by Len Lear
I’m sure I am not the only person who thinks about Under the Blue Moon every time I drive past the building at 8042 Germantown Ave. (at Abington Avenue). I also think about the final dinner ever served at the iconic Chestnut Hill restaurant on Sept. 20, 1997, when my wife and I and about 80 other diners all reveled in that special evening but also lamented the loss of a magical part of Chestnut Hill.
For those who have moved to Chestnut Hill over the last 18 years, however, and may know nothing about this unique establishment, I would like to recall the story of this place that brought so much pleasure to so many residents of Northwest Philadelphia and the adjacent suburbs.
Most people who open their first restaurant are young people who already have experience working in other restaurants. And even they have as much chance of lasting for more than 20 years as I do of playing quarterback for the Eagles. But on May 13, 1976, Gene Gosfield, who was 52, and his wife Phyllis, who was 47, neither of whom had ever worked in a restaurant, opened a small BYOB at 8042 Germantown Ave., which was previously occupied by a toy store called It’s a Small World.
Gene and Phyllis had both worked for Phyllis’ family-owned aluminum window manufacturing business in the lower Northeast, but it was sold to a Fortune 500 company in the early 1970s. Despite their age and the fact that they had to support four children, Phyllis, who always liked to cook and entertain guests at home, persuaded Gene to accompany her in enrolling in the very first class of the just-opened Restaurant School of Philadelphia.
After much struggle and sacrifice, the Gosfields graduated and found the Chestnut Hill storefront. Gene once told me that their original name for the restaurant was Blue Moon Cafe, but when they discovered there was already a place by that name in South Philadelphia, one of their daughters suggested Under the Blue Moon.
The small cafe was so successful that two years later, the Gosfields took over the next door corner property, which made the restaurant about three times bigger, and they added a liquor license. And one year after opening the cafe, the Gosfields hired as their new chef Don Prentis, who graduated from the Restaurant School one year after they did. Prentis stayed with them for 20 years until the end, an almost unheard of tenure in the restaurant business. Most other employees at the end had been there more than 10 years.
Nowadays we expect restaurants to change their menus at least four times a year and frequently tweak the menus with additions and specials. Maintaining the same menu items is considered a sign of stodginess and conservatism today, but it did not bother the Blue Moon’s loyal customers. “We just cannot drop items like Marco Polo salad, sesame pecan chicken and Donald’s Duck (named for the chef),” Gene once told me. “If we tried to take any of them off the menu, we would never hear the end of it from our customers.” He also told me that the restaurant’s sesame pecan chicken was “Phyllis’ contribution to Western civilization.”
Gene obviously got into the restaurant business as much to entertain customers as for the food. Every night he would saunter from table to table, schmoozing with diners like a retired Borscht Belt comedian or Henny Youngman wannabe, peppering customers with one-liners such as “Did you hear about the woman who ran over her husband? Her lawyers tried to plea bargain it down to life in traffic school.” Or he would try to sing an off-key version of the classic song, “Blue Moon,” which he also recorded on the restaurant’s phone machine. Gene referred to Under the Blue Moon as “a country club with instant membership.”
“Gene gave this irreverence and energy to the front. The food was kind of like that, too,” Paul Roller, long-time Chestnut Hill restaurateur, once told a reporter. “There were no bounds to Phyllis’ cooking and to Gene’s humor. (Phyllis helped Don Prentis in the kitchen.) There was a lot of love that they projected in that restaurant for the food and for their customers.”
“Our secret was Gene,” Phyllis once told a reporter. “He was out front. He just had this ambition; it was like the Holy Grail to him. People had to be fed, and they had to have a good time. I tried the front for a while. I saw people just sail in, full of demands. I found it difficult. Gene would say, ‘They come in cranky. We gotta make them happy.'”
Gene’s father had left Ukraine to avoid being forced to serve in the Russian army. The family name was Piatagortzov, but they changed it to Gosfield when they moved to England and lived on Gosfield Street in London. After moving to the U.S., Gene served as a bombardier during World War II, flying 33 bombing raids out of Italy. On one occasion he was permitted to pass up a mission so that new recruits could receive real-life action. On that mission the plane was blown up, and the pilot was killed.
After the war, Gene moved to New York, where he met Phyllis, who was a terrific blues singer. They were married in 1949 and then moved to the Philadelphia area, living for several years in Wyndmoor and then in Fort Washington.
When the Gosfields closed the restaurant in 1997, much to the dismay and chagrin of their loyal customers, they explained that they were burned out from the 24/7/365 restaurant life. Gene was 73, and Phyllis was 68. “I’ve always been a cook, sew, garden kind of person,” said Phyllis. “We’re still young, but that’s why we’re leaving. We want to have some time to ourselves while we are still young.” (The Gosfields’ sons, Reuben and Josh, and their daughters, Avery and Annie, are all in the arts, but none is in the restaurant business.)
At the time of the closing in 1997, the restaurant was sold to Richard Snowden, of Bowman Properties, who was quoted in the press that he would do “everything in my power” to ensure that Under The Blue Moon remained open. However, the first floor that housed Under the Blue Moon has now been vacant for 18 years.
Gene Gosfield died of cancer in June of 2007. He was 83.