What’s On My Plate: They’ll Sing For Your Supper

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Imagine: You’re out with your special someone for dinner at an elegant restaurant in town. Plush upholstery and soft lighting set the mood for a romantic evening. Then, all of a sudden, your waiter breaks into song, crooning a Cole Porter tune to you and your fellow diners.

If that sounds like it would be entertaining, then the Walnut Street Supper Club is for you.

South Philadelphia opera fans have enjoyed dining to the strains of singing waitstaff for years at Victor’s Cafe. Now Midtown Village impresario James McManaman is bringing the idea uptown and giving it a mid-20th-century twist.

He’s confident it will work because he’s lived the concept already.

“When I was 16, I worked in a place called Jed Nolan’s Music Hall in Scottsdale, Arizona,” he said. I auditioned for and got a job there. I stayed there for six years, going from busboy to manager and every job in between. Then, some of the people who worked there went off and opened another place [along the same lines] called Yesterday’s.

“I’ve always wanted to open one of these places again. I know they’re successful. Everyone goes there – tourists, people celebrating special occasions, folks looking for a fun night out.”

The opportunity fell into his lap along with the ceiling in Portofino Restaurant in the middle of the summer. Portofino owner Ralph Bearducci knows McManaman and his partner in business and life, David White, and the day of the collapse, Bearducci ran around to the couple’s art gallery, Absolute Abstract, and informed White of the disaster. White called McManaman, and McManaman seized the occasion, suggesting the supper club idea to Bearducci. It sounded good to him too, and he agreed to go in with McManaman on turning his Italian restaurant into a vintage-1940s-themed nightspot.

Ever since word got out about the project, interest in it has run high. “Everybody I’ve talked to has said something like, ‘When are you opening? I want to take my wife there,” McManaman said. When the club held auditions for the waitstaff in October, 150 people, most with backgrounds in theater, showed up to try out for one of the 30 openings.

The fare on the menu at the club will include both Italian dishes, in homage to Portofino, and classic American steaks, seafood and comfort fare. Overseeing the talent will be musical director Jeremiah Downs, also a theater veteran. “Downs is brilliant, super-patient and willing to work with the kids,” he said. The club’s musical offerings will be based largely on Great American Songbook standards.

The restaurant’s décor will recall the glamour of the wartime era, with velour seats, plush fabrics, and plenty of Art Deco accents.  It will also offer something more in tune with today’s economy: a reasonably priced night out. McManaman estimates that a typical evening of dinner and entertainment should run about $40 a person.

As there are only two other Center City venues that combine fine dining and live entertainment – Chris’ Jazz Cafe and Jolly’s Dueling Pianos – McManaman expects business at the Walnut Street Supper Club to be strong from the day it opens near the end of this month.

EDITORS NOTE: Walnut Street Supper Club will officially open on December 26, 2011

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