Jim Flannery’s Constellation Lounge & Restaurant – Penndel, Pennsylvania

Amelia Earhart’s plane went down somewhere, history says, leaving the world with one less brave pilot and one more aeronautical mystery. But there’s no mystery- as any resident of Penndel can tell you – about an airplane at the corner of Route 1 and Durham Road.
The only mystery connect with the Lockheed Super G Constellation from the mid-1950s and Amelia’s the nightspot it houses is this: Whatever happened to Jim Flannery’s Constellation Lounge?
We hit Flannery’s once, back in 1978 and enjoyed hearing the tale of how the large aircraft was brought to its current location in 1968, after Flannery purchased it. The wings and tail were dismantled, and it was trucked through Delaware, up Route 295 and over the Walt Whitman bridge.
The convoy, with an attending media sideshow, the moved up Broad Street, around City Hall, and onto Route 1, encircled by the Philadelphia Police Force. Now, it sits 25 feet in the air, supported buy concrete airfoils.
Flannery got out of the business after 53 years in 1981, and sold it to the current owners, who redecorated the interior quite a bit, and renamed the establishment. The conventional building downstairs houses a restaurant and cocktail lounge with live entertainment. Given a choice, however, the one-time or non-regular visitor is not about to spend too much time down there.
A long stairway leads upstairs, into the aircraft, where the lengthy fuselage sports a long bar one one side, and an assortment of seats on the other. Live entertainment is featured on the weekends near the cockpit.
The new owners have given the entire complex – building and airplane – a much more contemporary, suave look. The old version stressed bright blues and greens, woodwork, paintings and bright lighting. Now, the place boasts a lot of earthy browns and tans, plants, mirrors and dim lighting.
Drinks, downstairs or up, are very strong and generous, as they should be at $2.60 per cocktail. Both levels have comfortable bar stools, complimentary bar-top snacks and gracious, if slightly languid, service.
An eclectic crowd of a wide age patronizes the nightspot, taking in the stimulating scenery and listening to one of several solo pianist-singers or the Just Us trio.
Right now, Paul Keys entertains in the plane Friday and Saturday, while downstairs, Joe Liptick plays Sunday and Tuesday, Miriam Roberts entertains on Wednesday, and the trio performs Thursday through Saturday.

“Finding mystique without mystery” by Edgar Koshatka originally appeared in the Sunday, June 6, 1982 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The piece asks and answers a question with 1982 information. I am writing this post to answer the question once and for all. Whatever happened to Jim Flannery’s Constellation Lounge?

To answer that we have to go all the back to 1928. The first Flannery’s Restaurant opened that year on Route 1 in Penndel, Pennsylvania. Anne Flannery, Jim’s mother, had opened the restaurant just off the Lincoln Highway.

The small restaurant was popular meeting place for local civic groups

Jim would come back from the War and work for the restaurant. He would ultimately run the restaurant in the early 50s. Under Jim’s leadership modest restaurant would expand over the years and come be known for good drinks and a friendly staff.

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The Bristol Daily-Courier – April 30, 1956

Flannery’s Restaurant was destroyed by a fire on October 27, 1957. The fire probably could have been slowed by the Penndel fire department had difficulty getting water to their hoses and the fire burned for 90 minutes. The restaurant was completely destroyed. Damages from the fire totaled $300,000.

Jim, ever the entrepreneur kept himself in the news. A personal ad appeared in the Bristol Daily Courier on November 7 & 8, 1957 that read:

DO YOU KNOW THE IDENTITY – of the masquerader who displayed the sign, “Eat Flannery’s – for the hottest meal in town!” at Penndel’s Halloween Parade on Wednesday, October 30? Please ask him to contact Mr. Jim Flannery, immediately, at SK 7-3757.

I actually found a follow-up on the personal ad. and after reading it I feel like there is almost a zero percent chance that this wasn’t a publicity stunt trumped up Flannery.

The blurb ran in the Bristol Courier-Journal on November 22, 1957.

Dinner Proved Jest Right

A 9-year-old Langhorne boy who came to a Halloween party as a “sandwich man” won a big laugh and an invitation for dinner from Jim Flannery of Flannery’s Restaurant.

Raymond Heiss, 221 Hawthorne Ave., wore two poster cards in the shape of the “sandwich man,” shortly after the fire at the restaurant.

One card read  “Eat at Flannery’s – Hottest food in town.” The other side stated “Everything well done and extra crispy this week.”

The restaurant owner heard of the boy’s costume and located him through and advertisement in the Courier-Times.

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Bristol Courier-Tmes – November 28, 1957

Flannery would rebuild but not without some more free publicity first.A few weeks after the fire, Flannery invited Carl Hodgert and Josephine Poynor of the Courier-Times advertising department to eat a meal in the burned-out ruins of the restaurant. The two had made a wager

While plans were being hatched to rebuild the restaurant, Flannery was active in the Langhorne County Lions Club, serving food for a Neshaminy High School fundraiser and being active in the community.

The restaurant re-opened in the Spring of 1958 and was a hit. The restaurant would once again become the spot in town for meetings, family dinners and for civic groups.

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Jim Flannery pops up in news stories quite a bit over the next few years. He is part of the area’s painting project called “Paint Up, Clean Up Week.” He would named Boss of the Year in 1962 by the Trenton Chapter of National Secretaries Association. Flannery hits a hole-in-one at a local golf course, is named a judge in a KING OF BARBECUE contest in the Miss Pennsylvania region of the Miss Universe Pageant and even gets married quite suddenly to Alice Ann Dexrod of Jenkintown.

Flannery’s Restaurant would go through a major redesign in 1963, with a new dining room, more seating and more elegant 1960s decor. That would not lost long.

Jim Flannery had an idea that would become a landmark and fight. Flannery, a former pilot in WWII. In the Summer of 1967, Flannery, ever the showman, purchased an authentic Lockheed Super G Constellation airplane known as the “Geneva Trader” from Capitol Airways.

Flannery explained to Hemmings Motor News in 2007:

“Route 1 really started to get built up following World War II when the Levittown homes were built [finished in 1958] and U.S. Steel opened its big plant in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania [1952]. The idea first came to me in 1967. I was sitting on my boat in an Atlantic City marina, and reading a restaurant trade magazine that talked about a restaurant made from old railroad cars in Pennsylvania and another one in North Jersey made from a ferryboat. I was an old Air Force pilot, and I decided to look for an airplane to put at my restaurant.”

The Super Connie (N1005C) had already been through seven owners, starting with Cubana Airlines in 1954, when Flannery found it on the tarmac in Wilmington, Delaware, where Capitol Airways was looking to sell it.  Flannery bought the plane and it was dismantled and trucked from Wilmington, Delaware to the restaurant.

Flannery would mount the plane in the back/on top of the restaurant and convert the interior into a cocktail lounge. Hardwood floor and dining tables were installed. The cockpit would retain its instruments, but be turned in to a small performance area for nightly entertainment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer – October 31, 1967

Flannery’s Restaurant was gone. In its place was Jim Flannery’s Constellation Lounge and Restaurant.

The new designed cocktail lounge/airplane opened in October 1967 and immediately became a landmark in the Penndel-Longhorne area.

It became so much a part of town that people would use it for directions, turn left at the airplane. One mile south of the airplane, etc.

The original restaurant would be renovated for the 2nd time in 5 years. The decor would be changed to match the airplane theme and to better accommodate access to the plane.

Jim Flannery’s “on-the-ground” restaurant reopened on August 1, 1968. Flannery’s Constellation Lounge and Restaurant was now complete. To celebrate the occasion Flannery planned a Grand Opening Party for Thursday, September 19.

It was beautiful day. There was food, fun, drinks and a 35-foot hot air balloon. The balloon was to be launched from the parking lot to honor the aviation theme. Two passengers boarded the balloon waving and smiling.

Lebanon Daily News – September 20, 1968

In front of nearly 350 people, the balloon lifted off and, almost immediately as it rose, the wind sent them off course and struck a power line. Both passengers were instantly electrocuted and, as the balloon fell, both passengers fell over 40 feet to their deaths.

Jim Flannery would be shocked and horrified by the event until the day he died. He never spoke of that day publicly.

An incident like that could have destroyed the restaurant but Flannery’s remained strong.

The Constellation Lounge became the hot spot in the area with good drinks and a fun atmosphere. The good times wouldn’t last.

By the end of the 1970s. Economic difficulties in the area, along with the slow demise of that stretch of the Lincoln Highway lead to a sharp downturn in business for Flannery’s.

The plane would be dubbed “The Spirit of ’76” in honor of the nation’s bicentennial.

In September 1979, Flannery filed for Chapter 12 protection from his creditors and the restaurant and cocktail lounge closed.

In a 1980 interview, Flannery would say “Maybe I just ran out of steam for a while. Burned out, as they say. But I’m really charged up now. I really think I could turn this place around.”

Flannery had plans to turn the place in a family-style restaurant but it was too late. Flannery needed to raise about $185,000 dollars in short order – through sale of part of his land to a developer in order to build apartments. He was also willing to sell his home.

Money wasn’t the only problem. The Penndel Borough Council refused to grant a zoning change needed to build the apartments. The Council thought that Flannery’s desperation showed a blatant disregard for zoning ordinances of the area. Without that change Flannery was basically doomed.

The citizens rallied to save the restaurant. There was a “Save the Plane” rally attended by about 75 people.All of it ultimately amounted to nothing.

Flannery would liquidate his assets and sell the restaurant and plane to a new set of owners. The new restaurant, dubbed Amelia’s, opened in early 1982.

Amelia’s failed to capture the audience that Flannery’s once had and closed by 1987. The restaurant and plane were unoccupied for nearly five years. Then, in 1991, a couple purchased the landmark with the same hopes and dreams of Jim Flannery and Amelia’s.

The old airplane would get one more chance at life. On January 10, 1992 the new restaurant called Airplane Family Diner and Restaurant opened.

The Philadelphia Inquirer – January 19, 1992

Penndel restaurant has top-flight opening

To say that the opening of the Airplane Family Restaurant & Diner drew a crowd would be an understatement.

“From the second we opened on Friday, all the way through Sunday, we had people in line,” to get in, Dabbour said.

But then it had been five years since Bucks County residents could dine beneath the hulking Lockheed Constellation airplane that is permanently grounded on old Route 1 in Penndel.

The plane, although newly scrubbed and painted outside, still needs refurbishing inside and will not open to the public until this summer, Dabbour said.

For years, Dabbour and his wife, Karen, worked in the airplane’s shadow, at their pizzeria called Penny’s Pizza down the street, and dreamed of refurbishing and reopening the restaurant beneath the landmark.

They realized that dream this month and simultaneously realized that they had embarked on a landmark undertaking.

Karen Dabbour estimates that between the two of them, the couple managed about 18 hours of sleep each during the diner’s first 72 hours.

She said her husband did not leave the new diner from the moment he arrived Friday, at 5:30 a.m., until 2 a.m. Sunday. She slipped away for a couple of hours to check on their two young children, who were being cared for by their grandmother. But Ghassan Dabbour “slept on a cot in his office,” she said.

The Dabbours said they were grateful for the turnout, particularly at a time when financially strapped families were not dining out much.

And, they said, the first weekend was especially hectic because it was everyone’s first day on the job. To make matters worse, there were four or five no-shows among their 28-member crew.

But the past week has given the couple a chance to iron out those wrinkles. ”Every day gets better,” Ghassan Dabbour said.

The ’90s version of the restaurant is a family establishment, the Dabbours emphasized. The plane, when it reopens, will not be a bar as it was previously. It will be rented out for private parties, including children’s birthday bashes, Ghassan Dabbour said.

And though the new restaurant is called a diner, and offers such standard diner fare as steaks, eggs, burgers and sandwiches, it has a few features that set it apart from the typical diner: Its light, airy interior, done in soft blues and grays, for instance, and menu items like “fajita pita” and souvlaki.

The Airplane Family Restaurant closed in 1995 and both the restaurant and airplane sat idle, deteriorating in the elements. The fuselage of the airplane began to come apart from the stress of the load and constant water leaks filled the lounge. The Constellation was finally sealed off for good in 1997.

Amoco purchased the land for a new gas station shortly after that and both the company and the borough decided that the airplane had to go. In July, 1997 it was dismantled and the restaurant torn down. The Penndel landmark gone forever.

Amoco donated the plane to the Air Mobility Museum in Dover, Delaware, where it has now been restored as a replica of an Air Force C-121C cargo plane.

Jim Flannery would always be open to talking about his baby but he basically stayed out of the public eye from the closing of the restaurant until he died on June 17, 2011.

2 thoughts on “Jim Flannery’s Constellation Lounge & Restaurant – Penndel, Pennsylvania

  1. I worked for Jim Flannery as a busboy and short order cook from 1976 to 1979. He was a great boss and I loved working for him. He gave what were young kids in the kitchen, opportunities to learn under good chefs and gain experience that still lives with me today. I was around when Jim was denied the variance he sought but I feel the decision was tainted with ill will when just next door, at least 100 apartments existed in relative disrepair at the time. Your story is a good account of most of the details I recall. One thing I didn’t see mentioned which impressed me were the windows in the plane that were backlit with aerial views of notable landmarks like Niagara Falls. He also showcased in the restaurant downstairs, an artist who painted clown faces over the portraits of political figures. I moved from the area in 1992 and deeply regret that I did not learn of Jim’s passing until later. He took me and three other young cooks sailing on the Chesapeake once and we all owed him a debt of gratitude.

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  2. Thanks BB a great memory from old route one.Had a few drinks there once wasn’t nearly as much fun as Ronnies Route One Tavern

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