[ review ]
Blame the city. When the 2007 Convention Center expansion displaced Agapios "Willie" Bouikidis' Penn View Grill, the shop he'd owned (originally as Race Street Pizza) since 1975, that's what he could have done. That's what most citizens would have done, piling onto the complaint compost heap like another rotten banana peel.
But Bouikidis didn't do that, at least publicly. The restaurateur, who emigrated from Greece 40 years ago, packed up Penn View and spent two years scouring the city for real estate before finding the old Black Cat Cigar Shop space, pressed like grilled chicken in a Nodding Head/Oyster House/Ladder 15/Oscar's/Marathon panini. That was in 2009, but the renovation — wood and granite bar, lollipop pendant lights, tall toffee walls lined with ?local art priced at more than $1,000 — lasted more than a year, and now there are a slew of eateries eager to fill stomachs on this chocked block of Sansom.
Where 1518, named for its street address, fits in this drag, and where it fits in the city's grand dining scheme, is the big white question mark in the room. It hangs over the newly slicked and shined restaurant, hitched over the exposed ventilation ducts like a shower-curtain hook. Who are you, 1518? After dinner, set to 45 minutes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Heads Will Roll" on repeat, I do not know.
Are you a smart local gastropub? Your reputable 1518 Burger would indicate so — prepared by chef Agron Hajdari, formerly of Buxco's Toscana, it was a thick, juicy patty piled high with caramelized onions, sautéed button mushrooms and Gruyère on a tall, flat-top-toasted brioche bun smeared with black pepper mayo. The ever-benevolent Bouikidis, a black-clad, white-haired figure chatting up customers and buying the bar a round on a sleepy weeknight, also suggested a friendly neighborhood establishment?.
But 1518, your drink specials are bro-ish ($6.50 Red Bull/vodkas on Fridays) and ho-ish ($5 appletinis and cosmos on Wednesdays and Thursdays, respectively), and the Allagash White on tap? Pretty sure it's not, as your bartender explained, "an IPA." And your French fries committed cardinal sins against pubdom: They were as cold and greasy as a 10-cent streetwalker. You say they're hand-cut and fried fresh, 1518; they didn't look or taste it.
So maybe you're not a gastropub. Maybe you're a Mediterranean kitchen? Your za'atar chicken, penne Bolognese and provolone-veiled pork/lamb meatballs in melting confit tomato sauce say "si" to this idea. As do the wings tossed in harissa, exactly the ingredient to get gourmands all hot and bothered. But the lamb was undetectable in those tender orbs, and the harissa glaze possessed not a? glimmer of heat, tasting more like cut-rate honey-barbecue.
So you're not a wannabe Barbuzzo, either. Then what are you, 1518? A few months in, Bouikidis and Hajdari are still figuring it out, sorting through the solitary businessmen, history-buff tourists and disloyal deal-hounds of Center City Sips to unearth and incubate a real customer base. They should capitalize on items like the grilled romaine salad, thick hearts of watery lettuce transformed by charcoal and a generous application of creamy, Caesar-ish black pepper-Parmesan dressing. Terribly original? No, but it tasted good and was one of the few things at 1518 that was executed clean and proper. (Even the burger, which I really enjoyed, was slightly overcooked.)
Anointed with almond-tomato pesto, the garlicky shrimp afloat on planks of grilled summer squash also showed promise, like something you'd be served at an Adriatic beach club in Hajdari's native Albania. But the grilled crustaceans had gone cold and waxy awaiting a server in the pass, their rigor-mortis-stiffened tails arched over their backs like scorpion stingers. A slug of Pernod in the barbecue sauce that lacquers the St. Louis ribs — seems 1518 has a little smokehouse DNA, too — definitely earns creativity points. But the boiled-then-grilled racks were streaked with unwelcome deposits of gelatinous gray fat, and the polarizing Pernod muscled the sauce like a Parisian thug.
Clueless service accelerated my frustration. "I think that might come with a choice of potato," the server offered, leaning over my shoulder to read the ribs description. "Oh, yeah. Mashed potato, baked potato or fries."
When we arrived, the bartender was the only visible staff member. She invited us to sit anywhere, and after several minutes, brought over menus and took the drink orders. It looked like the bartender was handling the floor, too — there were only a couple of customers? — but after 10 minutes, our server materialized and took over from there. She was nice enough, just spaced out as a Russian cosmonaut and positively perplexed when we asked about dessert. Was there any? She didn't know.
Indeed there was, and I bet the high-rise, sculpted-buttercream wedges of outsourced mocha and chocolate cakes are just divine when they haven't been in the back corner of the fridge forever. On occasion, Hajdari does a traditional Greek sweet kataifi I would be into.
Perhaps it was my own fault for ordering dessert, which didn't seem like common practice among the sightseers, midlevel managers and lonelyhearts lining the well-tended bar. Are these the folks 1518 is geared toward? Probably not intentionally. But at least when I visited, these were the stragglers studying the menu taped to the plate-glass windows and wandering in from the heat. Perhaps? 1518's scatterbrained menu of greatest hits is also its greatest asset, a comfort for those far from home. It's definitely the kind of restaurant I'd be delighted to stumble across in an airport.
Overall, the cooking is not bad, but not bad really isn't good enough. Not on this competitive block. Not in this town. If 1518's ambitions were a bit scaled back, I could take it for what it is, but clearly, Bouikidis has grander plans. And good for him. It's just fortunate the Race Street conventioneers have followed him here.
1518 Bar & Grill | 1518 Sansom St., 267-639-6851, 1518barandgrill.com. Food served Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-mid; Thu.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; bar till 2 a.m?. Appetizers, $4.50-$12; entrées, $10-$20; dessert, $6-$10.