Courtesy of The Dandelion
At this juncture, there’s no doubt Philly throws down with the best as a serious food city. Continuing the upward trajectory of the past decade, 2011 has seen an unprecedented number of openings. Our hometown celebrity chefs are gaining national followings and spurring on that popularity with new concepts both local and national. Gourmet has gone mobile, with fanciful food trucks dotting streets from Center City to University City and beyond. A focus on local ingredients is now a given for any establishment, with many taking to brick ovens and presenting dishes as plates to share. All self-respecting bars now sport impressive craft beer lists, and craft cocktails are not far behind. All in all, the year was a banner one for the dining scene here, with some of the biggest highlights and trends listed below.
Big Name Restaurateurs Expand
Stephen Starr is widely credited with sparking the restaurant renaissance in Philadelphia with his ’90s launches of martini bar Continental and Asian-fusion Buddakan. Starr Restaurants now operates over 25 establishments in New York, Florida, Atlantic City and Philly, where he added four new themed destinations in 2011. Multiroom English pub Dandelion launched in Rittenhouse just after the holidays a year ago, and chef Robert Aikens’ elevated but comforting British fare has been well-received. In the spring, German biergarten Frankford Hall brought valet parking to rapidly gentrifying Fishtown, with huge tap pours and outdoor picnic and Ping-Pong tables. This autumn, longtime organization vet Chris Painter finally got his own kitchen, when white-tablecloth Italian Il Pittore took over the former Noble space on Sansom Street. Just on its heels came Route 6, an expansive seafooder on North Broad that marks what Starr claims will be his last launch in our city, at least for some time.
Jose Garces and Marc Vetri are undoubtedly the other best-known names in town, and though neither of them opened in the city during 2011, both are working on new projects. In 2012, Vetri will launch Alla Spina, an Italian beer bar located just across the way from Starr’s Route 6 on North Broad. He’s also planning his first suburban outpost, coming soon to NJ’s Moorestown Mall. There are also rumors that a Vetri restaurant is coming to Atlantic City, which the spirited toque currently denies. Garces, on the other hand, is definitely duplicating three of his popular Philadelphia concepts to Revel casino at the seaside resort, including Amada, Village Whiskey and Distrito. The Iron Chef also recently launched dining operations at a high-end hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In addition to using locally sourced meats and produce, a slew of eateries are taking retro further and going back to cooking with fire. Brick or coal-fired ovens create crispy pizzas at Gordon Dinerman’s new East Passyunk beer stop Birra, in the back of the roving Pitruco Pizza truck, at Old City’s Revolution House (here made of white marble!) and at the Rittenhouse outpost of NYC’s Serafina. A wood oven has already been set up at the former Horizons, just off South Street, where a branch of Hopewell, NJ’s Nomad Pizza is set to launch any day. Spread Bagelry has finally brought great bagels to Philadelphia – long lacking – by baking them fresh over roaring logs each morning, and the lines out the door every day make the three-month delay in opening (thanks to an electrical fire) seem worthwhile. Fancier coals heat up the Tandoor ovens at Broad Street’s Tashan, the first upscale offering from Tiffin mogul Munish Narula, where chef Sylva Senat is stoking the fires to produce unique Euro-Indian cuisine.
Craft Beer Is Everywhere, Craft Cocktails Are on the Rise
When Brooklyn-based beer-and-video-game spot Barcade opened in Philadelphia this summer, partner Paul Kermizian confirmed what we already knew. “You’re more likely to find a great variety of craft beer in any given bar here than you are in New York City,” he told us, and that may have been an understatement. Over two dozen beers on tap accompany many recent launches, from Queen Village’s Tapestry to Barcade to Old City’s revamped Khyber Pass Pub. Broad Street pre-theater spot Upstares at Varalli has been transformed into full-on craft beer haven Perch Pub. Even Reading Terminal Market now holds a gastropub, Molly Malloy’s, offering tourists and conventioneers a chance to sample from our vibrant brew scene.
Two dozen rare European pours are only half the focus at Walnut Street’s Farmers’ Cabinet, where bar manager Phoebe Esmon has created an ever-changing menu of handcrafted cocktails. Housemade syrups, shrubs and bitters factor into the unique recipes here, as they do at Easy Passyunk’s Stateside and Locust Street’s Vedge. Subterranean speakeasy Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., which precipitated Philly’s current mixology focus, is still going strong and also has plans to expand their creative beverage program with a Fairmount tavern (in partnership with Supper’s Mitch Prensky).
Medium Plates and Tasting Menus
While tapas and miniature bar bites were all the rage a few years back, the new trend leans toward slightly larger dishes meant for sharing. At a.kitchen on 18 Street, patrons are advised to order two-three items per person off of Bryan Sikora’s menu, and to share each one. Rich Landau’s vegetable-rich meatless dishes at Vedge follow the same canon, as does much of the Italian fare at Il Pittore. George Sabatino’s bill of fare at Stateside offers but a trio of entree-sized mains, and the same goes for Jason Cichonski’s Ela, new to the corner of Third and Bainbridge in Queen Village.
At Cichonski’s previous stop, however, the multiple courses are not optional: Chip Roman’s Mica in Chestnut Hill presents several variations on prix fixe meals for diners to choose from. Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga took the same route with his eponymous restaurant on the Avenue of the Arts. Marc Vetri ceased all à la carte service at his flagship Italian on Spruce Street, where guests can partake in tasting menus from $135 and up.
Food Truck Explosion
Folks who want to pick and choose their eats should instead take to the streets. A seemingly never-ending stream of high-end food trucks have launched in Philadelphia this year, following the lead of cities like Los Angeles and New York. No longer the province of gruff immigrants serving greasy cheesesteaks or bacon-egg-and-cheese, Philly street food now includes several innovative options. Barbecue maestro Mark Coates serves addictive meats from The Smoke Truck, and Matt Feldman took his jazz joint on the road, providing patrons both local, handmade burgers and a dose of good music when they stop by his window at the Lucky Old Souls van. Say Cheese is grilling up artisan cheese and Chez Yasmine is serving a variety of vegetarian-centric exotic eats from their rolling perch. Even Iron Chef Jose Garces got into the roving scene with the Guapos Tacos truck, covered with thousands of glinting bottle caps.
The Food Trust’s Night Market series has only served to enhance the mobile food scene, bringing together dozens of vendors in one spot every couple of months or so, and this year saw the first Philly Vendy Awards, in what will hopefully become an annual tradition following in the steps of the NYC original. Dessert trucks are still multiplying too, adding macarons, frozen yogurt and other treats to the cupcake staple, and Pub & Kitchen’s Jonathan Adams recently launched Rival Bros., a coffee-roasting truck tricked out with fancy La Marzocco espresso machines.