So what’s the upside to a sting operation in which federal agents posing as Arab sheiks ensnare various government officials in the act of taking bribes? The aptly named Abscam: a distinctive tequila and grapefruit-juice-driven concoction, and a brilliant nod to the notorious 1980 wiretapping incident that occurred in a suite at the former Barclay Hotel along famed Rittenhouse Square. The beverage is one of several revolving cocktail selections on the happy-hour menu at Barclay Prime, which since 2004 has been one of Philadelphia’s top boutique steakhouses.
Situated snugly on the ground floor of the former hotel—now an exclusive 22-story condominium—this dining operation, with a skillful team of tenured servers and an unmatched array of the finest cuts, is a standout among the Starr Restaurant Organization’s mantle of 27 renowned eating establishments, here and in New York City, Atlantic City, and Florida.
The bar and adjoining 20-seat lounge, with its checkerboard floor, handsome wood panels, and meticulously molded ceiling, is the quintessential representation of a vintage Philadelphia, High Society-esque gathering place of yesteryear and today. The dining room, however, is very nearly the antithesis of a typical steakhouse. Sure, it has retained the glittering, chandeliered library look of its bygone era, but the comfy, rectangular room also exudes a Midcentury Modern vibe thanks to the mustard-, turf-, and white-colored leather couches surrounding low-set, rounded-edge marble tables.
The Abscam is the brainchild of creative mixologist Eben Klemm, who, along with SRO’s director of restaurants Christian Palikuca, came up with a series of cocktails to slyly reflect The Barclay’s colorful past as the city’s spectacular grande dame from the late 1920s through the Camelot era. Other potable representations they have created include the vanilla-infused bourbon and absinthe combo of the Dexter Haven (Cary Grant’s character in The Philadelphia Story), the Bacardi Superior/Riesling blend dubbed the Paper Mill (the fortune-making business enterprise of industrialist William Rittenhouse), and the Harper, a kitschy ’70s-style fruit and sparkling wine drink that favors top-quality components. “These beverages are our way of telling a story with cocktails,” says Palikuca, “and also a way to whet an appetite.” Which isn’t too difficult, considering the seriousness of the product executive chef Jeff Froehler gets to work with at Barclay Prime.
Froehler, who originally opened the restaurant as its sous chef, recently returned to the searing 1,700-degree broilers after a spell in the kitchen of Steak 954, another popular SRO operation located in Fort Lauderdale’s W hotel. (He describes that Floridian stint as being “pretty much Barclay on the beach.”) With his move back to Philadelphia, the young chef has traded in sunscreen for steak sandwiches. Yes, Froehler gets to oversee the crafting of Barclay Prime’s headline-making $100 Australian Wagyu beef and foie-gras-topped cheesesteak (a fan favorite for eight years running), although he is just as apt to expound upon his affinity for the unparalleled 18-ounce Gachot & Gachot Prime dry-aged rib-eye steak, the beady delight of decadent Petrossian caviar (hard to find anywhere else in the city), and the double-cut portion of meat-purveying god Pat LaFrieda’s famed lamb chops.
Froehler and Starr both recognize that the sign of a truly great steakhouse also lies within the quality of its fish. The subtle ponzu lacquering his ethereal hamachi crudo, the sweet black cod lightly steeped in miso, and the buttery poached lobster all are perfect illustrations of this commitment.
With its incomparable location on the southeast corner of Rittenhouse Square and a shining reputation, no bribery is needed to dine at the one and only Barclay Prime. And today, the only Abscam you’ll encounter here is served on the rocks. 237 S. 18th St., 215-732-7560