Photos by Philippe LeSaux and Alisha Miranda, courtesy of Southwark and Ambra

Letter of RecommendationPhiladelphia

A Love Letter to Southwark and Ambra, the Epitome of Queen Village Charm


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Ask longtime Philadelphians about their favorite memories at Southwark, and you’re bound to hear about its neighborly hospitality, celebrated bar program, and simple but great food. Now operated by husband-and-wife duo Chris D’Ambro and Marina de Oliveira, the pleasantries remain just as revered — yet it doesn’t get talked about with the fervor it deserves.

Like other underrated gems in Philly, Southwark is cheered on by its locals and regulars, including those who dined at its original edition. Most folks still refer to it as a cocktail bar, as the dining room isn’t fully visible upon entrance, which also transforms into WineWark on Monday nights with industry crowds making the rounds (including me).

But there are in fact two full-service restaurants hiding in plain sight. Just beyond the bar is a polished dining room that extends to an outdoor patio with a wonderland of herbs, peppers, greens, and flowers in various stages of growth. In the rear is Ambra, the “best tasting menu in Philadelphia, period,” according to Jamie Harrison Rubin, who’s worked for D’Ambro and de Oliveira since 2019 as general manager, consultant, and most recently, WineWark host.

“Southwark is like walking into your grandmother’s living room but like one of those chic grandmas who was an interior designer living in a loft apartment off Central Park,” adds Sterling Melcher, who worked as general manager at Southwark and Ambra for a year and a half.

Southwark is one of my happy places where people are sincere and generous and bring their whole selves to work while serving some of the best food in the city.

I first visited Southwark while reporting on solo dining recommendations in the fall of 2021. I was immediately charmed by its New York-meets-New Orleans aesthetic: a mahogany bar up front, taxidermy pieces, and homey botanical touches large and small. When D’Ambro and de Oliveira bought the corner restaurant below South Street in the winter of 2015, they were committed to honoring its “historic reputation, name, and spirit.” After all, they knew first-hand how special Southwark was, having visited for date nights themselves.

“We’ve gone through an evolution,” says de Oliveira. “It felt like pretty big shoes to fill. Definitely, we tried to honor the whole bar program which kept us at the forefront… They were dedicated to slow food, local ingredients, and seasonal. So [we kept the] same kind of vibe in that sense.”

Photo courtesy of Southwark
Photo courtesy of Southwark

One of the reasons I love being at Southwark is its intimate community atmosphere, one that’s allowed me to befriend staff members and other constant fixtures. I’m often at the bar discussing chef de cuisine Ryan LaFrance’s latest foraging adventures (ask him about his favorite mushrooms or fishmongers), learning about rare cellar wines and their producers from Harrison Rubin, making small talk in Spanish with back-of-house staff, or quizzing charismatic bartenders Randall Greenleaf and Derek Moorer about how they infuse kitchen ingredients into tinctures and syrups (like smoked watermelon liquid, peach scraps made into a shrub, or basil stems turned into a sugar-salt rim for another cocktail).

“Southwark, I think, acts like a neighborhood place and also your weekend destination,” says D’Ambro. “It’s not stuffy or snooty or empty. You can come in here and have a burger and beer or sit and have your celebratory birthday in the back. It’s a multi-purpose restaurant.”

Southwark is one of my happy places where people are sincere and generous and bring their whole selves to work while serving some of the best food in the city.

Courses at Ambra will surprise and delight. Photos courtesy of Ambra

This was evident during one of my favorite meals of the year at Ambra. The cozy candle-lit communal dining room is an eye-catcher: Exposed brick, handcrafted wooden features like natural wood stained cabinets, and family heirlooms fill out the contemporary space (I’m obsessed with a vintage secretary desk in the back corner, once owned by D’Ambro’s father).

From start to finish, there were elements of delightful surprise in each dish that transported me to another world. We were first welcomed with mini chicken liver cannoli (more offal protein turned desserts please!). Next was a cooling burst of summer appetizer: A thick-sliced heirloom tomato sprinkled with herbs from their patio garden and smoked watermelon granita. Small diced raw local yellowfin tuna, smoked watermelon, cucumber, and baguette chips on the side were best spooned up with whipped yogurt and black olives. Then arrived pasta specialties, which continue to establish the kitchen’s reputation: hand-rolled smoked garganelli pasta with goat cheese Genovese, charred eggplant, roasted red peppers, and hazelnuts; and heirloom tomato ragù with smoked pork belly topped with freshly-picked basil.

But for me, the showstopper was the end-of-meal palate cleanser: A sweet bowl of cantaloupe sorbet and tarragon ice cream with blueberries and lime sugar. The melon and sorbet balls instantly hit and provided a moment to reflect on the meal: I just experienced one of the best meals of my life with the most important person in my life and it all felt as if I were at D’Ambro and de Oliveira’s home.

Just when I thought that was already special, D’Ambro and de Oliveira made the evening extra special, sending us home with a personalized printed anniversary menu and a box of the softest donut peaches and peach donuts. Their level of care went above and beyond.

“Ambra was the reason I joined the group. It’s a jewel box fine dining room with extreme attention to detail,” says Harrison Rubin, who leads the Ambra staff on extensive wine research pairings. “It feels like getting (or giving) a warm hug.”

Blessed be the bar at Southwark. Photos courtesy of Southwark

And it’s not just during special occasion meals. On any day, eating at Southwark is my creature comfort. There are always daily handmade whole-grain breads; inventive pastas like mezze rigatoni colored bright green by way of extracted chive juice served with New Jersey clams and scallops; fried snacks; salads of foraged ingredients, and the best burger and fries in town — two dry-aged beef patties mixed with crumbled blue cheese and bacon, charred onions, lettuce, and aioli, all on a soft, sesame-seeded bun.

And there are always farm names on the menu to highlight the purveyors they love: Keiser’s Pheasantry duck from Lancaster and Birchrun Hill Farms’ blue cheese. “We came from working on a farm, to here,” says D’Ambro. “We met at Talula’s so [farm-to-table] was already in our wheelhouse. There’s always a conversation about seasonality.”

For me, there’s nothing better than being huddled over that burger with a bartender’s choice drink in hand while an oldies eighties mix plays above.

For me, there’s nothing better than being huddled over that burger with a bartender’s choice drink in hand while an oldies eighties mix plays above. And to learn that running Southwark and Ambra has been a challenging journey of passion and possibilities, it’s all the better to be among friendly and knowledgeable service eating honest homemade food.

“From the moment I stepped in the side door for my interview, I knew that there was something special about the space,” shares Melcher. “I told them that they were the last people I was going to work for in the restaurant industry because they embody the ethos of hospitality and respect their employees so much that I can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.”

“I still love having Chris and Marina in my life,” adds Harrison Rubin.

Here’s hoping Southwark and Ambra stick around for a lifetime.

Alisha Miranda is a Philadelphia journalist, digital producer, and #LatinxIndustryNight host. Follow her at @alishainthebiz.