Perennially fashionable mother-daughter team Joan and Ellen Shepp sit down at Rouge to talk about their favorite dishes and their much-anticipated new boutique.
Ellen and Joan Shepp discuss their new concept store over lunch at Rouge.
Sitting in a coveted window spot at Rouge overlooking Rittenhouse Square, Joan and Ellen Shepp can’t take a bite of their tuna tartare, sashimi salad, and fish tacos without being the unwitting center of social attention. With an endless stream of Philly’s most inf luential folks stopping for a quick hello, a hug, or offers of heartfelt well wishes on the opening of their brand-new 9,200-square-foot Joan Shepp boutique on Chestnut Street, the uÌˆberfashionable pair are clearly a beloved force on Philly’s fashion—and social—scene.
Rouge is no different. Since opening in 1998, the diminutive restaurant—known as much for its hefty burgers and attractive bartenders as for its noreservations policy—has hosted the who’s who of Philadelphia plus celebrities like Bradley Cooper, Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, and Mick Jagger. Drop by any time—for a midweek business lunch, Friday happy hour, Sunday brunch—and the tables will be full, martini glasses clinking. For Joan and Ellen, Rouge is a welcome escape from look books and haute couture. Here, on the eve of their new shop’s soft opening, they talk about how, like Rouge, they remain perpetually en vogue.
Beloved Philly mainstay Rouge on Rittenhouse Square.
Both Joan Shepp and Rouge have become revered Philadelphia mainstays. Do you have a special kinship?
Joan: We’ve been coming here since the Neil Stein days. Rouge is still the place to come for good food. There are eight times the number of restaurants here now than when Rouge first opened, and yet it’s still the place to go. It’s my comfort zone. When you feel comfortable somewhere, you go back to it. Ellen: As Mom said, it’s comfortable, easy, and it’s more than consistent. Rob [Wasserman] is always adding new dishes, and they actually care if you like the new food. This has always been our go-to place, and it’s just gotten finer and finer. Joan: I love the tuna tartare and the seared tuna Niçoise. I try to stay healthy and not eat so much meat. I need food that gives me energy—it gets my mind working. Ellen: I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I love sushi, and I don’t eat a lot of meat, either. I like food combinations that are different and tasty and not really heavy. My new Rouge favorite is the shrimp spring rolls with Thai sweet chili sauce, but I’ve always loved the soft shell crab with pommes frites, and if I want to eat meat, you, of course, have to eat the burger. I may be a girl who eats light, but I have to have the burger sometimes.
You work together all day. Do you often get out for lunch just to relax and enjoy?
Ellen: When we travel together for buying trips we do, especially in Paris. That’s one of the reasons why we love Rouge—when we’re here I feel like we’re in Paris. We spend so much time there on our buying trips, and being here really reminds us of that. Joan: We work together, we eat together: It’s really great. She has children and is always busy, so when we’re away together we get to really spend some quality time. Although sometimes we do sneak out of the store in the middle of the day to grab some food, just the two of us. Ellen: Let me tell you, she is entertaining to travel with. We have a lot of good laughs, and a lot of really great food. We share a room—that’s the advantage of being mother and daughter. She actually has a catalog [of photos] of me sleeping in bed from every year we’ve gone to Paris together.
Ellen and Joan Shepp.
So do you have any foodie secrets?
Joan: Don’t sell me out! Ellen: She loves Little Pete’s. She eats it all the time. Joan: They make the most incredible egg, cheese, tomato, and onion on a hoagie roll. There’s just not another place like it late at night. Ellen:[Laughs] She also goes at 4 pm. I like it, but I’m definitely more of a Rouge girl.
You create retail magic together, but how about in the kitchen?
Joan: We make big family dinners. What we make depends on the time and the holiday—if it’s a Jewish holiday, I’ll make the traditional chicken, brisket, potatoes, and veggies. Ellen: Essentially, she cooks and I’ll help. She buys food the same way she buys for the store! She’s always like, “What if someone doesn’t like this, then we’ll need to buy this other thing. What if we have conservative clothes and someone comes in wanting funky?” This is how she thinks.
The 205 cocktail, made with Courvoisier, St. Germaine, elderflower liqueur, Angostura bitters, and fresh lemon.
Tell me about the new store. how has it evolved from your old space on Walnut Street?
Joan: The store is a very unusual space. It’s all white, and it’s got a lot of interesting presentations as you go through. There’s a beautiful garden where you can relax, have a drink, some juice, or a snack. We always serve champagne, wine, iced tea. Ellen: It’s a concept store. All along I’ve been involved in the retail side, and she’s the idea girl, the crystal ball of what’s going to happen in the future. She keeps us fresh. Joan: It’s really the culmination of the experiences we’ve had over the years. New departments, new things, unusual things. We realized we have a little niche—shopping everywhere and trying to bring back things that are not available in every store. People want to buy things that are special. Besides rouge, what are some of your other favorite dining spots? Joan: Oh, we just love Friday Saturday Sunday for dinner. They are just the most wonderful people, and they make this mushroom soup with Kennett Square mushrooms, cognac, and cream. I have never tasted anything like it. When I go to entertain, that’s what I serve. It’s another restaurant that’s like family. Ellen: Jamie [Lilley]; her husband, Weaver; and their son, Sam, are all great. It’s a family affair over there. Kind of like us.