Fourth and Cross brings locally sourced fare and neighborhood vibes to Pennsport

Hillary Petrozziello The grass-fed burger at Fourth and Cross is served sans cheese. Andrew Michaels, wearing baggy cargo shorts and a three-day beard, stands in the raised dining room of his neighborhood diner and makes an announcement about water ice:…

The Burger at Fourth and Cross, 1527 S. 4th St., consists of 6 oz. Pasture raised beef on a snowflake bun with herby mayo, served with fries. It goes for $11.50. (Hillary Petrozziello / Photographer)

Hillary Petrozziello

The grass-fed burger at Fourth and Cross is served sans cheese.

Andrew Michaels, wearing baggy cargo shorts and a three-day beard, stands in the raised dining room of his neighborhood diner and makes an announcement about water ice: “You see that guy out there?” asks Michaels as he points outside. Customers at the L-shaped counter swivel in their chrome-legged, red-vinyl stools. Couples pause mid-muffin at the reclaimed-wood tables. Even a baby temporarily stops gurgling. Everyone follows Michaels’ finger to the gentleman outside in the straw porkpie hat. He stands by a small cart parked on the corner of Fourth and Cross, the intersection from which Michaels’ all-day eatery takes it name. 

“That guy makes all-natural organic water ice right here in Pennsport,” Michaels booms. “Definitely check him out when you leave.”

The diners at Fourth and Cross — hip young families, Mummers, real-estate prospectors, suburban in-laws, singles soaking up last night’s bender with local-grain pancakes — get excited, oohing and ahhing like an organism with a collective consciousness. I join right in, and after brunch I carry home a collection of water-ice cups.

Fourth and Cross offers desserts  — if the pastries by house baker Elizabeth Halpenny are any indication, they must be amazing — yet here was Michaels not only letting what was essentially a competitor set up shop outside his door, but actively encouraging his customers to patronize him.

“The idea of being a mensch is a very important thing for me,” Michaels tells me a week after his water-ice announcement, “to have a positive impact on my community.”

The 22-year veteran of the Philly restaurant scene (Sabrina’s, Honey’s, Rouge) has done that just by opening Fourth and Cross. For years, neighbors along the street were subject to a dilapidated corner store there. Michaels, who lives nearby, got into a conversation with the owners and struck a deal to take it over. Over 11 months, he gutted the building and installed an open kitchen, hardwood floors, a lunch counter and big windows that flood the space with natural light. Local art brightens white walls. Wishbone chairs and long baby-blue church pews welcome butts. Potted cacti and tin watering cans decorate the shelves.

“Between me and Grindcore [coffeehouse], it’s become the center of this neighborhood. People have meetings here; people celebrate birthdays here. When we’re not open, I hear about it. I close an hour early and I get emails, ‘Hey, where were you yesterday?’ It’s a very nice feeling.”

Fourth and Cross is open six days a week, cash-only and inexpensive — particularly for the way Michaels (also head chef) upgrades straightforward diner fare with all manner of local and sustainable ingredients. ReAnimator supplies the coffee beans; Castle Valley Mills, the grains. Two Gander Farm, a fixture at the Dickinson Square Farmers Market around the corner, brings raw honey and produce. A black-ops backyard gardener drops off a dozen different lettuces he grows in a South Philly container farm. Michaels’ philosophy: “Get really good products and get the hell out of the way.”

For the most part, he does. Overlapping on a plate, my pancakes are a Venn diagram of whole-wheat wholesomeness — nutty, earthy and drawing all the sweetness they require from a scattering of chopped Jersey peaches, Two Gander’s honey and a scoop of sheep’s milk ricotta. The soft whole-wheat biscuit shares the flapjacks’ sensibility, its crown of sticky orange marmalade balancing the savory bread beneath. Peaches appear again in a fresh fruit cup served with thick Lancaster cream, and again in a tender muffin gift-wrapped in parchment and topped with apricot-thyme glaze.

At lunch, juicy heirloom tomatoes and flavorful fancy lettuces elevate both the thoroughly charred chicken thigh sandwich and a riff on Lyonnaise salad furnished with 1732 Meats bacon and a sunny orange vinaigrette.

But it’s the burger that floors me. Michaels forms a loose patty from Breakaway Farm’s grass-fed beef seasoned only with salt and pepper; cooks it perfectly, and drops it on a joyful snowflake roll from Baker Street. There’s no cheese, just an herb mayo that seeps down into the beef and up into the bread. I layer on some house pickles — sweet bread-‘n’-butter cukes, crunchy carrots cut like waffle chips — and commence destruction. It’s amazing. And I don’t even like mayo on a burger. I think a burger without cheese is sacrilege. Michaels isn’t a mensch; he’s a magician.

He’s also defensive about his dining spot. The coffee at brunch was barely warm. Shells in a crab omelet special were like fingernail clippings. When I mention this during our phone interview, Michaels dishes up we’re-only-a-month-old excuses followed by a side of cavalier indifference.

I neglect to mention our server forgot cream for the coffee, then forgot to add cheese to the omelet. Annoying, but easy to overlook when a server is as warm and friendly as this one was. The sense that Fourth and Cross is still working out the kinks is most noticeable when the kitchen switches over to lunch from breakfast (about 12:30); the resulting limbo would make you think they’re trying to restore power to Jurassic Park.

Despite all that, I can’t help falling for this place. Fourth and Cross embodies adjectives like sunny, cheerful, cozy and charming, and the neighborhood camaraderie percolating within is palpable. “As I get older … I have a very small family, and they’re spread all around the country,” Michaels says, sounding kind of melancholy. “I want more people around me.”

Now, as has been the case through history, feeding them is the best way to make that happen.

Fourth and Cross // 1527 S. Fourth St., 215-551-5200, fourthandcross.com. Mon. and Wed.-Sat., 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m; Sun., 8 a.m.-3 p.m.