The Rise and Fall and Rise of Youell’s

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Youell’s
By Frederick Jerant
Photo by Ryan Hulvat

There are no sure bets in the restaurant business. Thanks to the vagaries of the marketplace, today’s hot spot can be tomorrow’s shuttered eyesore. Take Ragona’s Lighthouse, for example. Opening with great fanfare in 2005, it closed just two years later; today the site is a vacant lot.

 

But some establishments have been feeding hungry patrons for decades. And one of the oldest members of that exclusive club is Youell’s Oyster House, a Shangri-La for seafood lovers that traces its roots to the late 19th century.

 

That’s when the Rice brothers–proprietors of an alleged speakeasy on the outskirts of Easton – first opened an eatery on Northampton St., where the Grand Eastonian Suites Hotel now stands.

 

Sometime later, the brothers moved two blocks east, setting up shop on N. Front St., along the Delaware River. The restaurant specialized in shellfish and steak, and horse-drawn wagons delivered wooden barrels filled with oysters every day.

 

In 1938, Bob Youell purchased the business and focused the menu on seafood. In an interesting twist, says current owner Chris Filipos, some of Bob’s descendants are still patrons.

 

About 15 years later, local politician Gene Ricci bought it in partnership with his wife.

 

Following Easton’s “great flood” in 1955, the restaurant moved to a converted single-family home on Cattell St. because of
urban development.

 

That spot was expanded in 1961 to better accommodate its unending flow of customers. Reportedly, patrons hailing from the Poconos, northern New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia – as well as the Lehigh Valley, of course – would wait an hour or more for seating, regardless of the weather.

 

But a key turning point in our story came in 1984, when current co-owner Constantine Filipos (Chris’s dad) found himself in an interesting position. “After 27 years with Bethlehem Steel,” Chris recalls, “he lost his job during a corporate restructuring.” Meanwhile, Ricci had been spending less and less time at Youell’s, following his wife’s death and his increased political duties.

 

Constantine loved Youell’s, and was a regular patron for eight years. During that time, “I never saw the staff turn over, and they were all hard workers,” he says. “On Saturday nights, just two servers would handle 150 dinners! And they had to carry the food from the kitchen, through hordes of people waiting at the bar, and finally into the dining room.”

 

Despite the hubbub (or maybe because of it), he saw great potential for an on-site owner-operator. So he put a bug in the bartender’s ear. And when Ricci decided to put the restaurant on the market, Filipos was ready to buy it.

 

Why did a former Steel executive and business graduate from Lehigh University become a restaurateur? The food business was in his blood.

 

“My father had a food market business himself, but his long hours – at the start of World War II, he cut his schedule back to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week – sent me to the corporate world,” he says.

 

“Later, when I bought the Oyster House, I told people my favorite entrée had been the stuffed fried shrimp – and I bought the place to make sure I could always have it,” he laughs. But the joke was on him – he ended up putting in more hours than his father ever had!

 

After several years, the long hours and broad responsibilities were taking their toll, and Constantine was ready to sell. But fate stepped in again. Chris (who held a degree in graphic arts) had just wrapped up a five-year corporate stint. So in 1987, he joined the family business and took a hands-on approach.

 

“Restaurant managers must understand just what they are managing,” Chris says. “And I did that by learning first-hand the ins and outs of dishwashing, cooking, line work and tending bar.”

 

Although Youell’s was doing very well, Constantine began to worry that its lack of space might actually start reducing business.

 

“The expectations of the ‘restaurant-going public’ had changed,” Chris explains. “Years ago, they stood in the rain, waiting for a table; now they want reservations and immediate seating.” With only 26 seats in the dining room and another dozen or so at the bar – and no room for expansion – the only practical solution was a second location.

 

They found it in 1992 at 23rd and Walnut Sts. in Allentown. Since the early 1800s, the locations served as several businesses, including restaurants – some readers may remember it as the Ivanhoe, the Sirloin Pub or the Florentine Inn.

 

Both locations operated under the Youell’s banner, even after one of the chefs and her husband bought the Easton operation. “That let us concentrate on our new spot,” Chris says. “But Youell’s Easton closed after just two years. If we had suspected that could happen, we might’ve had second thoughts about selling it,” he says.

 

For 20 years, the Allentown location served as a go-to destination for hundreds of families celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and other special occasions – as well as those just itching for high-quality seafood.

 

But disaster struck on January 22, 2013. “A J. P. Mascaro driver saw smoke coming from the restaurant and called in the alarm,” Chris remembers. “I didn’t know about it until 6:30 a.m., when an employee called me with the news.”

 

The three-alarm blaze destroyed everything in its path. Practically every fire engine in the city was on the scene. Firefighters were hampered by a seven-degree temperature and high winds. Five of them were hospitalized.

 

And Youell’s was a total loss.

 

“All that was left standing were the original stone structures,” Constantine says, “and the city instructed us to take them down immediately, fearing that they’d collapse.

 

“What really hurt was that we’d invested $150,000 in ’92, to re-do the kitchen,” he says. “A couple of years later, Chris and his wife spent another $175,000 to renovate the barroom and front dining room. They later put another $175,000 into the back dining room and restrooms.”

 

And the loans were nearly paid off when everything went up in smoke.

 

“The fire started in a junction box underneath the cash register,” Chris says. “Why did it short-out after 50 years? No one knows.”

 

The all-new Youell’s is scheduled to open on February 24. And Chris is excited. “We’ll be using the entire lot,” he says, “so we’ll have additional room for seating, as well as for office space, and the building will be totally ADA-compliant. The mezzanine level will be available for private parties, and we’ll have an apiary and rooftop garden to supply fresh honey and herbs. (Editors note: this article was written and headed for press before the end of January.)

 

“Instead of blank wall space, there will be plenty of soaring windows with natural wood trim. And tables will have three-foot aisles between them – a plus for our patrons and our servers.”

 

And although the revised and expanded menu will match today’s more sophisticated tastes, Youell’s classics – stuffed shrimp, crab cakes and sautéed soft-shell crabs, for example – aren’t going anywhere.

 

“I’m eager to see our old patrons again,” Constantine says. “They often visit the site to check our progress. And wherever I go, people tell me they want to come back in as soon as possible.”

 

For more information visit youellsoysterhouse.com, or call (610) 439-1203. You can obtain reservations and gift cards through the site, and the owners stress that all previously purchased gift certificates will be honored – regardless of their expiration dates.

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