Matt Cahn is in a pickle. No, wait. Matt Cahn has a pickle. A giant plastic one, the size of a small child, lying flat on a pool table in the center of his new 120-seat restaurant in Fishtown. It’s across from the curved bar, down the way from the coffee station, and a stone’s throw from a bright pink trash can at the entrance, where a familiar photo of Princess Diana — smiling beatifically and wearing an Eagles jacket — welcomes you to the clubhouse.
The pickle hasn’t yet been given a role at Middle Child Clubhouse — Cahn’s second, much larger restaurant set to open next week at 1232 North Front Street — but it may eventually become a light fixture. “If you try hard enough, anything is a light,” Cahn says while leaning on a dark green tiled standing bar in the middle of the dining room. On the other hand, the pool table already has a job, Cahn says. “It’s for hanging the fuck out.”
It seems like only yesterday that Cahn — a real middle child, who formerly worked for Superiority Burger and Court Street Grocers in Brooklyn before returning to his hometown to make a sandwich name for himself — opened his 16-seat luncheonette in Washington Square West. But in four years his coy riffs on classic sandwiches — like the Vietnamese-style vegan “Phoagie” and the breakfast sandwich with golden eggs stacked comically high between slices of potato Pullman bread — have become such a sensation that he felt it was time for Middle Child to grow up.
The original Middle Child location has always been limited by space and the staff’s capacity, which means shorter open hours and sandwiches occasionally selling out. (See: The BLT frenzy this summer.) But, like a true younger sibling, Middle Child Clubhouse has been given more freedom to roam, and without the guardrails, it’s more than a touch wilder.
Where the Middle Child on 11th Street keeps a tight menu, everything at the Fishtown Clubhouse is on the table: frozen tropical Negronis, giant chicken Milaneses, fried shrimp with Aleppo pepper aioli, yuca patty melts, natural wines on tap, coffee drinks at the to-go bar, pastries from Mighty Bread, small plates, big salads, and all the same sandwiches fans know and love from Middle Child the senior, except in a big open space with a lively bar, private dining room, and, of course, that pool table for hanging the fuck out.
Though, Cahn admits, he wasn’t able to pull off one thing he told the Inquirer the new restaurant would have: “There’s no Dunkin’ Donuts in here.”
Cahn hired Adam Sosnowik, formerly of Zahav and Res Ipsa, as his executive chef, and the menu is meant to be unpretentious, with five rotating small plates, two burgers (one vegan), a chicken cutlet with ranch dressing, and a fried seafood and shishito basket. An early dinnertime standout is a play on Middle Child’s famous hash browns, but spun into latkes and topped with wasabi ginger, Kewpie mayo, tonkatsu sauce, scallions, and trout roe.
On the drinks side, the bar will open with eight cocktails, 40 bottles of wine, and beers on tap from local favorites like Attic Brewing and Fermentery Form, all curated by beverage director Brandon Thrash. “We have a really, really awesome Old Fashioned,” Cahn explains. “On the menu it’s called an Old Fashioned and you wouldn’t know that there’s anything good about it unless you ask,” he says, pausing. “We’re not even going to tell you.” (The secret is that they infuse the whiskey with toasted Basmati rice, a trick developed by bartender Mary Woods. But don’t tell anyone.)
Despite the playful nature of the place, not everything at Middle Child Clubhouse comes with a wink: One of Sosnowik and Cahn’s goals when hiring was to make sure that the staff was getting paid a fair wage, that they never worked over 40 hours a week, and that the financial imbalance between the front and back of house was discussed right up front. In the first two days of training, the new staff was asked to do everything together. “Cooks were next to dishwashers next to bartenders and servers,” Sosnowik says. “We want to avoid some of the smoke and mirrors that have gone unchecked [in the industry] for a long time.”
Unlike many other restaurants right now, Sosnowik says hiring for the Clubhouse wasn’t hard. They filled all 40-plus positions immediately, having to turn some applicants away. He says that’s due in large part to the pay structure: Morning cooks and dishwashers make $17 an hour, and the dinner chefs start at $20 an hour. The tips are pooled with 85 percent going to the front of house staff and 15 percent to the back of house. “When the back of house is really busy with those rushes, people are seeing the return on the extra work,” Sosnowik says.
In prepping for opening all summer, Sosnowik explains that this whole thing has felt like “a theoretical experiment.” But now that the staff has met each other and the doors are about to open, “I think our experiment is working.”
Cahn feels confident that, in the long run, the experiment will pay off. “One of the things that is beautiful about Middle Child is that it’s weird and cool, but not so weird and cool that it makes people feel like outcasts,” he says. “I just want to do the best fucking food we can in the most unpretentious environment we can. We’re working really hard to make everyone here feel like it’s a community.” He clarifies: “But you know — in a not cult-y way.”
Middle Child Clubhouse opens on Thursday, October 21 at 1232 North Front Street in Fishtown. After a soft open, it will be open Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations will become available on Resy on Saturday, October 16.