thursday, love flowed in the Piazza. And I don't just mean Summer Love, the Victory Brewing beer currently on tap at Gunners Run, the new faux-dive squatting in the faux-square's southwest corner.
No, I mean actual love. You could feel it in these loveless badlands, dispelling the bad juju plaguing the place like a desecrated burial ground. Of the Piazza's four sit-down restaurants, two (Apollinare and Swift Half) called it quits this year, to say nothing of the Boy Who Cried Speck. But already, three new eateries have slid into these graves like lovers into silk sheets.
Gunners Run is one, taking up Swift Half's torch as the enclave's neighborhood pub. Whether it will outwit the wiles of the revamped ruins of this one-time brewery remains to be seen, but a recent visit proved that Gunners is, at the very least, trying very hard.
"Would you like to sit outside?" the hostess asked us. With Philly feeling like a convection oven, no, no, we didn't want to sit outside. "I know, I feel ridiculous for asking," she offered as staffers in clingy tees hustled like moving men on deadline to clear the center of the masculine, exposed brick-wrapped room. Tables lumbered into the sunlight, speakers taking their place. A long, wood communal table, home to a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar during weekend brunch, was pushed to the side. Electrical cords snaked across the floor, stuck down with duct tape. "We've got a show tonight."
That show turned out to be a Warped Tour after-party, with a performance by the band Lionize. It's not surprising considering two of the owners of Gunners Run — it's named after the creek that once flowed where Aramingo Avenue is now — are concert promoter Bryan Dilworth and booking agent Tim Borror. (Jason Goldberg, tattoo artist and owner of Olde City Tattoo, is the third.)
The staff rolls squad-deep, and there's power in numbers. That hostess went out of her way to wrangle us a table inside, where our pert server laced a friendly attitude with a pro's acuity and a saint's patience. From the composed demeanor of the Gunners Run crew, I never could have guessed that the back-of-the-house was upside-down. The opening chef had bounced shortly after the restaurant opened in March; his replacement lasted only through early July. On the busy night I visited, Dilworth's brother, Shane, was doing his best Michael Martinez, called up at the last minute and performing ably under the circumstances.
Yeah, the mussels' fennel-and-white wine broth was so buttery I could have rolled an ear of corn in it. And the lackluster linguine with grape tomatoes, asparagus and shrimp seemed present more by obligation than merit. But besides those flubs, Dilworth, a criminal defense attorney and one-time chef at the Five Spot, delivered in the rest of the meal.
Baked with thyme then fried, his wings gleamed in a fire-orange chili-sauce soak that started vigorously peppery and ended with a wink of honey sweetness. The vegan "chicken" cutlet sandwich could convert a carnivore with its tenderness, though the seeded Liscio's roll, sautéed spinach and onions and tomato sauce didn't hurt. Fresh-fried, featherweight tortilla chips distinguished the nachos from countless others; they were dressed in layers so no chip was left naked, with vegetarian refried beans, house-pickled jalapeños, pico, sour cream and cheddar clinging to each chip. The cheese could have been more molten, though, and fortunately, the place has already switched to a better-melting brand.
These greatest hits might not change your life, but they'll certainly improve your night. A few extra flourishes in the recipes and more thoughtful ingredient sourcing — see: Standard Tap, South Philly Tap Room — would go a long way toward earning Gunners Run admittance to the gastropub pantheon.
Maybe that's just my selfish desire, though. Gunners Run is still a bar where Miller Lite outsells Sunshine Pils, Yards Brawler, Bell's Oberon and the seven other craft beers on tap, and it would be unwise of them to price out their cash cows.
At least the sweet, tangy strawberry-rhubarb pie was seasonally tuned, and the tomatoes in the refreshing gazpacho were Jersey fresh. I found the soup on the blackboard of nightly specials, where Dilworth's most compelling plates dwelled. That frosty soup was a stir of vegetable echoes: the sweet tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, red pepper. Thankfully, Dilworth didn't purée the gazpacho to smithereens, instead emulsifying only half of each batch with extra-virgin, the rich yin to the yang of piquant red wine vinegar.
Slicked with house-made Russian dressing, a traditional Reuben rose high on rye, sauerkraut peeking out its edges in another special. Saucy barbecued chicken resonated with Cajun spices, its sweet and tangy glaze staining a snow-white buttermilk potato salad on the side. Most entrées also come with seasonal vegetables, mine being squash, fennel and tomatoes in a lightly grilled ode to summer. Another tribute to the season: a thin buttermilk waffle piled high with ice cream, strawberry sauce and hot fudge that would be at home on any boardwalk.
By now, several of Dilworth's one-offs will have migrated to the revamped main menu, but who knows if they'll be deported now that another new chef is in charge: James Ciampaglia, a veteran of Amada and Lacroix, will certainly want to brand the bill of fare as his own. Here's hoping he'll settle in for longer than those before him.
Gunners Run | Piazza at Schmidts, 1001 N. Second St., 215-923-4600, gunnersrun.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$10; entrées, $8-$20; desserts, $4-$5.