Don’t think of this as a downer start to a column, but rather a celebration. Because I want to bid a fond farewell to Big Daddy Graham and Jonathan Valania. Graham, the longtime Philadelphia radio voice and stand-up comedian, passed last week in-between deadlines, and his latter-day story – told to me for the cover of Philadelphia Weekly (philadelphiaweekly.com/big-daddy-battles-back) – was as heartwarming as it was heartbreaking.
For this was a man, a big man (hence the sobriquet), who could not be made small despite being cut down in his prime with all-manner of Job-like health problems. He loved his family (to whom I spoke then, and send condolences now), he loved telling stories and the concept of FM radio as the great transmission in the sky. He loved classic rock. He loved sports. He loved the Jersey Shore. And he loved mixing that all up in a great big comic, immensely sociable bag, and gifting it to local audiences with love. That simple.
Valania, who passed away shockingly and suddenly on Nine-Eleven, also was a gifted communicator throughout his tenure with the Philly-based Magnet Magazine during its alt-rock ‘90s prime, his self-made online culture-jamming commentary site Phawker, and this very paper, Philadelphia Weekly, among other local and national publications. His level of communication might not have always shared the exact glee of Big Daddy’s, yet it was no less joyful in its incisive telling.
See, Jonathan (in my estimation) liked words, the way they felt and tumbled through, and down, a page’s set of phrases like a pebble down a dusty hill, kicking up more dirt as it landed. And he was a pretty fabulous curmudgeon. On both these counts, I could very much relate. That’s what made Valania readable to me, and, I’m guessing, too, to those of you who also dug his work on the regular. Plus, you always knew it was Valania coming toward you from that hat of his – like a week-ago pumping gas near my house, with the hat visible over the hood of his vehicle. I’ll miss seeing him and his hat and his dusty words.
There’s no good or great segue from two eulogies. Seriously.
A first of its kind
What cost $2.25M to renovate, features three stories, five dining rooms, a wraparound 50-foot high “green” wall, and provides you with cocktails and customized menus before you’re even seated? Ancient Spirits and Grille at 17th and Chestnut (yes, the old Davio’s white linen Italian Steakhouse), the first Ayurvedic herbal restaurant and cocktail lounge in the United States. It’s surprise opening Sept. 17, with a charity benefit party for Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, will debut its QR code app with questions about your body type suggesting food and cocktails based on your personal metabolism, and some herbal nibbles from Executive Chef Chris Tavares. Excited about the future-forward Ancient Spirits, especially since I was/am a fan of the legendary Davio’s space (who are still rumored to be moving into a new property nearby the old one, very soon).
Changes at Visit Philadelphia
Cara Schneider, the longtime – and defining – friendly face and fast response PR tactician at Visit Philadelphia, is leaving the tourist bureau gig on Sept. 15. Having started in October 1999, Schneider is one of the reasons (seriously) that people outside Philly wound up coming to Philly in droves – a record number of droves, as in top tourist destination in America droves – as well as turning this town into something beautiful and awesome that maybe you, the jaded local, never realized before. It sounds as if Schneider will still handle on-the-ground tourism projects and visiting media, while shifting from marketing to teaching – and good on her. Philly needs great teachers, and if she is half as good at providing vision and education to those who need it as she is aiding grouchy journalists like me, Philly students will be in great hands.
Bankroll Club’s new home
Long discussed for Broad Street’s Drexel Building, the food and bet-bet-bet-bet-driven Bankroll Club, a mix of fine dining, live entertainment and sports gaming/gambling, will now come, fast and furiously, to the beloved, emptied Art Deco Boyd Theater on Chestnut. Along with Stephen Starr as one of its investors (and, of course, its restaurateur), let’s give a big welcome home investment op to Lansdale’s Paul Martino, a guy who has spent time and money in the tech-start-up sector of Silicon Valley.
New museum executive
Ashley Jordan, the one-time senior director of development at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and the director of the Evansville African American Museum, congratulations. Jordan is the new president and CEO of Philadelphia’s esteemed and undervalued African American Museum on Arch Street. We’re looking forward to seeing the fruits of her labor and vision.
Gamble, Huff and Bell fans, unite: Vinyl Me, Please just dropped a VERY LIMITED vinyl box set experience – VMP Anthology: The Story of Philadelphia International Records – to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the PIR label that put Philadelphia on the soulllll train. Limited to 1,000 pressings, the box include 8 records – each lacquered and AAA-mastered directly from tapes and cut, plated and pressed on high-quality 180g color vinyl – from Leon Huff, The O’Jays, Billy Paul, MFSB, The Three Degrees, Dexter Wansel, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass and more.
Around the town
Some good WHO WHAT WHERE sightings in September, so far, as Justin and Hailey Bieber dined at JG Sky High at the Four Seasons, and Steak 48, during their time in town for Made in America. The still-fresh-paint smelling DePaul’s Table in Ardmore got big name visits, first from one-time 76er-turned-cutting color commentator Charles Barkley, then by thespian and guitarist Adam Sandler last weekend, moving from in front of the lens (for the still-filming-in Philly, “Hustle”) to behind the suburban dining room table. (The Sandman also dined at Steak 48 as well as Pietros in Radnor). And another of Sandler’s co-stars, Jaleel White (yes, Urkel from “Family Matters”) was walking into Fishtown’s very new Izakaya by Yanaga on Saturday night, as I was walking out (no I didn’t snap any photos, and didn’t ask him to say, “Did I do that?”). I did find out, though, that we ate and drank the exact same menu items: Duck Onigiri, Tuna Chirashi, Spider Maki, Salmon Skin Maki, Hamachi Sashimi, Oishii Shrimp Tacos, Pork Gyoza, Toro Scallion Maki, Tan Tan Mazeman and a “Dance of the Celestial Maiden” Sake. WFT? AM I URKEL? Did I do that?
Which reminds me:
Masked Philly: Kevin Yanaga
In Icepack’s way too-long and now way overly complex and continuing saga of asking mask-donning local celebrities what they’ve been up to, beyond the pale, during C-19 – from lockdown to the current reopening, present-day unmasking and re-masking, worrying about Delta variants, freaking out about Fauci’s call for a potential third round of vax shots mere five months after the last, and new mask and vax card mandates – I reached out this week to Kevin Yanaga, the executive chef and partner of Izakaya by Yanaga on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, and its soon-to-drop sister suite/tasting room Omakase by Yanaga.
Yes, you know the always-busy Yanaga from POD, Morimoto and Double Knot. Yes, the famous-before-it-opened on Sept. 9 Izakaya by Yanaga is backed by the GLU Hospitality team. This means that the ambitious Yanaga probably didn’t have scores of down-time, during the pandemic’s lockdown/slowdown or Delta’s current disruption.
“For the first time in many years, the pandemic gave me extra free time to pursue things outside the kitchen,” says Yanaga. “The life of a chef can be a hectic one, non-stop. It’s rare that I have time outside of work to take up new passions and hobbies. However, I was able to expand my love for running. I have been an avid runner for some years now, but during the pandemic I was able to focus more and have more time to pursue running. It was great not only for my physical health, but also my mental health – especially during such a challenging time in life. This all prepared me for my recent adventure – look at me – I just did the Philadelphia 10K and can’t wait for the next race.”
Yanaga’s mask is practical and versatile – “a blue running mask made by a Chinese running company, good for my weekly runs – and it’s very comfortable and easy to speak through – and it’s very breathable. Masks are this necessary thing, and for me it’s all about being comfortable, practical and not letting it get in the way of work, play or anything in between. I have no problem with people wanting to wear it. It is about looking after the well-being of others. I am fully vaccinated and took the first chance when it was my turn to do so. COVID-19 isn’t something that we will wake up and it will be gone tomorrow. So, my personal thoughts are to do everything possible to protect myself and those around me – and not let the pandemic impede everything I want to do.”
What Yanaga wants to do – he’s doing: one brand new restaurant, now, with its 12-seat tasting room to follow by Halloween. “It is a dream come true to get my own restaurants and reconnect with sushi lovers that have been keeping tabs on me for the last decade,” says the Philly veteran. “What’s even more exciting is the opening coming up for our Omakase room. My life is either spent working non-stop to perfect Izakaya by Yanaga, or my time is spent preparing the perfect Omakase concept. I still find time to run, of course, but otherwise, my life has completely been transformed in the last few months with these projects.”