Port Richmond’s Mercer Cafe hasn’t been around forever. It just feels like it.
Mercer’s always-been-here vibe crescendoes during weekend brunch, when locals in their Sunday best (Eagles jerseys) fill the retro-looking counter’s black-padded swivel stools and cheery waitresses proffer “eggs Flo” (Florentine) with piping joe. It’s hard to believe this spot just opened in 2000.
A certain Mrs. Mroz ran a variety store and soda fountain in Mercer’s digs back when brothers Tom and Bobby Woltjen were growing up in Port Richmond. Bobby acquired the building in 1995, and with Tom, a union carpenter, turned the space into an ice-cream counter and coffee shop. They brewed La Colombe and made breakfast sandwiches on Le Bus bagels, way ahead of the gentrification curve. Dina Woltjen (née Taconelli — yes, that Tacconelli), Tom’s wife, made roast pork and beef in the back, and, as Tom says, “In another year or so, we were blowing out the walls and putting in a full kitchen. We grew and grew and grew.”
Grew the business, that is, not the cafe’s actual footprint, a cozy 49 seats. The Woltjen family packs ’em in for breakfast and lunch daily, but Mercer Cafe never feels too crowded, and the endearing staff, run by Tom and Dina’s daughter, Liza, is never far away with fresh coffee, syrup and smiles.
Chefs Rob Lapelle and Jason Masino tackle the quick-coming tickets with aplomb. Sure, the baby spinach on my eggs Flo arrived half wilted and half raw, but the hollandaise flowed like honey and the eggs were perfectly poached. Tender asparagus and hunks of crab filled a hearty omelet veined with house-made pesto. Lavished in thick whorls, Nutella added its nutty chocolate power to high pillows of challah French toast dotted with strawberries.
Mercer gets so much right. Bacon is thick. Home fries are crisp. But the greatest victory here is the cream chipped beef. “It’s my father’s recipe,” says Tom. “It’s got three ingredients: butter, heavy cream and beef.” Had he told me it was made exclusively of butter, I would have believed him. The S.O.S. bled liquid gold, conveying a richness that wouldn’t quit. This is not only the best chipped beef in the city, but probably in the world.
Most restaurants have to clock 100 years to earn a claim like that. Not Mercer. But I’m betting it’s got a century in its future. I’ll be sure to send in my grandkids. And have them tell Liza hello.
MERCER CAFE | 2619 E. Westmoreland St., 215-426-2153, mercercafephilly.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Breakfast, $4.95-$13.95.