When The Palm closed in 2016, Philadelphia’s legal, political and celebrity elite went into a funk. Sure, you saw these same women and men, young and old, stammering around the Union League, pretending to like their food. But for the most part, the familiar faces and flashy power ties that you witnessed haunting The Palm nightly (going all the way back to its 1989 opening) seemed to go into hiding during its 15 months of reconstruction.
If you did see these Philly powerhouses, it was only to collect their discarded, painted caricatures that once hung on the walls of the Palm, which were all designed by artist Zach Bird. But like the dark wooden interior of the famed restaurant and bar, everything at The Palm was set to change.
“Let me tell you one thing,” says Paul A. Sandler, the Palm’s GM for its Atlantic City division, currently handling the Philly reopening. “The definition of a great institution is one that realizes that change is necessary. When The Palm realized that it was time to freshen up a little bit, there was no trepidation that the time was right.”
Only the legal eagles, politicos and celebrities would remain when Philly’s power palace, The Palm, returned this week as it opened its doors to lighter, brighter color tones, a somber but sparkling new bar in back of the dining room (rather than in The Palm’s entryway, as it was formerly) and a smattering of famous Philly-faced caricatures dotting its landscape rather than crowding its walls like flies at a picnic.
Sandler is quick to remind me that when The Palm originally opened on Broad Street, it was the only game in town, years before the Philly lounge and restaurant renaissance of the mid-1990s.
“We offered then, what we offer now: the highest levels of hospitality, anonymity to the celebrated so that they can be themselves, great steaks, lobsters and Italian food,” says Sandler. “Plus we had that proximity to City Hall,” he says realizing the nearness to the corridor of legal and political power that is Broad Street is one powerful draw.
The Palm became the premiere place for power lunch, dinner and cocktails. It was a place where as many deals were brokered as there were Grey Goose martinis served with olives.
Still, he and The Palm’s CEOs are well aware that other big steakhouses have opened and that the powerful could be fickle. So they stuck to their guns and dug their heels into their roots. “By 2016, we could’ve appeared to look a little tired, so we closed, put a lot of money into lightning and opening the room and woke it up.”
Going back to that “only game in town” quote, a year and a half is a long time in Philly restaurant years, and in that time, alliances shift and diners forget, no matter how many important deals were made at their tables. Was The Palm braintrust afraid they’d lose the power clientele, and why did they choose to reopen this week without the loud buzzers, bells and whistles?
“Having spent the last 14 years in Atlantic City, I share my customer base with Philly,” says Sandler. “Because where does Philly go when they’re not in Philly? The Shore. And If they’re true Palm customers, they’re coming into my restaurant in Atlantic City and they’re telling me how much they miss Palm Philadelphia. So our return has all been word of mouth between me and the Philadelphia power players visiting in AC.”
No sooner than its doors opened, Philadelphia Mayor turned Governor Ed Rendell, advertising magnate Marc Brownstein, socialite-investor Norman Cohn, Palm CEO Jeff Phillips and multi-media personality Jerry Blavat hit The Palm: and that was on Monday alone, lunch and dinner.
“No I can’t tell you who has been here since, as that is part of the anonymity we offer to our regulars,” says Sandler. “But we knew that there’s been so much pent-up demand for The Palm Philly’s re-opening that we knew that we would be okay when we opened our doors, and that we didn’t need red carpets or big parties to welcome us back.”
With that, the return of The Palm as this town’s power palace is in full swing. “We chose to open our doors, just like we closed them,” says Sandler. “With class.”