Living in East Passyunk, when I was invited to North Camden for dinner at a tiny Vietnamese place, I was skeptical. If I wanted great pho, why not just walk up to my favorite spot on Washington Avenue? But I wanted to meet the Camden Supper Club, so I caught the 404 NJ Transit bus at Broad and Cherry.
Rain pounded the bus as it rocked northeast along Westfield Avenue toward Pennsauken, but by the time I got off at 33rd Street, the storm had slowed to a weird sunny drizzle, and I hurried into Pho Tan Phat Noodle House, on the end of a small strip mall. The restaurant closes early by the usual dinner spot standards (7pm), so when I walked in around 5:15, there were only a few men there spinning dice in a white bowl with expert flicks of their wrists; they played a fast-paced game, swapping twenty dollar bills as they won, lost, and played again.
There was a long table made of several small square ones pushed together, and while I sat down to wait for the Supper Club members, the smiling owner brought over a glass of water. I had already ordered my dinner, along with everyone else: The restaurant is so small that there’s only one chef on duty during weekdays, and to accommodate the group, Pho Tan Phat takes the orders in advance and has them ready.
Supper Club co-founder Joseph Russell had coordinated the RSVPs and dinner orders via e-mail, and soon, a group of about fifteen people came in pairs and threes, and found places around the table.
Russell said the group, which has been meeting monthly for dinner at small restaurants throughout Camden for almost three years, now has an e-mail list of about 200 people, and gets up to 18 attendees at the average meeting, though it’s gone as high as 35. Pho Tan Phat is recurring favorite.
Russell works in Center City Philadelphia and lives in Collingswood, NJ, and his Supper Club co-founder, Stephen Danley, is an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers.
Some attendees of this summer meeting were longtime friends, and some shook hands over the table. Many lively conversations about national and local politics sprouted as dishes began arriving from the kitchen—pho, noodles, spring rolls, meat and egg platters, smoothies, and more, alongside small savory bowls of fish sauce, and we ate with bright green plastic chopsticks and spoons.
The food was delicious.
Patronizing small restaurants like this is part of the Camden Supper Club’s mission, Russell explained. Camden’s variety of top-notch authentic cuisines makes the city a little-known culinary gem, you can get some of the best Vietnamese, Mexican, Dominican or Puerto Rican food in the area if you know where to look, not to mention the group’s favorite soul food place, Corinne’s, and some of the only Peruvian food in the region.
Danley noted that Philly has the media infrastructure making it easy for adventurous eaters to discover the latest hot spot, with a wide array of websites and blogs tracking the city’s food trends and newest openings. But in Camden, “You have to do that stuff as grassroots groups.”
That appeals to what Russell called “a really interesting group of random people,” including journalists, independent contractors, community activists, university folk, and more.
He pointed to major state tax breaks at work for Camden developments, but bemoans a lack of mandated “community benefits,” like job training or education.
There’s a strong culture in Camden of non-profits wanting to support the city, Danley added, but it’s hard for individuals to know what to do on a practical level. Coming out for dinner with the Supper Club is one answer.
“I would like to do something that stimulates the Camden economy right now,” Russell said of using the Supper Club to get groups of people into local restaurants they might not have discovered otherwise—some so small that the group packs the place on its own.
Danley noted that dining out regularly in a group can help to build the capacity of restaurants that otherwise wouldn’t cater to more than a couple patrons at a time. He’s seen at least one restaurant respond to a repeat visit from the Supper Club with markedly streamlined preparation and service and new flourishes of hospitality, and he hopes this can translate into a general readiness to accommodate other groups that might follow, boosting the bottom line.
The Supper Club has a mix of locals, plus people who grew up in Camden, left as adults, and now are looking for a way to dive in again. “Food is a really easy, accessible way to come back,” says Danley.
When I caught the 404 home to Philly and jumped on the Broad Street Line, I was glad to have ventured beyond Washington Avenue, and I hope to join in again.
If you’re interested in checking out the Camden Supper Club, e-mail Joseph Russell at [email protected].