Skip to content

(JUMP Presents) A Landmark Restaurant Struggles to Find Harmony with Symphony House .

March 10, 2011

Text and images by Kim Maialetti.

Just hours after a meeting with city officials about her trouble with Symphony House, 32-year-old Lisa Wilson sits at one of the half-dozen or so tables at her restaurant – Jamaican Jerk Hut – contemplating the lousy predicament she’s in.

“I’m drowning in litigation,” Wilson says. “They knew the neighborhood before they moved here. They moved to the Avenue of the Arts, where there’s music and noise always.”

The “they” she talks about are residents of the nearby Symphony House, an upscale condominium complex (left) that opened on the Avenue of the Arts, just around the corner away from the landmark Jamaican Jerk Hut, four years ago.

The residents are suing Wilson, claiming she’s violating city code by hosting live outdoor music on summer weekends as diners enjoy a taste of Jamaica in the City of Brotherly Love.

It makes little difference that Wilson won a variance from the city Zoning Board of Adjustment last year. The fight continues.

Lawyer Gary A. Krimstock, who represents the residents of Symphony House, refused to talk to JUMP about the litigation. He was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, however, saying, “Not everyone enjoys the music.”

•••

Wilson has owned Jamaican Jerk Hut for the past five years, taking over the venerable institution from long-time owner Nicola Shirley, who started the restaurant in 1994.

When it opened, Jamaican Jerk Hut was a pioneer on an otherwise seedy stretch of South Street, just west of Broad. Prostitutes and drug dealers ruled the block where few others dared to go.

“This was the only place that had a light on,” Wilson says.

Little by little, adventurous diners were lured by the traditional Jamaican fare coming out of the kitchen and the reggae beats coming from the back patio.  Word spread about the signature spicy jerk chicken that was as good as, if not better, than what you could find in Kingston and the oxtail stew with meat so tenderly cooked it fell right of the bone.

The restaurant even enjoyed the Hollywood spotlight in 2005 when it was prominently featured in the movie In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and based on a novel by Philly author Jennifer Weiner. The restaurant serves as the backdrop for several scenes including a first date and wedding.

•••

Today, tourists head to the restaurant just to say they’ve eaten there.

Inside, they’re greeted by brightly colored murals of palms trees and sand, and walls that are decorated with accolades that include a Best of Philly award for best outdoor scene.

It’s precisely that award-winning outdoor scene and the music that goes along with it that is at the center of the battle between Jamaican Jerk Hut and Symphony House.

Wilson says that 70 percent of her business comes from the outdoor seating. During the warmer months, she opens the 60-seat deck and sets up picnic tables on the adjoining lawn where diners can bring their own Red Stripe to cool down their tastebuds after bites of spicy jerk chicken, coconut scented rice and peas, braised cabbage and fried plantains.

But in 2009, prior to the Zoning Board ruling in her favor, she was forced to keep the outdoor deck closed, losing a huge chunk of business.

“We really struggled in 2009,” says Wilson, who wears a heavy gold cross around her neck and credits God with keeping her going.

•••

Struggle is not new to Wilson.

Growing up the daughter of a single mom in the Germantown section of the city, Wilson, one of three children, learned early the value of hard work.

“Life wasn’t easy,” Wilson says. “It was just my mom raising us. She worked at a nursing home for 28 years.”

Sunday dinners, however, were always special, with the family gathered around the table as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh provided the soundtrack to their meal. Wilson says her mother, who was from Kingston’s infamous Trench Town, knew Marley and Tosh.

Wilson graduated from University City High School and completed classes in nutrition at Community College of Philadelphia. Prior to buying Jamaican Jerk Hut, she served as the kitchen manager at a local synagogue where she oversaw the catering business for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

“That was easy,” says Wilson, who today lives in South Philadelphia near the airport. “No headaches.”

•••

Every few minutes as Wilson talks, someone new comes in to pick up a takeout order. The smell of jerk seasoning on the indoor charcoal grill wafts into the front of the house. Hip-hop music can be heard from behind a curtain that separates the kitchen from the takeout counter.

Wilson’s friend Douglas Bobb, 45, whose band Limelight has played at the Jamaican Jerk Hut, sits down at a neighboring table and offers his thoughts on the Symphony House situation.

“I want to know what people are thinking to be living on the Avenue of the Arts,” Bobb says. “When they say arts it means music, art, poetry all things included.”

Wilson and Bobb, who was born in Gayana, agree that music is a key part of life in the Caribbean.

“Music is part of the culture,” Wilson says. “And they’re out to kill the culture, the Jamaican Jerk Hut culture.”

Wilson says she will continue to fight for live music and outdoor seating at the Jamaican Jerk Hut as long as she is able. She’s invited the residents of Symphony House to come check out the scene, and she’s even offered to shut things down at 9:30 p.m.

“The main thing is we’ve been here, we want to stay here,” Wilson says. “We want to continue operating they way we’ve been operating for the past 20 years.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: