Donkey’s Place
The memories surrounding the best Philly cheesesteak (which happens to be in SJ)
By Klein Aleardi

When your cheesesteak is the best, Anthony Bourdain will deem it the greatest in the Philly area. And when your cheesesteak is the best, it becomes an episode plotline of a popular TV sitcom. And again, when your cheesesteak is the best, some women will even pick one up while in labor. For real. All true. 

For many, Donkey’s Place is a household name in the Philadelphia area (and beyond), so deciding to pen a book about the history of the eatery was a no-brainer for Russell Lloyd. And Lloyd was the perfect writer for the job. He has the inside scoop: He’s been a next-door neighbor to the Lucas family, the restaurant’s founders and current owners, for decades. 

 Q: Why did you want to write a book about Donkey’s Place?

I’ve been a fan of Donkey’s Place as well as a friend of the Lucas family for decades. Leon Lucas, an Olympic boxer with the nickname “Donkey” because of his punch, founded the restaurant in 1943. His son Bob joined the family business. I moved in next door to the family, and we became great friends. Bob passed away in 2015 and today, his sons Rob and Joe run the restaurants. 

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve written 2 other books – I have a new novel in the works now. This book just made sense. 

 Q: Can you tell us about the Lucas family? 

The Lucas family is as tight as you’d want your family to be. Rob and Joe are the third generation to run the restaurant. Their grandfather, boxer Leon Lucas, started the place in 1943 and their father ran the restaurant until he passed in 2015, when the boys took it over. They’re exactly like him, if anyone meets them, they like them immediately. I’m really impressed with how they’ve run it. They’ve respected what their father and grandfather did, staying with the same vendors, looking out for their people and taking care of the regulars. Not only did the Lucas family step up to the plate, they hit a home run. 

Q: What’s one of your favorite stories from the book? 

Rob’s wife, Mandy, told me the story of a pregnant woman who came into the restaurant while in labor just to get her cheesesteak. That’s a pretty crazy one. But my favorite has to be the Pony Steak story. My friend wanted to see if he could imitate Donkey’s cheesesteak, and what came out was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Now because he was my friend, I had to ask his permission to put him in the book – you have to if you’re going to publicly call someone a nitwit. He told me it was fine, as long as I made him famous. He was thrilled when he found out his photo was going in the book too. 

 Q: What role does Camden play in the book? 

Including the relationship between Donkey’s Place and Camden was very important to me. I didn’t want to just write a book about a cheesesteak, because Camden is a big part of the story. So many people from Camden have stories of going to Donkey’s for the first time or of being a regular. 

Camden is a great place to be now, and you really feel safe at Donkey’s. It’s great how many people who grew up in Camden and left, end up coming back or giving back to the city. 

 Q: Is there anything that surprised you when writing the book? 

I’m always impressed by the following Donkey’s has, and not just in the South Jersey/Philly area. If you wear a Donkey’s t-shirt anywhere, someone will stop you to tell you a story or talk to you about the cheesesteak. One of the crazier stories Rob told me was about one famous football coach who reached out to the restaurant. He wanted Rob to fly in with everything he needed to feed 500 people cheesesteaks during a party. 

 Q: Was it difficult getting enough stories to fill a whole book? 

Not at all. I would sit in the restaurant and talk to random people. Rob told the regulars to contact me and word got around. Actually, people are still contacting me with their stories. Like, famous people. 

 Q: Does that mean there will be a second book? 

I’m not sure, it’s possible. I have thought of continuing the restaurant’s “on the wall” – where they feature people from Camden who went on to do great things – as a website. There are so many people from Camden doing big things. 

 Q: And the big question…is it really the best cheesesteak in the area? 

Absolutely. My wife and I (and my friend from the Pony Steak story) found a book of 60 cheesesteaks in the area, and over a few years we tried every one. Donkey’s came out on top. If you don’t like Donkey’s cheesesteaks, you don’t like cheesesteaks.  

June 2023
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