Owen Lee (left), who grew up in Chestnut Hill, is the co-owner of Park Plates along with Wyndmoor resident Locke Johnson. Both are graduates of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

Owen Lee (left), who grew up in Chestnut Hill, is the co-owner of Park Plates along with Wyndmoor resident Locke Johnson. Both are graduates of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

by Len Lear

When Owen Lee, 59, was growing up on Springfield Avenue in Chestnut Hill, controversy was as much a part of his household as the kitchen. His father, Adrian Lee, was a highly conservative political columnist for the Evening Bulletin — and then the Daily News after the 135-year-old Bulletin went out of business in February of 1982.

A lightning rod for controversy, Lee was a passionate defender of Richard Nixon, Frank Rizzo and many others on the political right who were routinely vilified by liberal columnists.

“It was not unusual for angry readers to call our house at dinnertime when we had a listed phone number,” said Owen, who attended Our Mother of Consolation School, Chestnut Hill Academy and Cardinal Dougherty High School and who insists that the six Lee children, three boys and three girls, did not share their father’s political views.

“There was one guy who used to call regularly at dinnertime. The conversations would get quite heated, but after a while the two men became friendly combatants. They would disagree but in a civilized way. There was never a dull moment in our house.”

Food was another crucial aspect of Owen’s upbringing. His large extended family had frequent social get-togethers in which food was the social cement. “After a while, my mother was pretty much cooked out,” said Owen, whose maternal grandmother and sister owned a restaurant near Wawa Dairies in southern Chester County.

These aesthetically presented, extraordinarily tender braised beef short rib are served with smoked mushroom relish, balsamic reduction and kale smashed potatoes. (Photo by Len Lear)

These aesthetically presented, extraordinarily tender braised beef short rib are served with smoked mushroom relish, balsamic reduction and kale smashed potatoes. (Photo by Len Lear)

After high school Owen tried landscaping and painting for a while, “but I’m the kind of person who needs immediate feedback, and I realized that you could get that immediate reaction more from cooking than almost anything else.”

Thus, Owen enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of culinary schools, and since graduation has been cooking professionally for more than 35 years. He worked for major catering firms such as Frog/Commissary and Peachtree & Ward, and from 1992 to 1999 he ran his own company, Uncommon Catering.

By far his most memorable job, however, grew out of the four years he worked for Electric Factory Concerts, cooking for rock bands that would be performing at the Spectrum and Tower Theater. During one such assignment, Owen met — and was hired by — a gentleman who specialized in catering for touring musicians.

As a result, Owen went on the entire Rolling Stones’ North American “Steel Wheels” tour in 1989 and 1990. As one might expect, there was non-stop partying, but on the other hand, Mick Jagger didn’t quite live up to his wild man/outlaw image. “He always had a personal trainer and masseur with him,” recalled Lee, “and he would always rest in the middle of a show and eat a banana. Mick was aloof and kept to himself, but the band members were very nice to the crew. In Indianapolis they threw a party for all of us at a restaurant; they bought Thanksgiving dinner for everyone another time, and they gave us all nice gifts at the end of the tour.”

Owen was also a traveling chef for singer Neil Diamond and Olympic gold medal ice skaters Brian Boitano and Katerina Witt. In addition, he worked with rockers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who “hated each other and kept four buses so they wouldn’t have to be together off-stage. That’s the nature of the business when there’s so much money at stake.”

By coincidence, Owen is also a talented drummer and songwriter who, despite the vampire hours required by the catering and restaurant business, found time over many years to play at numerous local clubs with the Don Jones Band, an R & B quartet which also included Hill resident Andy Maher, accountant Matt Lafferty and architect Don Jones.

In June of 2000 Lee and two friends opened a Latin fusion restaurant, Cibucan (meaning “extract”), at 2025 Sansom St. As a former customer, I can tell you that the food was great, and business was just as good for quite a while, but the 24/7 nature of the restaurant business can wear down a stone wall, and in 2005 Cibucan closed its doors.

“I was burned out,” said Owen recently, “and I got out of the business altogether. I did carpentry for a contractor and played guitar and drums with the Don Jones Band. I wanted a break from the restaurant business.”

However, Owen heard the seductive siren call of the restaurant business again, and three years ago he met Locke Johnson, 62, a Wyndmoor resident and fellow graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Johnson was a chef for a catering company at the time, but the two fast friends decided they had to be their own bosses.

This yummy sweet cheese pastry at Park Plates has shredded phyllo, lemon syrup and pistachios. It is addictive.

This yummy sweet cheese pastry at Park Plates has shredded phyllo, lemon syrup and pistachios. It is addictive.

They looked for a restaurant location in the area and found it, of all places, on Craigslist. It was a sprawling former cafe with several rooms at 7852 Montgomery Ave. in Elkins Park, a long-time restaurant wasteland, and on October 13, 2013, they opened Park Plates, a chic Mediterranean/Middle eastern-leaning BYOB. (The name is a play on the words Park Place, a stop on the Monopoly board, and on the High School Park that is across the street from the restaurant.) It seats 48 in the main dining room, 10 in another one close to the entrance, 18 in a stunning private room and 20 in an outdoor deck.

Many restaurateurs fear yelp.com, the restaurant website with the largest number of customer reviews. Even the restaurants most acclaimed by newspaper and magazine reviewers are often pilloried by “yelpers.” But I cannot recall any restaurant like Park Plates, which has received almost all five-star raves in dozens of yelp comments.

Here are two typical recent reviews: “Man, I had one of the best meals I’ve had in the last few years here on Tuesday night. From start to finish, they just nailed every aspect of the dishes we ordered.” “Still craving Park Plates since my visit over a week ago!!! Easily the best meal I have had in a long time. It was so friggen delishious!!! I have recommended Park Plates to all my family and friends. CANNOT WAIT TO GO BACK!!!”

I could do a microscopic analysis of every morsel of food we tasted during our recent visit, but that would be restating the obvious. I’ll just say everything we tasted — wild mushroom ravioli ($10), fried haloumi cheese with zatar, honey and grilled radicchio ($8.50), pan-seared bronzino with charred eggplant salad, capers, chickpeas and green tahini sauce ($23), braised short rib with smoked mushroom relish, balsamic reduction and kale smashed potatoes ($24) baklava ($8.50) and almond polenta cake with caramel, almond brittle and caramel yogurt ($8.75) — was aesthetically presented, tasted divine and was very reasonably priced. Locke Johnson is a genius in the kitchen, and Owen runs the dining room like an orchestra conductor.

And our server, Tyron Dunston, originally from Mt. Airy, was the icing on the cake — friendly, knowledgeable and fun.

For more information, call 215-782-3663 or visit www.parkplatesrestaurant.com. Getting to the restaurant can be tricky. We were confused by the directions on Mapquest, Google Maps and the restaurant’s website (not unusual for us), but a call to Park Plates did the trick.

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