Inside a Fishtown institution
Photography by Albert Yee
If you don’t live in Fishtown, you might never have been to Sulimay’s Restaurant. In fact, you’ve probably never even heard of it.
Though its location—the corner of Berks and Girard—is near the epicenter of Fishtown’s restaurant revolution, just a block away from high-end newcomers like Kraftwork, Lloyd, and Girard, this unassuming diner doesn’t draw too many customers from outside the neighborhood. Unless the vertical red letters that spell RESTAURANT down the side of a whitewashed corner row house happen to catch your eye, it’s easy to miss. But don’t let that fool you: In Fishtown, Sulimay’s is where business is done.
The chefs at the neighborhood’s hot new restaurants might amaze discerning customers with craft charcuterie and gourmet pizza at night, but this is where they eat breakfast.
Inside, Sulimay’s is a classic Philadelphia diner. Not much has changed in its 35 years in business. There are mirrors on the wall traced with gold leaf, wood paneling, and banquettes with patterns straight out of the ’70s and ’80s. Customers can choose from the row of spinning stools at the Formica counter or a booth. There are plenty of Fishtown memorabilia: local cartoonist Jeffro Kilpatrick, known for his “Sketches of Fishtown” project, drew a loving tribute to owner Lucretia Sulimay that now hangs in a place of honor in the cramped vestibule. Children’s drawings decorate the doorway by the register, and on the wall there’s a photo of the street party that overtook Fishtown on D-Day at the end of World War II.
The decor may be out of style, but Sulimay’s—pronounced “Sellimee’s” by true locals—is still going strong. After all, crisp hash browns, homemade spicy-sweet breakfast sausage and servers who call you “hon” are always in demand.
The kid-friendly atmosphere also draws families, and young customers who clean their plates are invited to choose a lollipop from the bucket behind the register. More than a few children (including my 5-year-old daughter, Lucia) have grown up eating here. “I’ve had at least six very pregnant women go into labor after eating my pancakes,” says Lucretia. “And when their kids are ready for solid food, they have their first pancake here.” She bought this place 13 years ago. Fishtown has changed since then—and you can’t understand what’s so special about Sulimay’s unless you understand Fishtown.
To say that Sulimay’s is steeped in Fishtown history would perhaps be an injustice: Sulimay’s is Fishtown history. About three blocks away, in 1682, William Penn signed a treaty with the Turtle Clan of the Lenni Lenape people on a spot in what is now Penn Treaty Park. The new European inhabitants of the area were shipbuilders and the fishermen for whom Fishtown is named, harvesting the bounty of shad that then swam the Delaware River. In the 19th century, glassworks, breweries and distilleries employed immigrant laborers. The cultural legacy of the Irish, Polish and German workers who settled in the neighborhood is still strongly felt today. Heavy industry kept Fishtown bustling through the mid-20th century.
But the good times—or, at any rate, the times when you could just walk into a factory and ask the foreman for a job—eventually stopped rolling. In the 1970s and 1980s, the economy contracted and good union jobs that had supported families moved overseas or dried up. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit: Those who could afford to leave the city did. Those who couldn’t, or were prevented from doing so by redlining and racism, stayed and dealt with the aftermath. Industry fled and left in its place emptiness and poverty. Working-class Fishtown struggled, and black-market industries filled the void—especially heroin. In the ’80s and ’90s the neighborhood gained a new reputation as a place to score dope.
In the 21st century, though, the neighborhood’s changes can be ascribed to a new force: gentrification. Things shifted shortly after the turn of the millennium, when outsiders went from thinking of Fishtown as a “bad” neighborhood to thinking of it as cheap real estate, full of cute little houses ripe for refurbishment by anyone with the cash to get started. Over the past decade, developers have swarmed the Frankford-Girard corridor, turning dive bars into gastropubs and run-down row homes into sleek, eco-friendly dream homes with roof decks—and pushing the pushers and their customers north and west.
Those homes, with six-digit price tags unknown in the neighborhood a decade before, aren’t for the locals. They bring in a new crowd, one full of artists, architects, pizzaiolos and pickle makers, a Rust Belt answer to Portlandia that mixes somewhat uneasily with the proud, tight-knit natives of the neighborhood. Fishtown also is a lot less segregated than it used to be, but in the process gentrification has displaced quite a few working-class white people in favor of an economically and racially mixed set of newcomers. The resulting balance has been uneasy, with hostility occasionally breaking out on both sides. Sulimay’s has occupied a front-row seat for it all.
“I’ve had at least six very pregnant women
go into labor after eating my pancakes.”
For the last 13 years, so has Lucretia Sulimay. She is the heart of this place, not to mention its brains and its palate. Small and fineboned, with dark hair and a quick, warm smile, she is constantly in motion: greeting customers, making coffee, running plates out from the kitchen, chatting with regulars. She is the third of seven children raised in Pennsauken, New Jersey, most of whom now work in the hair-care industry (you’ll find Sulimay’s Barbershop just down Girard and the slick new Sulimay’s Urban Salon over on Frankford).
She bought the diner (formerly known as Berks) after years of experience in the restaurant industry as a chef and caterer (including a stint at Mount Airy’s Cresheim Cottage Café). At first she kept it open seven days a week, though this nearly burned her out; now she closes the diner on Tuesdays. Back then it was mostly still longtime locals who frequented the place, talking over bottomless pots of coffee and platters of eggs and bacon at greasy-spoon prices, paying in cash at the register. (About that register: Regular customers have, on occasion, been known to ring themselves up when Lucretia is busy.)
Things got difficult in 2008 when Wall Street took its dramatic dive. Many Fishtowners found themselves out of work and short of cash. “Going out to eat wasn’t something they could do all the time,” Lucretia explains, and the diner’s Formica tables too often sat empty.
As she’s talking, a man pipes up from the next table: “I’d come in here and work from ten to noon and I’d be the only one in here. Kept you company, though, didn’t I?” There were regulars, though: a set of retirees who came in early every morning to debate everything from geopolitical issues to kids these days. Local artist and producer Marc Brodzik found their coffee-counter banter so entertaining that he suggested an unusual way to get the word out about Sulimay’s: a video podcast. “Breakfast at Sulimay’s,” which ran from 2008 to 2012, drafted three of the diner’s retired regulars as music critics reviewing alt-rock, hip-hop and heavy-metal releases.
“John Q. Public demands new things,” Joe says in his strong Philly accent. He’s talking about the band Bon Iver. In his 90s, Joe is the panel’s oldest member and its most philosophical, a thoughtful counterpoint to irreverent, foul-mouthed Ann (she’s the one who flips the bird during the title sequence) and avuncular Bill, who declares the music perfect for a massage. (“Does that make me sound like a homosexual?” he asks with a guffaw. “I am.”) They deliver their verdicts and occasionally interview bands in the corner booth in the back, their reactions intercut with scenes from music videos. The podcast was a hit and gave Sulimay’s a modest boost in business; though it ended in 2012 when Brodzik moved on to other projects, the episodes are still available at scrapple.tv and customers still come in and ask about Joe, Bill and Ann.
In 2010, another obstacle arose: breast cancer. Faced with the prospect of chemotherapy and three surgeries in a single year, Lucretia hired help. She and chef Daniel Moore brainstormed dishes that would mix Fishtown favorites, like Port Richmond–sourced sausages and pierogies, with innovative presentations calibrated to appeal to brunch-loving foodies. The menu makeover continued when Lucretia returned to work.
Her bout with cancer left her with questions about some things you don’t often hear diner owners discussing, like what pesticides and chemical additives in the food supply are doing to our bodies. She began seeking out ways to include healthier and more-local ingredients. That’s not an easy task in the diner business, where margins are low and costs high, but Lucretia Sulimay is not the sort of person who gives up easily. She sources affordable ingredients as best she can, driving in a wide circle around Philadelphia and southern New Jersey to shop at produce stands and Asian markets: the only thing delivered to the restaurant is fresh bread from a wholesale bakery in nearby Port Richmond. Since some customers care about organic ingredients more than others, her strategy is to offer customers choices.
French-press and Vietnamese coffee options supplement the standard drip brew, and you can swap out imitation maple syrup for the real thing and ordinary eggs for free-range ones. The goal is to strike a balance between the new Fishtown and the old in an environment where most businesses cater to one or the other.
The strategy has worked. An influx of new customers ordering (and Yelping about) dishes like pumpkin pancakes and Eggs Bensington (pan-fried scrapple, Cooper Sharp cheese and dippy eggs served over white toast with potatoes) has kept Sulimay’s busy ever since. The retirees still come, as do their children and grandchildren, and on weekday mornings you can find them shooting the breeze with entrepreneurs in tight jeans who Instagram their pancakes. This is where the two Fishtowns become one. Fishtowners can’t always agree on much, but Lucretia Sulimay and her pancakes might just be where an evolving, divided and often contentious corner of Philadelphia finds its common ground.
632 E. Girard Ave., 215.423.1773