As the Executive Chef of The Saloon, Oscar Reyes projects a sense of humility not commonly associated with restaurants that have enjoyed such a sterling reputation for over 40 years. His commitment to ensuring each diner walks away with a full stomach, and great memories, is an integral part of The Saloon’s lasting success. The restaurant boasts an army of countless regulars that evangelize the eatery’s popularity, while drawing in new diners from around the region. As with so many standout chefs, Reyes attributes his longevity to hard work and dedication, but his tremendous skill behind the burners plays a central role in making The Saloon into one of Philadelphia’s legendary watering holes. For over 16 years, he has been bringing local South Philadelphians his distinct brand of cooking and the throngs of loyal clientele speak volumes about his ability to capture and keep the attention of diners in a city chock full of popular Italian dynasties.
The city itself has always left its mark on rising culinary talent but at The Saloon, Chef Reyes appears to have been especially affected by Philadelphia’s down-to-earth charm and rich food history. “I am passionate about crafting classic Italian recipes -- but with a twist. I like to present something familiar but with a little something extra,” he says. That something extra has not gone unnoticed. His passion for serving up timeless dishes with his own imprimatur of culinary style is evident in every bite. From the meticulous preparations to the comprehensive menu, Chef Reyes believes that while traditional Italian cuisine hasn’t changed much over time, it’s still possible to breathe new life into each recipe.
In fact, he cites the Clams Pavarotti, a truly classic piece of Italian history, as his favorite dish at the restaurant. With chopped clams, shrimp, and jumbo lump crab meat in a béchamel sauce, the dish embodies not just the chef’s preferred tastes but also highlights the emphasis he places on fresh seafood. “Quality food is extremely important to me and I like to pass that love of freshness on to the patrons. I also really enjoy anything on our menu made with tuna.” For that reason, many of the tuna dishes that are found throughout the menu are also on the top of his list of favorites; and a glance around the restaurant reflects why. Everywhere diners are digging into the chef’s uniquely delicious seafood creations with abandon; they are enjoying ingredients that require a level of technical skill that Chef Reyes exhibits in spades. Another aspect of The Saloon’s success relies on Chef Reyes’ insistence on a plethora of daily specials that keep the kitchen busy and customers begging for more. “Specials are such a big part of our menu while best sellers like octopus have always remained popular.” Indeed, the wait staff spends a lot of time reciting the daily specials as diners peruse the menu, awestruck and excited.
Just a few minutes inside this revered temple of classic Italian cuisine is all it takes to understand that something distinctive defines the restaurant. When asked what makes The Saloon different from the wealth of other Philadelphia restaurants, the chef thinks for a moment before answering, “I really think that it’s our quality meats and fresh seafood that set the restaurant apart. From my perspective, our high standards, the great people and really caring ownership- that’s the key. You know, it’s not just the big things. It’s also the smaller stuff like using the finest extra virgin olive oil and quality imported vinegar. We pride ourselves on those aspects of the dining experience.” It’s true. Everything at The Saloon seems influenced by an astute attention to detail that pervades nearly every corner of the restaurant. From small touches like décor to larger flourishes served tableside, there is an overarching sense that quality is always top priority at The Saloon.
Chef Reyes, while unassuming and humble, is not to be underestimated. His dedication to his craft, customers, and staff is unrivaled in Philadelphia and he clearly revels in the opportunity to add a bit of joy to the lives of local residents. “I just like to make people happy,” he remarks with a shy smile as he glances around at his handiwork. Families and couples are enjoying their meals and relishing the chance to escape the ordinary with the help of Chef Reyes.