The Happy Rooster has been a Philadelphia mainstay since 1968. A tradition of irresistible food and an atmosphere of old-school refinement mixed with quirky charm make it a favorite spot among locals and visitors to the city.
Doc and Madeline Ulitsky originally opened the establishment as the first caviar and vodka bar in Philadelphia, and set up some pretty old-fashioned rules: jacket and tie required for men; no single women at the bar. When new owner Rose Parrota took over in 2000, she nixed the jacket and tie requirement and invited the ladies to join her at the bar. What remains is a refined but cozy dining experience.
Located in Center City, on the corner of 16th and Sansom Streets, it is a sanctuary in the middle of the busy city. With the exception of a whimsical rooster-themed stained glass window, the exterior of this corner bar is unassuming. Once inside, quiet music and low lights create a relaxing atmosphere. The front room is small and intimate. The bar’s history as an old boys’ club is apparent in the dark rosewood furnishings, antique brass lamps, and worn leather booths. The ceiling is lined with wooden wine racks, and strands of delicate white lights create an ethereal glow. The walls are pinned with old pictures and souvenir menus collected by the former owners in their travels. The most notable design feature, however, is the impressive wall-to-wall collection of roosters (the decorative sort). Perched throughout in every size and medium, roosters definitely rule this roost.
There is additional seating in the back room, where café style tables and chairs are spread out over the terracotta tile floor. Although it lacks the old-school charm of the front room, it is roomier and more accommodating to larger parties. The Brazilian rosewood bar runs the length of the front room, and offers a selection of top-shelf liquors, a diverse wine list, and a decent selection of domestic and foreign beer. Guests are welcome to eat at the bar, or have a drink and chat with one of the gracious bartenders. I chose to sink into one of the soft, leather booths and relax. The booths are divided by antique brass railing, and you can sneak a peek through to spy whatever dish your neighbor is enjoying.
The crowd at The Happy Rooster is diverse. On any night, you may find a young crowd socializing over drinks, or a sophisticated couple enjoying an intimate dinner. The menu is a selection of classic dinner fare with a few contemporary twists, often involving Executive Chef Terry Cherry’s creative use of the egg. The wine collection is impressively extensive, and is updated weekly by the owner to keep it fresh. It seems more like a selection from a boutique wine shop than a little corner bar.
Our waiter was attentive, but as inconspicuous as the music. He was helpful in describing the wines and specials and offered suggestions, but otherwise was quiet and formal.
I started off with a glass of Tarrica Pinot Noir as I looked over the dinner menu. The wine was bright and fruity with rich, earthy accents. An appropriate choice for a chilly night. My guest and I chose the Calamari Tempura and the House Cured Gravlax for our appetizers. The calamari was delivered in a generous-sized bowl, and served with a mildly tangy red pepper sauce. It was perfectly tender, and the tempura was a lighter, more flavorful alternative to the standard fried calamari. It was almost impossible to stop eating the tasty little morsels.
The Gravlax was served with a fan of buttery toast points, a sprinkling of crumbled egg and capers, and topped with a rich crème fraîche. Thinly sliced and cured with salt and sugar, the salmon was firm and fresh with a mellow, sweet taste. The egg brought out the fresh flavor of the salmon, and the peppery capers were a perfect compliment.
I could not resist ordering the Scrambled Eggs and Caviar for my entrée, if only out of curiosity. An apparent homage to the bar’s roots, it was an unusual, but surprisingly harmonious combination. The dish was a sizable serving of wonderfully fluffy scrambled eggs, topped with mild, slightly salty lumpfish caviar and a dollop of rich crème fraîche. It was also served with toast points. The blend of flavors made for the most extravagant scrambled eggs I have ever eaten.
My guest ordered the Filet Mignon. A tower of two tender medallions of steak layered with a heady Gorgonzola and topped with a poached egg was served over spicy, hash-style roasted potatoes and caramelized onions in a dark, rich herb jus. The steak was cooked medium-rare, as ordered, and was juicy with a tender, pink center. This dish offered a complex mix of flavors and aromas that made us wish we could eat it every day.
The dessert menu offers a small selection of enticing sweets. We chose the Chocolate-Chip Bread Pudding. Served on a small plate, drizzled with a sweet, buttery toffee, the bread pudding had a dense, rich texture. When every crumb of bread pudding had been eaten, I pushed back the plate and sank further into the booth with a smile. The waiter brought us both cups of dark-roast coffee, and encouraged us to sit back and relax.
The bar was busy, but not overcrowded. Conversation was lively, but never deafening. Visitors who happen into The Happy Rooster on a Thursday night may be inspired to belt out a tune or two for Karaoke night. The bar also often offers live entertainment on Friday nights. On any given night, you can find locals and newcomers continuing the tradition of enjoying great food and drinks in a warm, inviting atmosphere that’s not just for the boys anymore.