NMD – Philadelphia’s a tough town when it comes to their cheese steak sandwich. Restaurant reputations there are earned and lost based on how good your cheese steak sandwich is. Here’s a restaurant that has one of the best in the city.
Jack’s Firehouse Restaurant, at 2130 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, has an interesting history, to say the least. The building in which the restaurant calls home is the former Firehouse 1, the first firehouse built by and supported with city funds and opened its doors in 1871. The website for Jack’s honors those fire fighters with a page naming the original men as well as giving the history of the building. In addition to being the first firehouse paid for by the city while the fire fighters still had to hold other jobs to support themselves, if the list of men is any indication, as their occupations are listed, and none of them list fireman or fire fighter.
Inside the restaurant visitors can see the original pole which the men slid down when the fire alarm came through. Also, the floors are original to the building, as are the large (large!) doors on the front and side, generally opened on nice days, and, finally, the mahogany that’s all over the building. The interior is very much a restaurant, but you can still feel the ambiance from its firehouse days. Upstairs, now an additional dining or private party area, it’s obvious this was once a large room filled with beds, only because you can see it in your mind’s eye. Otherwise, it’s a beautifully appointed party space.
The owner of Jack’s, Jack McDavid, is a proponent of “buy local” and supports between 250 to 300 local farms, breeders and greenhouses to keep his restaurant supplied with the freshest of ingredients year-round, and there’s nothing pre-made in his kitchen, no sirree, Bob, and they serve there what he calls, “Haute Country” cuisine, which seems to be a blend of the several cuisines McDavid has prepared for years. On the lunch menu there is wonderful melange of many cuisines, with Calamari with Hot Pepper Chips, Cajun Butter Basted Shrimp (an homage to McDavid’s Southern roots) and New England Clam Chowder in the same menu. Even the condiments served there, the mayonnaise, the mustard and the barbecue sauce on the pulled pork sandwiches, are home-made. The buns on which the burgers, cheese steaks and pulled pork sandwiches are also homemade there, by the kitchen staff, daily.
However, it’s cheese steaks that make Philly famous, and at Jack’s, it’s the best in the city, bar none. The cheese steak on the menu, reasonably priced at $14.95, comes with a hand-made 10-inch roll, fresh peppers and onions, real steak (no Steak-Ums here), and locally sourced American cheese, melted on the top, just like it’s supposed to be done. Also on the plate is a warm pile of delicious hand-made french fries, lightly seasoned with sea salt, not iodized table salt, and you get your Coca-Cola in a bottle, the way it should always be done. There’s a bit of a warning, though; the portions are large, so large you might choose to share with your dining companion, rather than try to eat the entire meal. And the reason you won’t want to eat too much is, you want to save room for dessert.
The dessert menu at Jack’s Firehouse has to be seen and experienced to be believed. Homemade chocolate fudge frosting on their triple layer chocolate fudge cake, and their specialty, the item that keeps people coming back, is their Toffee Crunch Butter Cake, is why diners there make sure to leave room. The toffee cake is more of a cheesecake, drizzled with a toffee sauce that’s also made in their kitchen, and it’s creaminess is a pleasure to hold in your mouth.
If you’re able to order two desserts, your dining companion should order the Chocolate Hazelnut Bread Pudding so you can share. You won’t regret it and might want to take some home with you so you can have another taste later.
The history of Fairmount District, Philadelphia
Inside the restaurant, there wasn’t a member of the staff who wasn’t friendly, eager to help you and easily able to talk about not just the history of the building but of the area.
Seems the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia is one of the more historical areas of the city. At one time, Fairmount wasn’t part of the city, but a suburb, of sorts, and it was where the wealthy and city prominent built their country homes. The area is named after the manor house William Penn had once planned to build there, and it became incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854. However, it’s now often called “Art Museum Area, due to the proximity of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now famous for being home to the “Rocky Steps”. In addition to these two names, this area of the city could be referred to as the “Spring Garden District”, at least it was until it became incorporation.
But is it haunted?
The most well-known location within the neighborhood, the Eastern State Penitentiary, is across the street from Jack’s Firehouse Restaurant, and the penitentiary has thousands and tens of thousands of visitors each year. One has to wonder, though, are the ghosts that are rumored to be there from the firehouse or the penitentiary?
There’s nothing official on the website, and Jack’s offers a special Haunted House & Dinner Package during the month of October (with reservations required, since they tend to fill up during the month of October), if you ask the employees there, they’ll tell you it might be, but they’re just not quite sure. No official investigations have been done there, but some of the employees have experienced some events that might suggest there’s a ghost or two inside the old firehouse, suggesting the haunting might be a former fireman. One employee tells of their being inside the restaurant late at night, after closing and everyone else had left, working in the basement of the building. As he’s working at the desk down there, he hears the door to the basement open and close, then hears what sounds like footsteps walking down the stairs. Knowing he’s alone in the building, he grabs a hammer and walks through the basement, seeing no one, then goes upstairs, hammer raised, and in his words, “Now, it’s a party!” This employee walks around upstairs looking for what is surely a person inside the restaurant and sees no one. Still nervous, but realizing he’s alone, he goes back downstairs to complete his work.
Several minutes later, though, the employee hears the same thing; the basement door opening and closing (a little harder, this time) and the inevitable footfalls, this time on the first floor, the floor above him. He comes upstairs again, hammer in hand, certain there’s someone there and when he found no one, he closed up for the night, leaving his work unfinished, and goes home.
The same employee tells of being called early in the morning after the lunch crew had arrived to set up for the day. Seems the side door was left open, unlocked, and this is a huge no-no at the restaurant. The last employee to leave was chastised, though they professed their innocence, and everyone went on with their day. A few days later, the same phone call came, the side door had been left standing open, unlocked, again, and SURELY the employee responsible had to be taken to task. However, now alert to this happening, the employees, all of them, had made securing all the doors part of their nightly routine and were positive it was closed and locked when the last person had left. To this day there’s no explanation for this, and it’s unclear whether it’s happened again or not, but for a few days, it seems there’s a door there that refuses to stay closed and locked.
A third tale told is of a repair person coming to the restaurant to fix something on the second floor. After he was done with his work, as he was settling things with the manager of the restaurant, he told him, “That’s kind of cool that you have a fireman walking around the place.” The thing is, there’s no fireman dressed in full gear there and no one knew what he was talking about. Apparently, the repair person had only seen the fireman once, but he was able to describe him as wearing “fireman stuff” and walking around upstairs.
Some last thoughts
With the building in which Jack’s Firehouse Restaurant being such an iconic part of Philadelphia’s history, it’s a bit of a heady experience sitting there dining on the delicious food. Visitors can almost feel the energy in the place of fire engines, the excitement that goes along with being part of a fire crew, the ambiance of 142 years of life as a firehouse and restaurant dedicated to the memory of the men who served the city to help protect the people who lived there. Is the ghost or ghosts there from the penitentiary across the street or is the haunted related to the people who once made this building their second home? It’s not uncommon for firemen to form a bond as strong or stronger than the bond they have with their families, developing a brotherhood that is only understood completely by those who are on the inside of this circle. There’s a theory that a person who dies an unexpected or traumatic death returns to the place where they were the happiest or most at peace. Is the ghost a fireman who died in a fire? The story of the fireman on the second floor would suggest this.
What Mr. McDavid has done by turning a once abandoned firehouse into a restaurant, one filled with a great deal of love for both the place and the city, is to help preserve a part of the story of Philadelphia, one in which those long passed still wish to be a part of.