Jim’s Steaks reopening after fire, and it’s now also an art gallery

Philadelphia’s cheesesteak landmarks are a varied lot. Geno’s and Pat’s King of Steaks trade bursts of neon across the intersection of Ninth and Passyunk. John’s Roast Pork beckons customers off of Columbus Boulevard from a low building topped by an oversize pig. Dalessandro’s slings sandwiches and beers out of a corner rowhouse in Roxborough.

And Jim’s Steaks at Fourth and South is an art gallery, as you’ll see when it reopens Wednesday afternoon, renovated top to bottom after a July 2022 fire.

The fire also heavily damaged Eye’s Gallery, the folk-art store next door, whose walls and ceilings were festooned with colorful mosaic installations by artist Isaiah Zagar. He and his wife, Julia, opened Eye’s in 1968, eight years before Jim’s.

Jim’s president Ken Silver, who has known the Zagars since he was a boy, struck a deal to buy Eye’s building to expand Jim’s. As Eye’s moved to 327 South St., Silver became steward of the cut-glass-and-tile mosaics. Technicians with the nearby Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, which displays Zagar’s largest work, removed or restored what they could of them, and will work with Silver on any future repairs.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about cheesesteaks

Jim’s has maintained its black-tiled facade over the first floor, while the former Eye’s side is clad in mosaics, some new. One section reads, “Beautiful firemen.” Another shows the message, “A fire overtakes 402 South Street, smoke billowing out of Jim’s Steaks July 29, 2022.”

“That’s so people don’t forget,” Julia Zagar said.

The new Jim’s

Some things have not changed at Jim’s. It’s still cash only. There is no fryer, so head across the street to MilkBoy and they’ll hook you up with fries for $4. Many former workers are back. Most customers probably won’t notice that the grill has been extended two feet, to 12 feet. Prices have risen only marginally; a plain steak is $11.99, while a cheesesteak is now $13.49, with a choice of American, provolone, or Whiz.

Customers queue in the front, winding their way to the grill, as they did before the fire. But instead of heading to the narrow staircase in the rear to get to the dining room, they turn right and move through a new doorway, into the former gallery. There is seating with ADA access as well as a new staircase and an elevator to the second floor.

There are a few outdoor tables and a first-floor counter in what was Eye’s vestibule. A retail counter will sell Jim’s merchandise. Delivery drivers get their own entrance, on Fourth Street. After Wednesday, the shop will open at 11 a.m. daily and close at 1 a.m. Sunday to Thursday and at 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The magic happens on the second floor. Besides the utilitarian dining room on the original Jim’s side, two rooms with hightop tables contain some of Zagar’s earliest mosaics.

The Magic Gardens’ Stacey Holder, its preservation and facilities manager, and Emily Smith, its executive director, worked with Silver on the demolition.

One day, Smith said, she was poking around. “I said, ‘Ken, I think there’s a mosaic behind that drywall,’” she said. “We took a hammer, popped it in, and it was like [opening] King Tut’s tomb when they saw all the glitter. There was a little bit of repair work that we had to do, but this is the first time ever that the public has been able to see it.”

That work, created in 1975, had been covered since the mid-1980s.

Asked if he worried about customers’ being so close to the murals, Silver replied: “I think people treat art with reverence. Outside, they never get graffitied. [People] just take pictures and leave them alone, and I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what’s going to happen here.”

Julia Zagar, the more talkative of the couple, called the expansion “a beautiful kind of flowering for the corner.” The restored mosaics will allow the spirit of Eye’s Gallery to live on. “It’s still right there on the outside,” she said. “It was a sad story that it burned down, but in the end it’s a good story.”

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