Though it sounds like a rough-and-tumble joint where pints of Guinness are raised in toast to Gerry Adams, Molly Malloy’s, the replacement to Reading Terminal Market’s Beer Garden, is really gastropub lite: a bright and airy bar served by an open kitchen, the menu items displayed neatly on a board that hangs over a spic-and-span counter where a cheery employee waits to take your order. The creation of Molly Malloy’s, an offshoot of Iovine Brothers produce, happened seemingly overnight. At some point, the Beer Garden was shuttered, a source of true sadness for me, as I’d planned to celebrate the completion of my quest to eat in every Reading Terminal Market establishment with a beer from this somewhat seedy bar whose recesses could only be glimpsed through doorways, like some secret speakeasy. I’ve no idea what happened to the old Beer Garden, who the owners were, or why it closed, but the shift from it to Molly Malloy’s can certainly be seen as emblematic of larger changes happening outside the walls of the Market.
Using the word gentrification already means that you’ve laid your cards on the table. The plans to redevelop Market East “to replace the grit with Times Square-style glitter,” in the words of the Philadelphia City Paper (also no fan of gentrification), is not dissimilar from what happened in the move from Beer Garden to Molly Malloy’s. While the main focus in discussions of the gentrification process is on tax breaks for developers and demographic changes in population, food, in fact, is often a signal and symbol of a neighborhood’s upscaling. The same article mentioned above juxtaposes the image of elderly black men using the Gallery’s food court as a surrogate community center with the Gayborhood’s chic outdoor cafes. Only one brings the tourist dollars, though, and, in case you just fell off a hay truck, it’s not the former.
Course, one might level certain accusations at yours truly, a relatively recent home owner in a scrappy South Philly neighborhood who frequents the vegan coffee shop around the corner. I happen to like the food at Molly Malloy’s, too. While the frittata I ordered was more quiche than baked omelette, it was delicious nonetheless, with the creamy consistency of custard and the salty tang of cheese. A side of home fries–crisped till nearing charred stage, layered haphazardly with peppers and onions, was similarly fulfilling.
But what happens if (though I’m concerned that the more accurate word is “when”) the Market moves in the direction of more completely appealing to upwardly mobile consumers with their particular tastes? Who gets lost? Are the crispy, autumnal butternut squash croquettes I ate at Molly Malloy’s the first foray into a gentrified market that serves tourists more than residents? When the recent foodie craze of “snout-to-tail” eating falls by the wayside will the Market’s butcher shops, with their intriguing collections of animal parts, disappear, victims of faddism?
A few weeks ago, Iovine’s put up signs in its produce area identifying a number of fruits and other items as ineligible for purchase with WIC. My companion and I were confused at the seeming randomness–bananas, for example, weren’t allowed. When he asked about it, an employee’s response clarified little, but the signs disappeared soon after, so we stopped wondering. This minor incident (miscommunication? confusion? changing government rules?) can also be seen as symbolizing what’s at stake. Everyone eats, but not everyone is welcome to eat where they want. No matter how tasty the entree, it’s not a fair trade off.
Recommended: the fritatta, which comes with a side salad, for optimum seemingly healthy eating. Order a side of home fries though to make sure you don’t get too sanctimonious. Read Elijah Anderson’s new book on Center City Philadelphia called Cosmopolitan Canopy.