To paraphrase Frank Sinatra from the classic Hollywood musical, “Pal Joey,” two years is a long time between drinks. Yet, that is exactly how long it has been since acclaimed chef, owner and restaurant entrepreneur Townsend Wentz opened the doors to his Franco-inspired East Passyunk Avenue salon Townsend for business.
That, thankfully, changed in more way than one as, in December, Wentz re-opened his beloved, South Philly restaurant – renamed as Townsend EPX – and with a fresh twist in its menu offerings. Townsend EPX now features a prix fixe, six-course, chef’s choice tasting menu priced at $100 per person, amenable to changes for gluten-free, dairy-free and nut allergic diners with any health restrictions.
“So, why two years?” quizzes Townsend Wentz with a laugh before I even pose the question. Standing in the intimate kitchen of his elegant South Philadelphia eatery, that query is the thing most asked of him by eaters, chefs and those in the know within the local restaurant community.
“Much of it goes back to what we did in 2019, different things I was doing in order to grow the company,” he says, starting with the fact that, around that time, he moved Townsend to a larger, bi-level space in the Rittenhouse Square area, and closed his South Philly space in anticipation of making it into something else. “Our plan wasn’t to abandon East Passyunk,” he says. “We were just looking for a better strategy to serve a client base on the Avenue, something suitable and comfortable. Something more casual.”
Townsend Rittenhouse ran for four months, while Townsend East Passyunk toyed with the name and theme of Townsend Wine Bar (“literally for two weeks”) until the pandemic came.
“That was it. It all was over. We were looking to expand our concepts at the exact minute that COVID hit.”
Before we head to East Passyunk and Townsend EPX’s opening, it’s important to note that Wentz’s Rittenhouse area boite remains closed, and will stay that way until the chef/owner restructures the biz and gets a new team together, “that can deliver what we ask of them.” Yes, the Townsend Rittenhouse tried opening for take-out, as well as street-side al fresco seating.
“We spent tens of thousands of dollars restocking and paying people, then the city pulled the plug on that for a few weeks. Our team had had enough at that point. How many times could we stop and start again. Forget it.”
So Wentz is pulling a sit-and-wait in Rittenhouse, while deciding on what South Philly’s Townsend could be in the present.
“We were here on East Passyunk when Lee Styer opened Fond and Chris Kearse opened Will BYOB,” says Wentz. “These were my contemporaries. That gave me confidence to be there for what was my first-ever restaurant. It always felt funny, opening a fine dining French restaurant in South Philly. It was super weird, right?… The neighborhood really supported everyone there – that gave us strength. Eventually, the business climate there really rocked out. And now, it is a little bit different now as that neighborhood is even more greatly developed. You are expected to do something excellent and interesting and that your space will be up that standard. If you’re not doing something cool or striving, what is the point?”
Enter or re-enter Townsend EPX.
Wentz, in love with the space and the neighborhood, is running Townsend EPX on his own with Chef Chris Godfrey, the noted protégé of Oloroso chef Jason Peabody.
“I wanted to do something that I COULD DO,” stresses Wentz of the prix fixe chef’s choice tasting menu – opulent with French-inspired courses filled with beef tenderloin tartare, fois gras stuffed pheasant and roasted venison loin.
“Regardless of what happens with COVID, the city or the economy, this, now, is just me and one other person making it work. If people want fine dining in a setting such as ours, I can offer that. At Townsend EPX, I don’t need or have to have many people eating here nightly in order to pay my bills. That’s comforting.”
Ask the jovial Wentz what he’s most looking forward to in reopening Townsend EPX, now and into 2022, and he again laughs. “Ultimately, my motto is more wire, less net. That’s how we’ve done everything here, and that’s what we hope to continue to do.”