Back before Cooperage opened in April of this year, I was excited for the "gastropub meets Southern Soul" wine and whiskey bar, but was a little miffed at the first peek of the almost vegetarian-hostile Southern influenced menu. I bit my tongue and waited to see what developed from the Curtis Center's first floor bar and eatery. While not a vegetarian haven, the menu (a tad different than the online version) turned out to have a few items to choose from, although mostly in the bar snacks, sides and salad section.
While the interior is dark and modern, overall the feeling is of a chain restaurant or hotel restaurant (I'm sure I felt this way because the restaurant is in the interior of an office building and business types were happy hour-ing). Cooperage does try to bring the down home feeling with small touches like Mason drinking glasses and dish towel napkins.
What got me initially excited about Cooperage was the fact that they serve boiled peanuts. You won't find boiled peanuts on the menu, but take a seat at the U-shaped bar or one of the dining room tables and you'll be presented with a complimentary ramekin of hot, salty, boiled peanuts cleverly placed in a tub with room for discarding shells. Who gives you complimentary anything sitting at a bar anymore?!
My mint julep flavored with the fruit of the day (blueberry and peach on my visit) was strong and served in a silver cup (no silver straw, though) as juleps should be, but I'd skip the fruit flavors next time and just ask for a regular ol' julep.
Sit down for dinner and not only will you get complimentary boiled peanuts, but you'll get complimentary cornbread. The red chili flecked cornbread straddled the line between sweet cornbread (a no-no in the South) and non-sweet cornbread, but leaned more so to the traditional Southern non-sweet cornbread. A smart move on their part, because people around these parts just complain when there is no sugar in cornbread.
Hushpuppies with blueberry jam were up next. Now hushpuppies are savory bites of cornmeal batter usually studded with onions and sometimes other savories like green peppers, and often times fried in fish grease. I do appreciate the absence of fish grease since I don't eat fish, but was not happy with what seemed to be the exact same cornbread batter (minus the chilis) fried up with no savory seasonings. And the blueberry jam just took this dish farther into the land of sweetness. These are not hushpuppies.
The cobb salad comes topped with charred corn, pistachios, avocado, marinated jicama, tomatoes, and fried okra. A hearty, filling, interesting, but unrefined salad I could see many Curtis Center employees eating as a lunch entree from the small, to-go Cooperage Cafe located right next door to the restaurant. The only flaw: the okra was fried to an oblivion, so much so that the okra actually lost moisture and shrank.
The sweet potato tots were also fried to an oblivion. These are poor, dimly lit pictures, but in real life the grated sweet potato balls were also black. The grease also did not taste fresh. One bite and we just said no. The green tomato chutney was sweet and spiced like apple pie filling. Even if the sweet potato tots were edible, I'm just not sure about this dish. It's like someone said, "Hey, sweet potatoes and green tomatoes are cliche Southern ingredients, let's put them together somehow." Even if the tomatoes in the fried green tomato sandwich weren't fried to oblivion black in old grease, I don't think this sandwich with seasoned chips would be much to write home about. Some mayo, Burrata cheese, poorly cooked tomatoes, and lettuce on a hoagie roll that did not taste like it was from one of Philly's finest bakeries. It was a lot of bread and some poor fillings. Even though the tomatoes are red and the heritage is Italian, you'd find a finer fried tomato sandwich at Chickie's in South Philly.
Oh, Cooperage! You kinda made me sad with your Southern influenced offerings — at least the veggie offerings. You did make me very happy with the complimentary boiled peanuts, though. My suggestion: stop into Cooperage for a drink to discover just how good boiled peanuts are. Then carry on.
601 Walnut St., in Curtis Center building, Philadelphia, PA, 19106
Cafe hours: Mon-Fri, 7am-5pm