How This New Restaurant Is Paying Tribute to Philadelphia Classics
Last May, after nearly four decades of slinging scrapple and corned beef sandwiches over a horseshoe-shaped counter in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, Little Pete’s closed its doors. The classic diner was one of several long-standing spots that have gone out of business in recent years, including South Philly deli Sarcone’s and the 34-year old hoagie shop Salumeria in Reading Terminal Market. The shuttering of these beloved Philly institutions didn’t go unnoticed by Matt Cahn; the cook and Cherry Hill, New Jersey native went to high school in Philadelphia, and grew up devoted to these places. After working in New York City at Court Street Grocers and Superiority Burger, the 28 year old returned to his home city and—inspired by these Philly favorites—opened his own place. Middle Child is Cahn’s ode to old-school Philly diners, sandwich shops and delis, but with an unmistakably modern approach.
Serving breakfast and lunch in the city’s Washington Square West neighborhood, Middle Child’s fare is rooted in the diner and sandwich shop mainstays, with a succinct menu and rotating specials that highlight the classics with some unexpected flavors. The Phoagie, for example, is deliciously messy layers of hoisin eggplant, bean sprouts and onions, pho sauce and sambal chili paste, all on a locally-baked hoagie roll. The Thai roast pork sandwich (an ode to nearby DiNic’s version, which is topped with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone) has slow-cooked, sweet-and-spicy pork curry, pickled mustard greens and a spicy mayo. For breakfast there’s a lox special, house-cured with salmon from a fishmonger at Reading Terminal Market, that comes with avocado cream cheese and pickled red onion. Even the eggs for the breakfast sandwich are whipped up in an immersion blender before scrambling—adding a creamy, fluffy element that’s not standard at most diners.
Cahn works alongside chef Keith Krajewski, who spent seven years at Marigold Kitchen, creating twelve-course tasting menus meticulously plated with tweezers. While Krajewski was ready for a change from fine dining’s fussiness, the duo approaches their food with a seriousness that belies their quirky, pun-laced menu. “Middle Child is trying to recreate these nostalgic foods, but updated for the modern palate,” says Cahn. This includes the blueberry jam, which they guys make from scratch using a house blend of garam masala to give it add a little warmth, and can be found on the blintz toast, layered atop whipped farmers’ cheese and a thick slice of potato pullman from local bakery Philly Bread. The pickles and apple butter are also made in-house, too, and both the turkey and corned beef for the reubens are brined for days and cooked for hours.
Even the space’s design is a fresh take on the traditional luncheonette. “I think Philadelphia tends to have these very rustic, or very ‘Ben Franklin’ [spaces], where everything should feel a little old,” says Cahn. “Can't we have something new?” While the layout taps into that nostalgia factor, with a long counter, open kitchen and a few tables, the clean, bright aesthetic—black and white tiled floors and sleek fixtures—is a far cry from the coffee-stained diners of the past. And because it’s Philly, Eagles gear proudly adorns the walls and shelves.
While the clean space and modern menu are a departure from the average diner, there are some aspects of Middle Child that feel timeless, including the vibe. Newcomers and regulars are welcomed with a genuine warmth not often found in a restaurant so new. “The thing that I loved about Philly most was that strong sense of community,” says Cahn. Graduate students crowd around a corner table talking animatedly over plates of hand-rolled bagels and breakfast sandwiches. A return customer is greeted by name as he accepts a hot cup of local Elixr coffee while settling onto a counter stool. And while Middle Child certainly feels like an instant classic, customers shouldn’t expect it to stay exactly the same for the next four decades. Cahn and Krajewski are plotting curry dinner nights and pop-up collaborations with other local businesses, and are also planning to expand the menu a little, while keeping to their mission of making food that tastes really good. With any hope, this includes scrapple.