It's uplifting to follow a career arc like the one Alison Barshak has carved out in Philadelphia. She's morphed from working in someone else's kitchen to chef/owner of 65-seat Alison at Blue Bell to her latest: the even-larger 120-seat Alison Two in Ft. Washington, PA, which she opened last October. Along the way, Barshak has not only shown she's a great cook — to the point where her first name alone is enough to brand a pair of high-profile restaurants. She's also developed a business acumen that has enabled her to adapt to the ever-shifting demands of the restaurant world.
This is the skill set you'd need to have if you wanted to open a big new chef-driven restaurant in the current economy while keeping the original going strong — a move that triples the number of seats you have to fill. So what was Barshak thinking when she decided to open a second suburban Philly restaurant just four miles away from her first?
“The exciting thing about Alison Two is that it continues our evolution — from tiny Alison Café, which we quickly outgrew, to Alison at Blue Bell, which doubled our space,” Barshak says. “At Alison Two we've added all of the things our customers requested,” a list that in addition to more dining room capacity includes a full bar (Alison at Blue Bell was BYOB for much of its existence), a pair of private dining spaces that can accommodate 35 patrons and a cozy living room-like area meant to function as a neighborhood gathering place.
The result is a multifaceted restaurant that's in tune with how customers use restaurants today. “I envisioned the second restaurant as a place where guests can walk in without reservations and get a table or just come to relax and enjoy a drink and snack at the bar,” Barshak notes.
There are plenty of well-heeled customers who reside in the Philadelphia suburbs where her restaurants are located, not to mention the many corporate outposts of Fortune 500-level companies. This clientele has high expectations, but Barshak has done well here because she has been more than able to meet them.
She first gained national attention for her role as opening chef of downtown Philadelphia's Striped Bass, which Esquire named the best new restaurant in the country in 1994. Her cooking style still showcases her expertise with seafood, but now has a multinational bent that reflects her many travels.
Barshak is careful to structure each dish on Alison Two's menu to present a complete experience from its country of origin. The bar menu and the lunch menu reflect a similar sensibility, the good news being that bar dining and lunch offer key sources of revenue that are much-welcomed in the current environment. Another can't-miss factor in the suburbs: lots of free parking.
No wonder Alison Two has done well so far. “The results, from a gastronomic standpoint, as well as an operations one, are stunning,” says AroundPhilly.com's Ken Alan.
But what about Alison at Blue Bell? It closed for three months while Alison Two was getting off the ground. It reopened last month with a menu that reflects the Italian heritage of chef de cuisine Anthony Bonett — a departure from Barshak's approach. Prices have dropped, and Alison at Blue Bell is now open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights — ideal for the current market downturn. It just shows more business smarts from this fine chef/owner.