Shanty on 19th

Shanty on 19th

By Frederick Jerant

Back in my dating days, a favorite destination was the little restaurant on the corner of Allen and Lafayette Sts. It offered good food and a quiet atmosphere, and its high-backed booths were perfect for those intimate conversations.

I had no idea then that the Shanty would one day be a Valley gastronomic icon – a go-to place for first dates, birthday parties and just about any other reason that called for a good meal in a convivial atmosphere.

After 12 years on that corner, owners Don and Diane Saylor moved the Shanty in 1980 to 617 N. 19th St. Furnished mainly in warm, dark wood, with exposed beams and Tiffany-style lighting, its walls were plastered with a mélange of vintage advertisements, classic movie posters and classic signs, including one from the building’s original incarnation – an A&P grocery store. The centerpiece of the place was a massive crystal chandelier rescued from Hess’s department store.

But in 2005, the Saylors were ready to retire. That’s when Manhattan restaurateur Kil Jin Kim took over. Less than a year after substantially changing the restaurant’s winning formula, Kim faced foreclosure.

From that point, the property was in limbo.

• Jim Terrell, Kim’s general manager, listed the property on eBay twice, with an asking price of $1.25 million, and a “buy it now” price of $1.45 million. Terrell received no bids.

• Berks County businessman Alejandro Ramirez – owner of Fiesta Olé in Emmaus and three Alibreje restaurants in the Reading area – expressed interest in buying the place in 2006, but ultimately decided against it.

• Auto Zone was keen on opening a store there, but strict signage requirements, public outcry and the efforts of the then-nascent West End Alliance helped quash that.

• Frank Shipman, owner of  TC Salon and Spa, pumped over $3 million into the property in 2010, only to fold his entire business a year later.

And as the awning faded and the weeds grew, it seemed the once-vibrant eatery would remain just another community eyesore.

That is, until the team of Joe Tatasciore and Ron Pickering (with Ron’s wife Clairissa) came to its rescue.

Both men have long co-owned the Sunset Grille (a casual Southwest restaurant) in Upper Macungie Township; Pickering co-owns the Stoned Crab (steak and seafood) in Lower Macungie, and he worked at the Shanty from 1979 to 1985, his last four years there as head chef.

“We had looked at other properties some years ago – including this one, when the salon was operating,” Tatasciore recalls. “We stepped away at that time. But when we later learned of its availability, we decided to move forward.”

The two found their work cut out for them. Their leased portion of the building had been warehouse space for the former salon. “There was no electricity, no running water, and the cast iron sewer lines had rotted out. We needed to install or replace everything,” Pickering says.

Rather than hiring an outside contractor, the duo took a DIY approach. “We have a great network of friends in the construction business,” Tatasciore says, “and they took good care of us.”

Given the amount of work needed to effect the transformation, though, the proposed opening date was delayed time and again. But the wait is nearly over! At press time, the newly named “Shanty on 19th” was expected to open in mid-April.

If the new owners’ level of excitement is an indicator, the Shanty on 19th will soon be jumping again. But remember: it won’t be a reproduction of the old Shanty. Times and tastes have changed, and neither Pickering nor Tatasciore want the place to be a museum.

For starters, you’ll be able to dine al fresco, thanks to the city-installed brick patio out front – part of the ongoing Theatre District revitalization activity. And Oak Street Refinishing cleaned up the inside and outside mahogany doors of the 19th St. foyer, bringing them back to their original luster.

“There was no electricity, no running water, and the cast iron sewer lines had rotted out. We needed to install or replace everything,” Pickering says.

Once inside, you’ll find a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Its 3,500 square feet will seat about 110 people in a mix of 16 custom-made booths and eight tables. The green color scheme will echo the hues of sage and bay leaf; customized eight-foot wood panels adorn the 13-foot walls, with LED lights above to gently bathe the rest of the walls. Chairs and barstools are finished in warm cherry wood, for a good visual counterpoint to the marbleized countertops.

And the décor offers a strong nod to the Theater District itself. The 16 refurbished movie theater seats (with small tables) near the main window offer the perfect spot to sip and nosh as you wait for your own table, or to enjoy a nightcap with friends after a show.

And, although the Hess’s chandelier will be absent (it didn’t come with the space), Pickering says he managed to salvage three of the Shanty’s original Art Deco mirror frames. They’ll be refinished to match the paneling and installed behind the bar.

Of course, a restaurant is more than atmosphere, and the partners haven’t slacked off there, either. Its “open kitchen” concept lets patrons sit at the 30-foot bar and watch the precise choreography of meal preparation.

Two of the Shanty’s signature dishes will still be on the menu: London broil with garlic butter, and saltine-crusted fried jumbo shrimp.

The rest “will be an American eclectic blend of steaks, seafood, chops and combination dishes,” Pickering says. “And all of it will be made from premium meat and fresh fish, delivered four times each week.” He adds that the new restaurant will feature 10-15 special dishes every day.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Shanty without a salad bar. The new incarnation will measure about four feet by six feet, and figures into one of Pickering’s new ideas – “salad toppers.”

It’s an appealing spin on the traditional chicken Caesar salad. “Our patrons will be able to create their own salads, and then order a portion of fried shrimp, seared salmon, or steak as a topping or a side. We think it’ll be great for people who want a light, but delicious, entrée,” Pickering says.

The buzz is building – the Shanty at 19th’s Facebook page already has well over 1,300 “likes” – and I’m counting the days until my old haunt re-opens. I can almost taste that London broil now!

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