When we set up our benefit dinner for PhilaLandmarks in the Powell House, it was easy to imagine the rousing parties that were thrown there decades ago. Perhaps slightly less formal, our guests checked their bottles of wine at the door, and hung their coats in the back closet upon arrival.
Couples and friends ambled into the parlor where Aaron Gordon from 13th Street Cocktails shook up refreshing creamsicles. In the dining room, a cluster of mid-twenties friends of the chef hovered near a platter of oysters topped with rhubarb mignonette and champagne.
In the basement kitchen, chef Sydney Louise Hanick arranged buttermilk biscuits and cornbread in bowls and assembled small pots of butter, wild berry jam, and lemon curd.
“Use the back staircase when you run these,” she told Wolf Willams, our server for the night. Bread baskets in hand, Williams ascended to the ground floor, then back past the coat closet to a narrow set of stairs, and up to the west end of the second floor. (I’m guessing she was cursing that staircase after six courses.)
The second floor ballroom at the Powel house is all sparkling chandeliers and heavy golden curtains. An ornate fireplace (carved by London-trained woodcarvers in the late 18th century) commands attention, as does Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of Ann Penington, who seems to preside over the table. The room’s elegance inspired a brief lull among the crowd as they settled in their chairs.
The Founder of Spruce Street Supper Club, Todd Worsham, gave a brief welcome and introduced PhilaLandmarks executive director Jonathan Burton, who sat at the head of the table. Shortly after wine glasses were filled, the first course appeared: heaping platters of local chicories dotted with pistachios and parsley and dressed with shallot crème fraîche.
As the salad made its way around the table, there was a perceptible increase in volume in the room — it’s a given: the passing of food breaks the ice and encouraged conversation. Guests like Jason Entezari, who runs consulting for non-profits (Ocean Mint Consulting), chatted with the man seated to his left, Gary Burner who runs a small supper club out of his home.
By the end of the meal, Entezari and his girlfriend Elsy Escalon had an invitation to Burner’s next dinner. “These events can be networking and meeting new friends and enjoying good food,” Escalon says. And she did love the food.
“I wouldn’t normally order any of these things she put on the menu,” she said after dinner, “But I loved every single dish.”
And they weren’t dishes Escalon would even have an opportunity to order. The menu was entirely original, created for a particular season and setting.
“The menu celebrated Philadelphia and the rich culinary history here,” chef Hanick told the crowd after being cheered into the ballroom.
After finishing their last bites of spiced tea cake with glistening citrus rounds, guests lingered at the table. I overheard Worsham chatting in the hall outside the ballroom.
“This is about the experience – the conversation at the table and benefitting the non-profits,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than right now, when everyone’s having a good time and Syd just got a round of applause… that’s the payoff.”