Northeast Times

Bourbon and Branch replaces 30-year-old Liberties restaurant

Own­er names new whis­key bar and res­taur­ant after his wife’s fa­vor­ite drink.    

  • The owner and chef of Northern Liberties’ Bourbon and Branch, Alex Carbonell, poses at the Victorian bar. GREGORY PACANA / STAR PHOTO

  • Patrons mingle inside Liberties restaurant in 1985, at the outset of Northern Liberties renaissance. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK CHARRY

  • The exterior of the restaurant on N. 2nd Street. GREGORY PACANA / STAR PHOTO

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 en­tr&ea­cute;e 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.

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