Sunday, Jun 18, 2006
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Bread and Water Works

Historic structure revived as riverfront eatery

By APRIL LISANTE 215-854-5762
The historic structure is being revived as a riverfront eatery.
(David Maialetti/Daily News)
The historic structure is being revived as a riverfront eatery.

IN ITS heyday, the Water Works was a mechanical masterpiece, an engineering feat that attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world.

For 94 years, turbines pumped more than 5 million gallons of water a day to Philadelphians from the Water Works' engine room, its vaulted ceiling towering just high enough to allow the giant water wheels to churn.

But in 1909, when pollution seeped into the Schuylkill River and spread downstream to the Water Works, the Engine House stopped spinning - and never started again.

In the intervening years, the majestic Greco-Roman structure remained an orphan, but periodically returned to life as a saloon, a public pool and an aquarium. For the last three decades it was deserted, just a familiar Parthenon-like part of the city landscape that drivers grew accustomed to staring at when stuck in westbound traffic on the Schuylkill.

But this month, life returns to the Water Works when a local politico makes history - and a multimillion-dollar leap of faith - to open The Water Works Restaurant in the dramatic, soaring space.

Michael Karloutsos, a local consultant and GOP fund-raiser, has created a Mediterranean oasis with al fresco "cliffside dining" that he hopes will draw Philadelphians and tourists by the thousands.

With its elaborate dining room, upscale menu, bar and lounge, Karloutsos wants it to be a place where people come to see and be seen. He's also banking on the fact that Philadelphians have long had a fascination with and nostalgia for the building - and they'll want to visit at least once.

"We're going to have something for everyone here," Karloutsos said. "What the restaurant will do is to pay respect to the history of the place, and to remind Philadelphians what was here."

Eighth wonder of the world

The Water Works has a long and storied history that began in 1812. After three years of construction, two steam engines began churning river water into residents' homes.

By 1822, a water wheel was added. A few years later, turbines replaced the steam engines and more than 5 million gallons of water flowed through the works every day.

The beauty of the buildings, the rushing water and the manicured gardens surrounding the scene was so unique, it drew hordes of national and international tourists - including some heavy literary hitters like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, who marveled at its beauty.

But as the river became polluted at the turn of the century, the turbines were shut down and the Water Works reopened as an aquarium. In the early 1960s, the aquarium closed and a public pool and small cafe opened in the space. By the early '70s, they were gone, too.

For nearly three decades, it remained an abandoned and neglected part of Fairmount Park that no one could decide what to do with. But one idea endured.

"There has always been the idea that a restaurant would be good in the space," said Mark Focht, executive director of the Fairmount Park Commission.

"One of the things we've always wanted to do is to create venues in the park," said Bobby Mix, Fairmount Park Commission chairman. "We wanted people who wouldn't necessarily be in that part of the city to visit and come back again."

In 2000, the path was paved for a restaurant when the Fairmount Park Commission and the city announced a restoration project that ultimately pumped $25 million into structural repairs and construction of a Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center museum. Though an upscale restaurant was part of that planning, it took another four years for the city to settle on a lessee.

A tentative deal with Catelli's, a Voorhees, N.J., restaurant, was struck in 2001, but it fell through after a New Year's fire in 2002 hit the buildings. After the fire, according to published reports, owners of Catelli's asked the Park Commission to add an atrium to the Engine House and the Park Commission balked, canceling the contract.

Finding his destiny

That same year, Karloutsos moved from Chicago to Philly to consult for his boss, Paul Vallas, now chief executive officer for the School District of Philadelphia. Karloutsos' job was to meet the city's movers and shakers, so he parked himself at Capital Grille at Broad and Chestnut every day for lunch.

"I got to know a lot of people that way," said Karloutsos.

When the new Philly resident spotted the Water Works one day on his way into town from King of Prussia, he was intrigued enough to ask city officials about it.

"I saw it and I learned it had been [abandoned] like that for years, and so my wife said, 'Do something about it,' " Karloutsos recalled. "I felt like it was my destiny to do this."

When he learned that the city was still looking for a lessee, he submitted a proposal. For more than a year, the city and Park Commission mulled proposals, including one from an East Falls restaurateur.

The plan becomes reality

In December 2004, Karloutsos won a 25-year, $120,000-per-year lease with the park. His first move: To ask Ed Doherty, former director of operations at the Capital Grille, for help.

"He was our best customer there [Capital Grille], so we got to talking one day and he said, 'Could you do me a favor? Could you meet me at the [Water Works] site and give me a few minutes to talk to you about what I'm thinking?' " Doherty recalled. "His passion for it was contagious, so instead of just consulting, I told him I'd help him open the restaurant."

Aiming to be open by July Fourth, Karloutsos has so far invested about $3 million to design the space, which will feature a 120-person dining room, a separate bar and lounge area that spills onto a 60-seat outdoor deck that literally hangs over the river with arguably the city's best view of Boathouse Row. Water plays heavily in the interior decor, from a "water wall" (a mystery feature that won't be unveiled until opening night) to a full wall of photographs paying tribute to the building's history.

The 65-person kitchen will be headed by Adan Trinidad, 24, formerly head chef at Stephen Starr's El Vez. Trinidad has been given free reign to create a Mediterranean and American menu that even includes a nod to his Mexican heritage, with dishes like grilled tuna over fava beans with Belgian endive, or baby octopus marinated in cilantro, chile and garlic.

"This is the biggest opportunity I've ever had," said Trinidad. "It's basically my name, my kitchen - my head. It's big, but I'm excited."

Karloutsos is excited, too. But why shouldn't he be? Weddings at the restaurant are already booked through 2008. The eatery is expected to generate between $3 million and $4 million a year in revenue.

And from that cliff, the view of Boathouse Row has never looked so good.

"Every one of us has risked something for this," said Karloutsos. "It's breathtaking to think we are doing something this big. But I just believe it really was my destiny."