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Nicholas Elmi on how to grow a restaurant empire in Philly

nick elmi
Photograph: Courtesy AGS Photo Art LLC

Earlier this year, Philadelphia restaurateur and Top Chef season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga closed the last outpost of his once-ascendant restaurant empire, the Fat Ham. The reason behind the downfall, according to Sbraga’s own analysis? It grew too fast. If Sbraga had a chance to do it over again, he’d take it a step at a time, he told reporters.

Down in East Passyunk, another local Top Chef  winner, Nicholas Elmi, has taken a different approach. He opened the tiny BYOB Laurel in 2013, just a few months before his winning finale episode aired. At 22 seats, it was a conspicuously modest start. Then last summer, he expanded ever so slightly into the space next door, with the wine-and-cocktail bar ITV. This fall, he’s branching out of South Philly and opening a new “chef-driven” bar in a historic building at 52 South 2nd Street in Old City.

“Being able to do my second restaurant right next door has been really eye-opening for me,” says Elmi. He’s been talking about opening in the Old City location with Stephen Simons and David Frank—who own Cantina Los Caballitos, also on East Passyunk Avenue, and Royal Izakaya in Queen Village, among other eateries—for two-and-a-half years. “We’re taking it nice and slow.”

The new bar will be called Royal Boucherie. Elmi says to expect a more casual atmosphere than that of either of his South Philly locations, but he doesn’t plan on dumbing down the refined French cuisine he’s known for.

“I know what I want to cook, and then we’re kind of gearing it around that,” he says.

The menu—partly inspired by Elmi’s trips with his partners to Montreal, New Orleans and New York—will be heavy on raw seafood and charcuterie and will include classic French dishes like terrines. “Updated brasserie food,” he says. “Unapologetically French in the food, which will be a good counter for the bright, boisterous atmosphere.”

Elmi says Royal Boucherie should open its doors mid to late October and that he expects to see more chef-driven bars like the ones Simons and Frank have been opening.

“I’m not gonna stop what I’m doing,” he says. “Just be confident in what we do and keep plugging away.”

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