The meal starts with snacks. Or Friday Saturday Sunday’s version of them, anyway. There’s chicha morada, a soft purple Peruvian corn drink, then silver dollar-sized empanadas filled with pig’s head, and finally, one elegant, flavor-bursting bite of buttermilk biscuit layered with beef tartare and osetra caviar.
It’s part of the new eight-course tasting menu at the Rittenhouse Square restaurant, which has been a neighborhood staple since it opened in 1973. Chad and Hanna Williams took over in 2015, though, and transformed both the physical space and the menu, turning it into a place that’s both classic neighborhood spot and regional destination. Recently, they transitioned to a tasting menu — one that also walks a line between polished and comforting — a move that was five years in the making.
“For Chad, and Sashia [Liriano, the executive sous chef], the tasting menu is the ultimate goal,” says Hanna Williams, “But if not for the pandemic, I don’t think that we would have ever been afforded the opportunity to pivot into that without a lot of pushback from our guests.”
Last spring, when the first round of lockdowns prompted most restaurants to funnel resources into strengthening takeout operations, Chad and Hanna, expecting a baby, took a different tack. “We pivoted immediately to shutting down and figuring out how to take care of our family and our people while being closed,” Hanna recalls. After their daughter was born in June, the couple started thinking about their empty kitchen, and how best to put it to use. They faced a challenge, though: how to make their dishes translate successfully to takeout.
“So much of what I think makes Chad great is his sauces,” she says. “It’s why we never did takeout before. By the time that gets to wherever it’s going, what does it taste like?” While it’s true many diners adjusted their takeout expectations during citywide lockdowns, Williams says she didn’t want the guests who remember their last meals at the restaurant fondly, only to taste it again at home and find that it didn’t measure up. “When that gnocchi that you remember in your mind gets to your house, and it isn’t as good as you remember it…I was really worried that it wouldn’t hit the same.”
Rather than going into full takeout mode for the restaurant, they instead used the opportunity to focus on connecting with customers in a way they hadn’t before. Throughout last summer, the team ran pop-ups, featuring foods that normally wouldn’t make it onto the typical FSS menu, focusing on dishes that would still shine as to-go options during the hot summer months, as well as fun ways to showcase those dishes. One answer was RubyQue, the barbecue pop-up named for their daughter. Chad made ribs with a new smoker, pairing them with corn spoonbread. Also on offer: mint juleps from bartender Paul MacDonald, who converted his cocktail menu to go, in single servings or large format options.
There was a burger called the Wapper, after Cardi B’s song of the summer, with aged cheddar, and preserved green tomatoes on a coco bread anise roll. “It was super fun for everyone to just relax and do some more casual things we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do,” says Hanna. The couple also opened their kitchen to staff and industry friends who had something to sell. Chef Timothy Mavour made short rib beef patties and Jennith Kim, a former line cook, did a Korean pop-up. India Rodriguez made a hot sauce line called A Good Jawn, which the kitchen used on fried chicken sandwiches.
Toward the middle of the summer, though, with no end to the pandemic in sight, Chad and Hanna started to plan for the future of the restaurant. “We thought, I guess this is our life now?” she remembers. “Now we have to try to find a way to make something happen. We can’t serve fried chicken sandwiches forever.” Only then did they pivot to a version of real Friday Saturday Sunday takeout. There were meals for two, like heritage pork chops with a caramelized corn glaze, served with manteca roasted potatoes and housemade chermoula. And other dishes — grilled yuzu lobster rolls with plantain butter on homemade coco bread, or the caramelized sweetbread cubano — that tasted as good after a walk home as they did served on a plate at the bar.
They set up picnic tables on the side street for eating alfresco, but even though diners were happy to be back, albeit with a different atmosphere, Hanna says it was tough to wrap her head around the new norms. “I had to grapple with that. I was like, I can’t believe I’m serving a tasting menu out of plastic takeout containers.”
When, last October, the city announced restaurants could reopen at 50% capacity, the team opted to open with a limited prix fixe menu to both control food costs and streamline to account for less kitchen staff. Then came Valentine’s Day weekend, and, after nearly a year of living through a global pandemic, they wanted the dinner to be special, a kind of welcome back. “People were coming back out to celebrate, and so we took that opportunity to pivot from the prix fixe to the straight tasting menu.”
Diners loved it. The worry had always been that a tasting menu would take away the spontaneous aspect of the Friday Saturday Sunday. But five years into operating the decades-old restaurant, after navigating through a pandemic, they’ve landed on the format they always imagined: a frequently-changing tasting menu that shows off everything. “It gives the kitchen a chance to be more creative, and allows us an opportunity to introduce our guests to things they might not ordinarily try,” notes Chad Williams.
At the finale of the meal, after dessert is served, the check arrives with a plate of canelé. They’re a labor of love for pastry chef Amanda Rafalski, double-baked in copper molds with local beeswax. The batter rests for three days, and they’re baked fresh every night, right before service begins. It’s a power move of sorts — how many restaurants go to all the trouble for a giveaway? It’s also a kind of creative flex that symbolizes the team’s dedication to the new menu.
“It’s definitely a different level of precision and service and everything,” says Hanna. “We’re excited for this moving forward.”