On Friday, Feb. 21, Northern Liberties got a new addition to its already impressive diversity of restaurants and bars.
Bourbon and Branch, recently purchased by chef Alex Carbonell, opened its doors on the site of the historically significant Liberties restaurant at 705 N. 2nd St., just above Fairmount Avenue. This is 31-year-old Carbonell’s third venture into the restaurant business.
Carbonell is already the owner of the successful It’s Nutts restaurant in Titusville, N. J., named after his business partner Michael Nutts, and the speakeasy- style Lola Restaurant and Bar on Main Street in New Hope.
Carbonell, a native Floridian, named his Northern Liberties restaurant after his wife’s favorite drink, bourbon and water.
“Branch is an old southern term for water from a stream,” Carbonell explained. “When a southerner orders a bourbon and branch, they are simply asking for a whiskey and water.”
Carbonell spent the last month renovating the interior of the new restaurant, although much of the former Liberties remains, most notably the lavish tin ceiling and the magnificent Victorian bar.
The bar stools are brand new and the bar shelves where the liquor bottles are displayed were newly created from wooden pews from the decommissioned Methodist Memorial Church formerly located at 10th and Green streets in Philadelphia.
Carbonell resisted the temptation to label his new restaurant as any particular type or style; however, one gets a sense of southern nostalgia inside Bourbon and Branch.
“We are a restaurant and a whiskey bar specializing in comfort foods, peasant comfort foods to be specific,” Carbonell said. “But not just American comfort foods, we also feature Vietnamese, Thai, Cuban, English, Irish, and Scottish comfort food.
“As the chef my primary motivation was to just have fun with the food and the menu.”
Price was also important to Carbonell. He wanted to keep everything on the menu under $20. The average entrée at Bourbon and Branch costs $15 and the most expensive dish on the menu is the glazed salmon, $19.
The menu offers plenty in the way of sandwiches (burgers and grinders), 12-inch pizza- pies, appetizers, desserts and main dishes (southern fried chicken, fish n’ chips, Shepherd’s pie).
Carbonell’s long-time friend, mixologist Righteous Jollie, manages the bar at Bourbon and Branch.
The specialty here is the whiskey, with 80 varieties, including Japanese, Indian, Scottish and Irish, but there is a definite preference toward American bourbons.
The cocktails are works of art. The most attention-grabbing one is called CuCuCumberKiwiBasiltiño and consists of vodka infused with fresh kiwi, basil, cucumber and jalapeno ($12).
In addition to a large variety of canned and bottled beers, Bourbon and Branch offers 17 beers on tap.
The second floor features a new bar and newly constructed stage where live bands perform a variety of music ranging from rock to techno on Thursday through Sunday nights, with a Wednesday night variety show to be added shortly. By April, music will be performed nightly.
The restaurant had its grand opening Friday night, Feb. 21. According to Carbonell, it was a huge success with standing room only both upstairs and down.
Among the many in attendance for the opening was Mark Charry, the original owner of Liberties restaurant and the owner of the nearby Architectural Antiques Exchange.
Charry purchased the property for Liberties in 1984 and opened the restaurant in 1985 at a time when the Northern Liberties renaissance was in its infancy.
At that time, there were only a handful of restaurants in the area that offered a traditional dining experience. The others were Ortlieb’s Jazz House on N. 3rd Street and the Brass Door restaurant on N. Front Street.
Charry would go on to sell Liberties to Joe Rafter in 1994. Rafter had an 18-year run as owner of Liberties before selling the restaurant in July 2012 to the Chang family. Rafter maintained ownership of the property, however, and still owns it today.
The Chang family, who sold the business to Carbonell, could not be reached for comment.
In 1985, Charry’s vision for Liberties restaurant was to move beyond the taproom-style restaurants and diners and bring a Center City style dining experience to the residents of Northern Liberties.
Liberties restaurant was an immediate success and a symbol that the neighborhood had finally arrived.
In those early years, Liberties was much more than a restaurant; it was a gathering place.
It became the location where the original visionaries of the NLNA (Northern Liberties Neighbors Association) would meet on the second floor and put together the plans that would lead to the Northern Liberties of today.
Local leaders such as Mitch Deighan, former president of the NLNA; Rita Fitzgerald, former NLNA executive director; Larry Freedman, NLNA zoning chairman; and Mary Dankanis, NLNA board member; frequented Liberties restaurant.
Like so many of the original Northern Liberties pioneers, Mary Dankanis still resides in Northern Liberties and remains an outspoken voice for her beloved community.
“Mark Charry had the courage and foresight to open Liberties restaurant at a time when the direction of the neighborhood was anything but certain,” Dankanis said. “Mark saw the future and invested in it. However, I wish the new owner much success and hope that he does not forget the genesis of Liberties.”
Helene Villanueva was born and raised in Northern Liberties and has witnessed the neighborhood’s renaissance, beginning in the 1980s.
“I have many fond memories of Liberties restaurant over the years,” she said. “I had a high school graduation party there for my daughter and a first Holy Community party for my son.
“It’s sad to see it go. However, I am also thrilled to see another new restaurant in Northern Liberties, and I look forward to dining at Bourbon and Branch.” ••
Bourbon and Branch is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Saturday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
The restaurant also offers delivery throughout Northern Liberties for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.