by Len Lear
After British actor George Reilly, a lover of the blues, opened the Southern-inspired gastropub, The Twisted Tail, at 509 S. 2nd St. in Headhouse Square, formerly occupied by Kildare’s, in July of 2011, he got some press that was less than kind. It seemed that everyone loved the rockin’ blues bands and the overall fun vibe, but whenever there was some criticism by newspaper reviewers or food bloggers, it was always about the food. (Our own experience with the food was more favorable.)
But if anyone should know how to put on a good show, it is Reilly. A 34-year-old native of the East Midlands region of England, about two hours from London, Reilly is a graduate of the prestigious Oxford School of Drama. He did some acting in England after graduation, but he actually had more luck in New York “because my British accent was a benefit for getting Shakespearean roles.”
George wound up acting in the Philadelphia area (the cost of living in New York was too high), but making a living here as a full-time actor is as tough as making a living selling rotary phones and black-and-white TV sets. But transitioning to the bar/restaurant business was not such a stretch because in England George had also worked in pubs and been a bar manager in country clubs. In addition, his mother’s side of the family was in the Scotch distillery business, and his father’s side was in the restaurant and hotel business. And George also played the blues guitar.
So after a few months The Twisted Tail did become one of the most popular food-and-drink venues in center city for live music. But then there were those pesky reviews about the food. “Finding that person in the kitchen who can adopt and understand our bourbon-and-blues vision has been the biggest challenge,” Reilly said a while back.
In April of this year, however, Reilly brought in a new executive chef who has turned back the tide. Chef Leo Forneas, a native of the Philippines, now lives in Philly with two pugs, Ming and Mae, and you know they would leave home if his cooking was not top-of-the-line. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of culinary schools, Leo previously worked in several of New York’s top kitchens and was executive chef at Michael Schulson’s great (except for the noise level) Asian restaurant, Sampan, on 13th Street near Sansom.
Chef Forneas has introduced a cafeteria of reasons to visit the “Tail.” Based on customer comments, the smoky charcoal grill items such as the Berkshire pork belly ($8) and the Vermont quail ($9) are killers, although one charcoal grilled item, the pork and maple sausage ($10) was the only joker in the deck for us. It was way undercooked.
Some of the chef’s dishes are quite “snacktifying,” such as the amazing home made potato chips and the complimentary bacon and rosemary popcorn, and he’s walking in high cotton with the Maryland crab cakes with pickled pearl onions and spicy tomato jam ($13) and wild mushroom salad with crystallized ginger, goat cheese and truffled vinaigrette ($10). As far as the divine dessert of ricotta beignets with butterscotch dipping sauce, I can only repeat this mantra a chef once told me: “Always yield to temptation; it may not pass your way again.”
The Twisted Tail features a 4,000 square-foot downstairs bar with a huge variety of wine, beer and spirits and downstairs seating for more than 60 people at tables and 25 at a central horseshoe-shaped bar. The Juke Joint, or live music venue on the second floor, has another full bar that runs the length of the room and a capacity of about 100 for performances with tables, a bar and an adjacent “club room,” a lounge outfitted with couches, fireplaces, televisions and a shuffleboard.
During our recent Wednesday night visit (a good time to go because parking kiosks downtown are free), the downstairs dining room featured the phenomenal blues harmonica-player and singer Mickey Junior. This guy is the real deal. If you’re lucky, he may even come to your table, sit down and rock you out.
If you check the restaurant blogs now, you will find most of The Twisted Tail reviews reading like this one on yelp.com: “My favorite place in Philly! So glad I found this place. The decor is to die for. The live music is amazing, Both times I’ve been there, the band and singer had people up and dancing and everyone clapping. The drinks are great, the bartenders are more like mixologist, and the food is not your average bar food. This place is a perfect 10 … well, 5 star.”
I have to mention that our server, Codi Bixler, is a major league asset at “Tail.” Codi is a biomedical engineering major at Drexel University with a big smile and personality and serious knowledge of the food and beverage options. One of those options, the $35 prix fixe four-course menu, is definitely one of the best food bargains in town.
For more information, call 215-558-2471 or visit www.thetwistedtail.com.