By Len Lear

Chef Neal Drinkwine

When I was growing up in West Oak Lane in the 1940s and ’50s, there were very few overweight kids in the neighborhood. In fact, I thought that the government had probably passed a law requiring every classroom to have just one fat boy and one fat girl in order to boost the self-esteem of all the other kids.

In my own class at Pennell Elementary School — from first to seventh grade — there was one fat boy named Robert and one fat girl named Marilyn. They stood out like two big creamy donuts in an arugula salad. And in the class one year behind us, there was one fat boy named Roger and one fat girl named Loretta. I didn’t realize it then, but it’s a miracle all the rest of us were thin since we ate a steady diet of what is now called “comfort food” — meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, hoagies, cheesesteaks, chocolate bars, cake, ice cream, etc. Not exactly a diet recommended by cardiologists.

I guess we stayed thin because we worked out like crazy every day in gym class and then played sports for hours every day after school and on weekends. Thank goodness we had no cell phones, iPads, text messaging, etc., unlike the overweight and obese kids and adults one sees today on every street and in every building.

I was reminded of my childhood eating habits by the menu at the new Balcony restaurant, which opened in April in the DoubleTree Hotel at Broad and Locust Streets. The menu is at the intersection of “Comfort” and “Food.” The restaurant, previously known as Academy Cafe (in honor of the Academy of Music across the street), is located on the mezzanine level of the hotel, which had undergone two months of gutting and renovations as part of an overall $13 million hotel redo. The results are spectacular.

Every diner in the 180-seat restaurant has a stunning view from gigantic picture windows of the Avenue of the Arts streetscape and of a new, humongous fiber-optic chandelier which dangles over the lobby and atrium like huge icicles that keep changing colors from green to purple, red, blue, white, etc. The chairs and banquettes are very comfortable, and the tables are far enough apart from each other that you do not hear one word of the conversation of other diners, which is a pleasure. Two giant walls are covered with magnificent murals of parading Mummers and of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

My mother would certainly been pleased with the menu at the Balcony. (They refer to it as “Cuisine on the Mezzanine.”) It looks pretty much like her weekly list of vittles in the 1950s — macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, grilled cheese and tomato soup, lump crab cakes, lasagna, burger and cheesesteak, fried chicken, roasted chicken, turkey with stuffing and gravy, etc. No food for grazing cows and sheep here.

“We wanted to create a menu that would appeal to our core customer base,” said chef Neal Drinkwine. “Many of our guests are people on vacation who might be missing the comforts of home, so we thought that our menu of comfort food with a touch of genuine home cooking would appeal to them.”

(Yes; that’s right. The chef’s last name is Drinkwine. Do you think he has ever been kidded about it? With a name like that, he was destined to go into the restaurant industry, you might say. Neal, a New York state native who has been a hotel chef in Philadelphia for 22 years, said his last name came from his French-Canadian father.)

If you are not afraid of comfort food and are not counting calories or cholesterol numbers, the Balcony experience is like a man with a sweet tooth who has fallen into a vat of chocolate. We thoroughly enjoyed the creamy mac & cheese with toasted bread crumbs ($8), which was as fine tuned as a Lang Lang piano; rich and thick French onion soup ($7), “Wedge” salad with blue cheese dressing, warm bacon and blue cheese crumbles ($7), homemade meatloaf with smashed red skin potatoes ($15), savory lump crab cakes with cole slaw and steak fries ($23), and one of the most decadent desserts anywhere — a trio of chocolate chip cookies baked on the premises with homemade vanilla and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and caramel and chocolate sauce! Proceed at your own peril! (Our server, Jill, treats you like Saturday night.)

The Balcony is an ideal dining destination for people on their way to a concert at the Kimmel Center or the Academy of Music or a play at Wilma or Suzanne Roberts Theater since all are so close. “About 60 percent of our business comes from people going to concerts, plays or to the ballet,” said Jeff Platt, Director of Operations.

On Wednesday nights until 7 p.m., the Balcony is beehive busy since it is one of many restaurants taking part in “Center City District Sips” — a Happy Hour that offers a free cocktail, half-price appetizers and deeply discounted drinks. For more information, call 215-893-1667 or visit