An eccentric South Philadelphia restaurant is closing its doors after more than 20 years. The beloved chef behind Carman's Country Kitchen at 11th and Wharton has built a devoted following of repeat customers who swear by the French toast and treat Carman Luntzel like a close friend.

Jenn Levito loves Luntzel and the food she prepares.

"We actually left the hospital when I was in labor to eat breakfast and then we went back and I delivered," says Levito, adding that she cried when she found out the restaurant is closing.

Right in front of the South Philly corner restaurant, Levito, her husband and her two sons climb out of their van. Everyone in the family is a big fan of Luntzel and her food.

"She's wonderful," says Levito. "She brings the kids in the back and she cracks eggs with them and they cook. And she's like family."

"We drive all the way in from Dresher to crack an egg at Carman's,"adds Levito's husband, Ken.

Inside the restaurant, it's cozy and full of delicious smells. To say the restaurant is heavily decorated is an understatement.

The chef herself takes 6-month-old Kevin Levito in her arms.

"How are you? How are you doing?" she says. "The babies, the babies!"

Catfish is a constant

A few minutes later, Luntzel is back in the kitchen.

"The only thing that's been repeated on this menu is the catfish. Which will be kind of sad, it's the last time catfish will be done in here," she says.

"It's so popular and it's so good and nobody else can make it. Next week, I'm pretty sure I'm going to do sweetbreads for breakfast with exotic mushrooms. I don't know for sure."

Luntzel pauses to answer the phone. She does it all: taking orders, cooking the food, and delivering it to tables. She refills coffee and finds time to chat with the customers she calls by their first names.

Luntzel says her lack of formal training hasn't held her back in the kitchen.

"I have to think of these recipes every week -- none is ever used from someone else. It's very rare, but the combinations that I come up with is what I like to eat," she says. "So that's fun, I get other people to eat food that I want to eat. It's worked well for 22 years."

Luntzel is never still. Slicing 2-inch-thick slabs of challah, dunking them into a vat of French toast batter, then turning around to grab a few slices of bacon. In this tiny, tiny kitchen, she is a graceful and efficient.

"These things can all be done with my hands and my eyes as I answer the phone, take reservations, talk to people," she says. "I can do it with not much of a problem."

The restaurant has a grand total of three tables and Carsie Blanton's sitting at the one in the middle.
"I love Carman's. I've spent much of the last three years here. It's the decor and the smells and Carman's personality -- and just the people that are here and the conversations they have," Blanton says. "It feels like you're in your aunt's kitchen with your big extended family."

Leaving this place won't be easy for the customers or the chef. Luntzel says she's closing because the owner wants to open a pizza place in the space. After this, she plans to be a private chef and volunteer to mentor women who want to run their own businesses.

Luntzel steps out of the kitchen to tick off the not-so-low-fat specials.

"Pancakes are chocolate chip, Nutella and sea salt. That's all inside the batter. Any of the meats are just a suggestion, but I like applewood smoked bacon with that a lot," she says.

"The Challah French Toast I think is like fall on a plate. It's carrot and pineapple and it will then be topped off with a sickle pear and a touch of homemade syrup -- made out of cardamom and orange juice."

Customer Maria Batolato says Carman's is special.

"I walked in here approximately 12 years ago with my husband," Batolato says. "We had a very bad situation going on. My mother-in-law was dying at the time, and we just needed a small place to sit and talk and collect our thoughts and she instantly became our friend.

"Since then -- for the last 12 years, I am in here once a month at least. She sits at my Thanksgiving table every year."

A menu of memories

Memories Longtime neighborhood residents sit next to younger, tattooed newcomers who are still getting to know the city.

Behind the counter washing dishes, Luntzel says the people who walk in the door are more than just customers.

"I've been getting calls from people -- people walking in here and they say 'I hear you're closing.' I've got a ton of medical students that go all the way through or they come here for their residency and they stay with me four years, and their weddings and their kids and wherever they go.

"And then I got the older doctors and some politicians. So it's a real mix of people that come in here," she says.

At the counter, Quincey Xavier shares his favorite Carman's memory.

"I was here for my birthday and there was chicken on the menu and there was the waffle. And I wanted both, so she made them both together with a special dish and a candle and like the whole thing," Xavier said. "You fall in love with this place and that's it. And then, all of a sudden, like all good things, it comes to an end."

From the other end of the counter, customer Joan Schiff chimes in.

"I think it's really, really sad. It's not just food, it's not just people, it's like the magical mix that happens between them," Schiff says. "And Philly won't have it anymore."

Carman's Country Kitchen closes in December.


Video and photos by Kimberly Paynter