by Barbara Sherf
Cafette, the BYOB at 8136 Ardleigh St., and the only restaurant in Chestnut Hill on a resident street that otherwise has only single family homes, quietly celebrated its 20th anniversary in June. However, owner Jan Wilson is currently expressing her gratitude to loyal customers by offering a special $20 three-course dinner to all diners through the end of October.
Wilson, 54, who recently earned a Master’s in Acupuncture Therapy from the Won Institute in Glenside, is presently spending five weeks in China, but she was interviewed about the two-decade milestone before leaving for Asia.
“I’ve grown to appreciate the concept of food as medicine,” she said. “I understand how all aspects of the meal are important to our health and well-being; the setting, the company and the presence we bring to the act of eating enhances the whole experience.”
Jan and her crew decided to celebrate by offering the fixed-price dinner featuring two of Cafette’s original and most popular dishes over the two decades — vegetarian lasagna and fried chicken.
The three-course meal starts with a classic Caesar salad and is followed by either Cafette’s classic vegetarian lasagna or Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes and collard greens. Both entrees finish with homemade chocolate mocha mousse cake. Diners should note that the fried chicken is only available on Friday nights, and reservations are strongly recommended.
Wilson’s sister, Ginger Wilson-Williams, who serves as manager and hostess, is overseeing the promotion. “We toyed with several ways to celebrate, and this felt right — giving back to our customers,” said Ginger, who added that her primary concern is running out of chocolate cake. Her two daughters, Heidi Williams and Bonnie Wilson-Williams also work at Cafette.
Chef Béla Durst, who has been on board for the past four months, served the first round of specials despite a power outage. “The lasagna was already in the oven when the lights went out, so we added additional candles to the table and served them,” said Durst, 51, a Philadelphia native who worked his way up through a variety of Philadelphia kitchens before moving to California.
While there, he studied under chef Jeremiah Tower, a partner in Chez Panisse with Alice Waters, a leader in the early Farm-to-Table movement. More recently, Durst worked for former Chestnut Hiller Steve Poses at Frog Commissary Catering. Taking a break on the outdoor patio, he reminisced about teaching his son’s soccer team for four years at the Water Tower Recreation Area.
“This is like coming home. My son lives in Mt. Airy, and I have great memories of this whole area,” said Durst, 51. “Philadelphia has a rich food history. I like to shop the Reading Terminal Market and the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, buying ingredients for the season. Younger chefs tend to have wild dream dishes, but I’m more into the classics and healthier eating. I used to think fat meant flavor, but I know that fresh herbs, acids, salts, anchovies, oils and vinegars can go a long way toward creating a flavorful dish.”
Now age 32, Bonnie remembers walking to Cafette after classes ended for the day at nearby Jenks Elementary School. “My mom was working here, so we would come and help measure out cookie dough. After the cookies were baked, we enjoyed them with fresh lemonade,” she said, noting that her 3-year-old son, Elijah, is a regular now too. “This place is all about family.”
While working at Cafette, Bonnie continued her education and recently received a degree from Chestnut Hill College in criminal justice. “While I love this place, I really want to work in that field. Working here at Cafette has allowed me to pursue my dream.”
Heidi Williams’ three children, all under 6, “know how to set a table,” Wilson joked while noting that many local college kids have worked there over the years.
“Everyone here is either from Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill, and it’s always been that way. The college kids who come back to work during the summer are all from this area, and neighbors stop by to catch up with them.”
On a recent Wednesday evening, Samantha Tramontina, who lives across the street, walked by with her little dog and ducked her head in. Now a registered nurse, Samantha worked at Cafette for seven years while attending school. She was thrilled to hear about the 20th anniversary specials. “There will be a whole bunch of people who want to come back for those classics,” she said, adding that Ginger had introduced Tramontina’s parents to each other.
Longtime Hill resident Susan Rodriguez had just met a new friend for lunch on a weekday afternoon, and the two spent a leisurely four hours at Cafette getting to know one another. “The food is terrific here, and there is a European feel. They didn’t rush us or interrupt us. It is truly a little treasure, and we are lucky to have Cafette,” said Rodriguez, a writer who “likes being around other creative people.”
Ellin Kassow, a first time Cafette diner, added, “I feel like were sitting here in Paris, drinking coffee and not being rushed. While it is homey, there is also a certain level of sophistication about this place.”
Jan Wilson grew up in Chestnut Hill, as did her children, and her mother still lives nearby and whose children were raised in Chestnut Hill. Asked if she ever longed to have more than one eatery or to relocate to Germantown Avenue, Wilson replied, “I don’t know if bigger is better. I think you make do with what you have, although paving the side yard and turning it into an outdoor patio with twinkling lights and market umbrellas has more than doubled our capacity in nice weather. It was my mom’s idea to pave the patio, and for once in my life I listened to her.”
Over the years, Jan said she has learned to put aside any ego and let her team run the operation. “I believe when people are creative, you should allow them to create. The food has evolved as different talent has come through, but it’s not all about me; it’s about them. They have to have a good time and work things out among themselves.”
Cafette is open for lunch Monday through Friday, brunch Saturday and Sunday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. For more information or reservations: 215-242-4220 or www.cafette.com