I’ve got good restaurant news, and I’ve got some gristly bits, too.
The tasty details first: Philly’s dining scene gets larger and more exciting every year. If you’ve followed my coverage, you already knew that. Between the biggest class ever of three bell (“excellent”) restaurants in 2019 and our annual dining guide, it’s been a happy parade of well-rated feasts.
The bad news? I could write a one bell (“hit-or-miss”) review almost every week if that was my mission. Because I still gulp my way through plenty of bad burritos, sorry pizzas, and garlic-bombed frog legs — plus a banquet of maddening service flubs.
Dining disappointment happens to everyone eventually, and likely more often for someone who eats out for work. So the occasional bad review is a reality check. I don’t relish writing them nearly as much as some think, but they’re essential to my role as a consumer advocate helping readers spend their restaurant dollars well.
But a critic has to prioritize which bad experiences merit a prime-time scold. With so many high-achieving restaurants, competition is tighter than ever for a full-length, bell-rated Sunday review based on multiple meals. Lately, I’ve set aside countless places after a scouting meal made me think “uh-oh” — opting instead to feature a more valuable place in that slot.
Should I write about my terrible experiences at the revamped Rouge? Or the revelation of vivid Thai flavors at Kalaya? A sky-high disappointment at the Pyramid Club? Or the bright surprise of Nemi, a low-key Mexican charmer in Port Richmond? I chose Kalaya and Nemi last year because, aside from their praiseworthy food, they offered opportunities to tell broader stories about people, culture, and the city. A dinner recommendation plus a tableside view of our ever-evolving identity. That’s always my ideal.
Some disappointments are simply too notable to go without comment; criticism is essential to a dining scene that deserves to be taken seriously. But several other places last year drifted into unmentioned limbo after a disappointing initial meal, persistently sliding down my calendar in search of a proper spotlight — until they just didn’t.
And yet there are good reasons to discuss underperformers. The consumer reporter in me still wants to wave a yellow caution flag for anyone pondering a potential dud. And considering these discarded contenders together as a sort of “uh-oh collective” provides some valuable insights — on shaping coverage, on maintaining high standards so that praise still means something, and on the limitations that occasionally hold our dining scene back. Some good news? Recent revisits for this story showed a few of these had actually improved … a little bit.
Why I was interested: Rouge was a major player in our restaurant revival when it opened in 1998, jump-starting the outdoor dining movement. Plus that mega-cheeseburger! A decor update and chef change last year spurred several revisits.
What happened: By moving the once-central bar to the back, Rouge gained space but now also feels more like an overcrowded lounge, with standing tipplers towering over seated diners. Of course, Rouge has always been a look-at-me scene; the ick factor is still strong, with silver-haired men in designer jeans at the ready to kissy-kiss pretty young glitterati as they arrive by Tesla in cashmere-clad style.
The service was surprisingly warm and outgoing, and the cocktails have been revamped with some ambition. But Rouge’s once reliably better-than-average food has slipped. The chicken liver mousse had a metallic aftertaste. The roast chicken was chewy. My octopus was undercooked, followed by a double doink on its signature burger: The 12-ounce patty (now $20) ordered medium-rare was overcooked to juiceless gray, then replaced in a rush by a bloody mush-ball that was startlingly unseasoned.
Yet another recent chef change inspired one final revisit, and the burger was better cooked, but still too bland — unacceptable for the price. Three big scallops were delicious, but … for $27? No thanks. As even the Tesla-chauffeured debutantes had discovered (I saw them later eating dinner at neighboring Parc), Rouge’s relevance as a place to dine is not what it once was.
Why I was interested: I adore real Mexican cooking, so every new entry calls to me.
What happened: The emergence of genuine Mexican flavors from a growing immigrant community has been one of Philadelphia’s great food stories. But Graduate Hospital has bucked the trend with one stylish-but-uninspired Mexican concept after the other. Any coincidence G-Ho’s 19146 has been identified as one of the top 10 most gentrified zip codes in the country? Hard to tell. But I’ve tasted a distinct dulling trend in my meals at Tio Flores (1600 South St.) and Los Camaradas (918 S. 22nd St.), where the heaping nachos and margaritas are as far as you should go.
My most recent disappointment happened at the long-awaited branch of Loco Pez (700 S. 20th St.), which earned my appreciation at the Fishtown original for its updated winks at Tex-Mex clichés. Its newest location, though, is essentially the cliché it once defied. Tissue-thin chips were too flimsy to grip the sloppy, ice-cold guacamole. Burnt al pastor meat tasted nothing like al pastor. And I’ve eaten few things as regrettable as the Volcano Burrito. This oozing tube of cheesy-bean magma was so gratuitously overspiced, our server confided: “You don’t want to eat a Volcano too far from home.” I’ll spare you the details, but unfortunately, she wasn’t lying.
Why I was interested: As wine gains momentum, can a wine-driven restaurant/performance venue energize this urban mall makeover?
What happened: I cheer for the democratization of wine, and this ambitious anchor for the Fashion District, perched on a seedy-but-transforming stretch of Filbert Street, offers the ultimate opportunity to counter highbrow stereotypes. The reality, though, is unconvincing, because the featured wines on draft — most made at City Winery’s other locations — are so terrible they risk giving wine a bad name.
The restaurant itself bears all the hallmarks of chaindom, with folksy-friendly service but shabby theme decor, its tabletops made of epoxied wine corks already disintegrating a few months after opening. The menu has promise but zero finesse, with tasteless duck tacos, a clueless stab at healthy options (Parmesan melted over a grain bowl?), and a potentially tasty mushroom pizza ruined by toppings oddly heaped in the center.
The house wines (eventually to be made on-site) were even more discouraging, from viciously over-oaked cab to a pair of whites on draft as warm as bathwater. Had anyone working there noticed? Nah. I’d suggest a “guest wine,” but at $16 a glass for Barbera that retails at $13.99 a bottle, that value was corked, too.
Why I was interested: We waited years for this massive branch of the legendary New York saloon to open on Washington Square.
What happened: Can any famous bar survive chain-ification? Alas, not this one. The space is, indeed, worth the visit, a vast warren of dark-paneled rooms, sports memorabilia, tufted leather furniture, and paned windows gazing out on Washington Square and Independence Mall. Unfortunately, the sprawling tavern menu fell short in its early days — overthickened chowder, pigs in too-puffy pretzel blankets, a burger missing its signature onion (after our server bragged about the onion), and hastily shucked happy hour oysters that tasted like bargain oysters.
Until recently, P.J. Clarke’s had my vote for Most Beautiful Space with Mediocre Food. But revisits showed modest progress — giant shrimp sliders, a better burger, and a warm lobster Cobb salad I would actually reorder.
Why I was interested: A Spanish restaurant for a new boutique hotel (the Notary) beside the Criminal Justice Center means tapas during jury duty!
What happened: The stylish dining room, lined with arched Moorish alcoves, and the menu concept is intriguing enough. But at our lunch, the kitchen had no clue how to cook it. A chunky orange gazpacho was being served in November. The “hamburgesa” was thoroughly overcooked. And the fillet of seared red snapper was still raw inside. That was all I needed to know I wouldn’t be back for dinner.
Why I was interested: Upscale chain steakhouses tend to disappoint me (and Del Frisco’s main location followed that trend). But maybe I’d appreciate this luxury brand repackaged in a less expensive, less pretentious concept?
What happened: Um, no. This boxy and corporate space on South Broad has distilled the steak house genre down to its lowest bar-food common denominator, with the worst cheesesteak egg rolls ever (and that’s saying something) drenched in treacly chili sauce, cafeteria-grade salads, and two ruined burgers — a double stack of overcooked “Prime” patties, and a thicker fillet burger that collapsed into a blob of bacon jam and blue cheese for $17.
Unexpectedly, the prime strip was among the best steaks I ate last year — perfectly cooked, not oversalted, and so buttery. For $44, though, I might as well be dining at the swanky original.
Why I was interested: I’m a longtime admirer of Sylva Senat, the ex-Tashan/Maison 208 chef who took over in 2018 just as the private club opened its 52nd floor dining room up to the public — a preemptive move, perhaps, to compete with the opening of Jean-Georges.
What happened: “You’re here to … eat dinner?” said an incredulous guy at the bar, who clearly hadn’t gotten the Pyramid Club’s open-to-the-public memo. Judging by the empty dining room (which apparently bustles at lunch), we were among the few.
This meal had a dated banquet-room vibe, from the cold rolls to the bland filet and salmon in overly sweet Asian sauce. An artless scoop of tuna poke was overspiced. Unripe mangos couldn’t jazz up pea soup. And my $31 miso-glazed Chilean sea bass (that fusion warhorse) wasn’t hot. They reheated it in the broiler until it was charred as a briquette in a pool of broken sauce.
I learned recently that Senat was not full-time until late 2019, after my visit. But this embarrassing $262 dinner for three wasn’t the kind of perk that made me eager to become a Pyramid member — or even return to finish a review.
Why I was interested: The talented but nomadic Michael Stollenwerk (Fish, Little Fish) has finally found longevity at Two Fish in Haddonfield. I was eager to sample his French follow-up around the corner. Also, I was overdue to give South Jersey’s dining scene some attention.
What happened: I love classic French food, but I left dinner at this bare-bones corner bistro with 18 seats unconvinced this was the ideal place to find it. There was a consistent lack of feeling for traditional dishes, from the flabby frog legs blasted with too much garlic to cold-weather heavyweights — Tournedos filets lathered in rich Diane sauce; a beany, meaty crock of cassoulet — that had no business being served in August heat.
Stollenwerk’s classic skate meunière was the clear winner, but also the only crossover from his other restaurant. None of the other entrées merited the high-$20s prices. Even the $5 charge for mundane baguettes the kitchen didn’t even bake raised an eyebrow. I still considered returning for another visit — until I woke up the next day with the croak of frog garlic in my mouth. .
Why I was interested: Philly is living in a moment of pizza glory, so I’m always hunting for the region’s next pie star.
What happened: Run by a pedigreed operator (the team behind the popular Zavino and Tredici restaurants), Enza (909 E Willow Grove Ave., Wyndmoor) has the allure of a suburban sensation focusing on affordable basics — salads, pastas, and pies. But everything went awry during our visit. The server was so confused, she couldn’t remember anyone’s drink order despite a lengthy conversation about them. The timing of food delivery was completely random, with a hot pizza rushed to a table already crowded with just-arrived appetizers.
More importantly, the food did not impress much. The salads were the highlight — crunchy and diverse. We also loved the burrata with peppers. But the meatballs were weirdly tough. The fusilli with pesto was cooked to soggy oblivion. And the pizzas were just bad, with cardboard-like bottoms and pale, doughy crusts that indicated the oven needs calibrating. This concept has promise, but needs far better execution.
Porta Philadelphia’s massive pizza hall (1216 Chestnut St.) is a notable ambassador from Asbury Park (the Shore town I profiled last spring) and a vibrant piece in Chestnut Street’s resurgence. But it also made me realize the Neapolitan pizza trend has jumped the shark. The puffy-crusted pies from its double bank of hearths are adequate (even the vegan ones). But the pure chaos of dinner — watching the staff struggle to bring food to what seemed like a hundred diners — made it frustrating.
The tired “family-style” service model, the course-free system in which food is delivered whenever it’s ready, hit its most ridiculously brainless bottom here. Servers arrived to our table — completely covered with just-delivered food — then stood there without a word until we moved some plates to our laps. Ever heard of a space-saving pizza rack? “We don’t have them,” said another server, waiting for me to make room. The best dish is the simplest: al dente spaghetti in pomodor sauce.
I’d admired the pies at Spuntino Wood Fired Pizzeria’s Doylestown original, so its stylishly-tiled Northern Liberties outpost (701 N. Second St.) is intriguing. A recent visit, though, was off. The Neapolitan pizzas had some of the most rubbery crusts I’ve chomped into. And the house-churned gelati was so flawed, the basil gelato was pasty and the pistachio had the texture of sand. Our server surprised me (in a good way) by asking if we liked them.
After giving honest feedback and watching her pass it on to the chef, though, Spuntino surprised me (in a bad way) by removing only one of the three dismal gelati from our bill. It was just $2 a scoop — not a big deal. But it was a shortsighted slight that left a lasting hospitality lesson on how not to earn repeat visitors.
Can the corporate purchase of a chef-driven restaurant group ever work out well? The sale of (most of) the Vetri empire to Urban Outfitters has become a cautionary tale of how quickly good things can crumble.
Pizzeria Vetri’s (1939 Callowhill St.; 1615 Chancellor St.) inevitable sag following the departure of its chef-founders became apparent with growing inconsistency in the dough (too dry and lacking flavor) and poor execution (a wood-roasted vegetable salad made from half-incinerated scraps). One disgruntled server acknowledged an overpriced special so egregious, she even suggested that I write a complaint on Yelp: “I’ve been watching to see if someone would complain about this — you should do it!” Well, I got my say.