Although the Economics Department at Williams College draws a crowd of folks interested in business careers, Econ academics are often accused of choosing the theoretical world of economics models over the real world.
Not so Roger Harman ’66, who has been a serial restaurateur in the neighborhood around the University of Pennsylvania since the late 1970s, culminating in his current venture, the Gold Standard Cafe.
Harman had just completed his doctorate at the Penn when he opened his first restaurant in 1978, announcing a desire to “be part of the economy, not just study it.” Their cozy restaurant soon became popular for reasonably-priced meals in a stylish setting: a five-course meal ran less than $15, and included coffee with the finale. The first Gold Standard occupied the site of a former laundry in an old Victorian:
The Gold Standard name dates back to 1978 when Harman and a fellow University of Pennsylvania economics professor, Duane Ball, bought a laundry on 47th Street near Chester Avenue and renovated it.
After four years, Harman and Ball moved it into a Gothic Revival mansion in the middle of the Penn campus – the current Arts, Research and Culture House (ARCH) buillding, which now houses Tortas Frontera – and renamed it Palladium. The first-floor dining room was a linen-tablecloth alternative to the usual campus fare, and there was a large cafeteria dining room downstairs.
The Palladium proved popular — I remember eating there on a trip to the Penn campus during the 1980s — but the restaurant business is tough, even with the benefit of an almost-captive audience during the decade of crack cocaine and associated crime. As a story from the Philadelphia Inquirer archives recalls, the business had trouble paying its taxes:
Internal Revenue Service agents raided the Palladium Restaurant on the University of Pennsylvania campus at lunch time yesterday and seized the restaurant’s liquor license and a cash drawer as partial payment of at least $35,000 the restaurant owes in federal payroll taxes.
They came in at 1 p.m., right at our busiest time, when we had a large private Penn lunch group, and took our cash drawer, containing about $100, and our liquor license from the wall,” said Roger Harman, co-owner of the restaurant with Duane Ball. Harman and Ball have Penn doctorates in economics and taught there until 1979.
“We had been making good-faith payments since late 1985, and only recently we began to turn a profit and look forward to paying this off,” said Harman.
The Palladium did turn the corner, regain its liquor license, and last for decades longer, however, putting the “Gold Standard” name to use for a cafeteria on the lower level. The late-90s Marmac Guide to Philadelphia described it thusly:
Restored red oak paneling is highlighted by leaded glass windows, a warm fireplace, a friendly bar area, and an outdoor café. Downstairs you’ll find the 200-seat Gold Standard cafeteria that serves lunch and offers local delivery service. The same menu is offered on both levels and includes a delightful collection of international dishes.
Besides the splendid atmosphere, a memorable touch at the Palladium was the connection Harman & co. retained to the Gold Standard: checks were printed on faux-laundry receipts from the laundromat that the Gold Standard had replaced.
The Palladium was also a regular participant in Philadelphia’s “Book and the Cook” festival — one year, pairing a showing of the film adaptation of “Like Water for Chocolate” with a menu inspired by the book and movie.
With Ball and new partner Vince Whittacre, Harman eventually moved on to a new Italian restaurant, Abbraccio, a short distance away in West Philly, which operated from 2003 to 2009. Abbraccio was not as beloved: in a city jaded by old-school, family-run Italian treasures, many felt that its cooking was watered down:
Abbraccio may be the first of its kind: a locally owned and operated Olive Garden. Seriously, it’s exactly like the Olive Garden. It looks like the Olive Garden! (There had to have been better architectual options than that giant beige building?) The food is Olive Garden-esque, in that all the classic italian dishes are represented, but they lack any originality, and are passably tasty… Abbraccio is to the Olive Garden as McDowells is to McDonalds.
Abbraccio was well known, however, as a community anchor, and Harman and Whittacre carried that tradition over to the new Gold Standard Café, which opened in 2009 inside a restored old house that hearkens back to the original Gold Standard with decor featuring rotating works from local neighborhood artists.
In addition, the proprietors’ food reputation rebounded, particularly as trends and tastes caught up with their focus on locally-sourced ingredients, free-range meats, and cutting-edge became with doughnuts labeled as “a bite out of “OHHH MAMAAAA!!!” heaven.”
With the success of the Gold Standard Cafe, Harman and Whittacre won Philadelphia’s LGBT Business Award in 2014:
Roger Harman ’66 (second from left) and partner Vince Whittacre (far right), accepting award check
With the prize money, the pair briefly expanded the Gold Standard to a second location with a branch café across the river in the heart of Philadelphia, but that outpost didn’t last long, and now the main location itself is to be sold. Whittacre has explained the pending sale as due in part to “poor health,” while Harman has simply said “We’re getting tired.” We hope that it’s more the latter and the former, but wish a speedy recovery to either or both of them, as well as a happy retirement. Numerous Ephs — including many students visiting Penn on a sojourn from Williamstown — have visited their restaurants over the years. We have fond memories that of the food and communities he helped to create, and hope Harman does, too.