Each year here at Sprudge we put together a globe-spanning, head-turning feature series during the hot weather months—a little something we like to call the Build-Outs of Summer. This year's series featured an astounding 43 cafes, but just one of those was also gearing up to be a full-service dinner restaurant, part of a wider chef & roaster collaboration: Res Ipsa of Philadelphia, from the team at ReAnimator Coffee and chef Tyler Akin.
Cut to December, and the doors are now open at Res Ipsa, offering a hybrid of daytime cafe service and nightly sit-down dinners in Philly's Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. The dinner menu has a decidedly Sicilian bent, and as is common with some of Philly's great dining spots, the space is BYO, meaning you can pair up your favorite beers or wines (you should bring wines) with Chef Akin's cuisine.
With doors open and tables turning, Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman spoke digitally with ReAnimator co-founder Mark Corpus to learn more about the project, get some dinner suggestions, and ask the big question: when coffee companies are running the show in the dining room, is this the what the future of restaurant coffee looks like?
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Hello Mark Corpus! For starters, give us like a 500 foot overview of what you do at Res Ipsa for Sprudge readers just learning about the project.
Mark Corpus: The main idea behind Res Ipsa is pairing great coffee with great food in a casual, all day setting. There are very few places, especially in Philadelphia, where you can get a well made, thoughtful coffee or espresso beverage, and also get a carefully prepared, quick house made breakfast or lunch. As coffee professionals, we don’t want to task our baristas with doing anything other than making great coffee, so at Res Ipsa, we have a full kitchen staff all day, made up of a lot of great talent from Philadelphia’s restaurant scene.
This translates into the evening, when the space transforms into a table service BYO with a Sicilian-leaning menu that includes fresh pastas and seafood. And also a full coffee menu still available.
Why is ReAnimator, a coffee company, going into a dinner service concept with a chef?
We think it’s safe to say that as coffee lovers, and people who appreciate flavor profiles and the care put into the preparation of coffee, most of us feel the same way about the food we eat, especially when dining out. There’s still a huge void in the culinary world when it comes to coffee, and there are too many restaurants where a great meal is capped by a mediocre (or worse) espresso or drip coffee. As a coffee roaster, we’re interested in helping to shift the culture around food and coffee, and create an atmosphere where both coffee and food are given the same attention, and presented on equal footing.
How does the cafe experience at Res Ipsa in the daytime differ from a typical cafe?
On a service level, for the average coffee consumer, they won’t notice much of a difference when it comes to ordering their beverage. Our menu and options matches the rest of our cafes (a typical, simple, modern espresso menu, FETCO batch brews, and single origin coffees by the cup), and our philosophies on hospitality and service carry over.
The biggest difference from the coffee side is that we’ve automated the single origin by the cup options using a Curtis Gold Cup Brewer, which allows for more face time with the customer, and keeps the focus of the barista on the customer experience (rather than staring down the cone of a V60).
Outside of coffee, the most noticeable distinguishing factor is the food. During breakfast, there are house made English Muffins, Breakfast Sandwiches, Cinnamon Rolls, Focaccia, and whatever else the chefs are feeling that morning. During lunch, you see a few curated sandwich options, as well as salads, and a beans and greens soup. So the fare available all day for our cafe customers is an elevated experience, and not something they are likely to find elsewhere in the city.
How are you integrating your coffee identity into the evening experience at Res Ipsa?
We didn't want to force coffee collaborations into areas that do not make sense on a Sicilian inspired dinner menu, so we’ve kept things fairly traditional in terms of how we present coffee. The real difference is selection and quality. During the evening, while we are in dinner service, we have the full coffee menu available, including single origin coffees on the Gold Cup Brewer, and all of the regular batch brew and espresso options. We have a trained barista on site to ensure your espresso will actually be extracted properly.
In addition to offering a full coffee menu we also have coffee influenced desert options like our house made espresso panna cotta.
Talk to us about the rest of your beverage program–any cool beer, wine, or cocktails?
Res Ipsa is a BYO, so customers can bring their own wine, beer, or whatever!
What is the must-order can't-miss dish you think everyone should try?
The breakfast sandwich on house made english muffin with spinach and fennel sausage is out of this world, next level, bar raising. It is available all day till 5:30 pm.
Here’s some recommendations on appetizers, pastas and mains for our dinner service:
The Fried Baby Fish is a great starting dish; crunchy, just the right amount of spice and perfect for snacking on with others as you get warmed up for the rest of the meal.
The Fazzoletti is a twisted pasta with amazing texture and a flavorful, buttery and citrusy sauce.
The Whole Fish is perfectly seasoned with herbs and spices before being broiled to a crispy skin and then traditionally presented to your table. It’s very experiential, and perfect for groups
Tell us a bit more about the neighborhood of Philly your new space is in.
Res Ipsa is situated in the Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia, which is one of the most densely populated, and slightly posh areas of the city. It’s nestled in Center City, and near one of the most visited parks in Philadelphia (Rittenhouse Square). There is a lot of retail shopping in the area, and many well-known and respected bars and restaurants. It’s a bit of a touristy area, but it’s also situated very close to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, so there’s a nice mix of long time residents, tourists, and students. We’re happy to be there.
What is an unexpected challenge you've had to face in getting this project going?
We have opened cafes in the past and they are usually very simple, straightforward affairs. Adding a full kitchen, hood system, ancillary system, etc. to the scope of build out was certainly a challenge. We inherited a lot of these kitchen systems since the entire space (including what is now the coffee bar and dining room) was previously a large kitchen for a restaurant that had been next door. Retrofitting the current kitchen into the space and fixing/salvaging the existing kitchen equipment was difficult. It would have been much easier to start with brand new equipment in there, but we were on a budget and we made it work. On top of that, trying to get the existing kitchen to match the aesthetic of a new, stylish cafe was tricky but we pulled it off.
Why is there such a disconnect between good coffee at restaurants? How does it feel to be challenging that head-on?
In our experience, a lot of it comes down to cost. Even in a situation where restaurant management is in favor of upping their coffee game, the chefs have a tendency to veto due to the additional expenses it puts into their food budget. It’s just easier for a chef to buy the cheap coffee. To us, it doesn’t make much sense. It seems obvious to me that if, as a customer, you’re spending a decent amount of money on a meal that was carefully prepared and delicious, you’d want to cap it off the same way. But most often things end with an under extracted espresso or watery dark roasted drip coffee.
We do see a change beginning. Specialty coffee is starting to get hard to ignore. And customers are becoming more particular. So it’s our hope that Res Ipsa can be a part of that shift in Philadelphia. It feels good. We’re in control, and we’re hoping to blow some minds.
Espresso before dinner, cappuccino after dinner, or both? Or just filter coffee throughout?
Drink coffee all day. Eat a big plate of fresh pasta to soak it up. Wine with your meal. Espresso to help you get home. That seems like a decent plan.
Thank you Mark.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.