The Palm gives ‘regulars’ off-the-wall caricatures

Aimee Cicero

Since opening on Broad Street in 1989, The Palm Restaurant at The Bellevue Hotel Philadelphia has been a watering hole for Philly’s power brokers, rain-makers and celebrities.

Many of these personalities became “regulars” and were honored with a caricature of them painted on one of the steakhouse walls.

Over the years, the walls became something of a hall of fame in caricature, featuring the faces – and some torsos —of more than 2,000 Philadelphians.

However, the caricatures are becoming a thing of the past. The Palm closed its doors for major renovations in March, though work on the project has been delayed until next month. A reopening is planned in April.

The removal of the caricatures sparked a demand for the portraits. When the renovation was initially discussed, The Palm was deluged with phone calls for its caricatures, said Karen LuKanic, chief marketing officer of Palm Restaurant Group in Washington.

“This is the second time we’re allowing people to reclaim their caricatures — first was Beverly Hills — and Philly has the loyalist and loudest customer base,” she said.

When the Philly Palm announced that patrons may claim their caricature, the restaurant received 85 requests in the first half hour after releasing the statement, LuKanic said.

The restaurant group operates 25 eateries. Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi opened the first restaurant in 1926 in Manhattan. They had no money to decorate, but were located in the middle of the newspaper district, so they allowed the local cartoonists to sketch on the walls in exchange for their meals, according to The Palm’s website. Customers seemed to enjoy the caricatures, so a tradition was born.

At The Palm Philadelphia, William Bird painted the first caricatures in 1989. His son, artist Zack Bird, has carried on the tradition.

Among those who didn’t want to lose face, so to speak, at The Palm was Nicole Cashman, founder of the Cashman & Associates public relations firm.

“It was an honor to have my portrait added to the wall of The Palm alongside icons such as Ed Rendell,” she said. “I’ll definitely pick up my portrait to add to my wall of business and personal achievements. If nothing else, it’s a conversation starter.”

Removing the caricatures without damaging them is a tricky process, LuKanic said. Some faces are stuck on plaster and could crumble when peeled.

“Some were painted very close to other faces — like Governor Rendell’s head is very close to another woman’s chin,” she said. “That won’t stop us from trying.”

Radio DJ Jerry Blavat is such a Philly icon that he boasts two caricatures at The Palm.

“The first one was when Philly’s Palm opened in 1989, and I was a face over the main bar. My face was right there when you walked in at the small bar,” he said. “The second one they did was nine-years-ago. I still look good.”

Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, said she declined the honor of gracing Philly Palm’s wall because she didn’t feel it was an “exclusive enough” assembly of personalities.

“But they did ask for my husband Joe Weiss’ picture while they were building the restaurant, so his is still up and I’m encouraging him to get the photo so we can keep it,” She said.

Unlike Pinkenson, Blavat was thrilled to see his caricatures in the restaurant.

“Most of those faces are movers and shakers; people who made Philly happen,” he said. “The acknowledgment is terrific, and I can’t wait to grab mine.”

The Philly Palm does plan to add caricatures to its new décor.

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