Yes, I know I just took a big suburban detour for the latest edition of our glossy Ultimate Dining guide, which in October featured 160 spots in the counties surrounding the city.
But I was also keenly aware during those many long drives that, back in Philadelphia, the dining scene was still evolving at light speed, popping with the kind of fresh talent and smart ideas that have lately put us firmly on the national culinary map.
An early assumption was clearly wrong - that my lineup of favorites had not changed much since my first Top 25 in the inaugural 2016 dining guide. A big chunk of this list is different, with eight newcomers on my updated roll of city favorites.
The new additions (designated in orange) to the list are: Res Ipsa, Friday Saturday Sunday, and Kanella Grill in Center City; Royal Izakaya in Queen Village; Palizzi Social Club and El Compadre in South Philly; Walnut Street Cafe in University City; and the new Cheu project in Fishtown.
They join the roster of veterans that continue to prove they are not resting on their many-bell laurels. (Those reviews have been updated where necessary.)
Together, this group is sophisticated, diverse, and varied in price-point and style. But they all share a city that hungers for excellence - and gets the delicious feast it deserves.
— Craig LaBan
The favorites are listed in alphabetical order. Select a restaurant to jump to the review.
Friday Saturday Sunday
Palizzi Social Club
Talula’s Garden & Talula’s Daily
Vernick Food & Drink
Walnut Street Café
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons
MAPPING CRAIG LABAN’S FAVORITES IN PHILADELPHIA
Rare, sets regional dining standards.
Special, excels in most every category of the dining experience.
The chefs keep changing and the menu keeps transforming, but a.kitchen somehow remains one of Philly's best - and perhaps most undervalued - destinations for a great meal with world-class wine in a sleek modern setting. Ex-Pub & Kitchen chef Eli Collins is the latest star, and he's given the menu a strong French accent, channeling his DBGB years in New York to show his true talent, with masterful charcuterie and inspired family-style sharing feasts (spring lamb five ways, the ultimate Alsatian choucroute) to pair with beautiful seasonal small plates. Add the outstanding service and 400-label cellar of intriguing wines that has been a fixture here since the High Street/Fork group took over AKA's Rittenhouse restaurant three years ago, and a.kitchen is a complete package.
There's a reason wine collectors clamor for a table at this cozy South Philly BYOB: There may be no place more suited to uncork that coveted bottle of Burgundy than at Pierre and Charlotte Calmels' Bibou. This intimate destination for French cuisine has continued to evolve over the years, becoming more refined in setting, but always retaining the warmth of personal and polished service and, of course, the next-level bistro cooking by a master chef from Lyon with haute-cuisine cred. Adventurous eaters thrill at the game birds, stuffed marrow bones, and bountiful foie gras, while more reserved diners will remember the braised meats and exceptional seafood. Flexibility is required, as the tasting menu changes weekly, but what doesn't change is the Calmels' ability to make it perfect every time.
The hipster noodle fusion works of chef Ben Puchowitz and partner Shawn Darragh have stepped up to the next level with their latest creation, an energetic Fishtown hybrid of their original concepts (Cheu Noodles and Bing Bing Dim Sum) set in a 19th-century carriage house reimagined as a moody Asian night market wrapped in graffiti murals and cartoons. The decor's intense artistic energy is met only by the culinary imaginations of Puchowitz and chef Justin Bacharach, who've refined Cheu's nontraditional riffs on Asian-inspired street foods with wit, finesse and a distinctive Jewish touch, like the matzo ball brisket ramen, Reuben-esque beef and kimchi bing, and the must-order Bubby Chow's sliced beef sharing platter. In tandem with the fun space, effortlessly sharp service and impressively fair prices, they have succeeded in making Cheu 2.0 one of Philly's signature restaurants of the moment.
There's a lot going on inside this sexy, multilevel Sampan sibling on 13th Street. Elixr coffees flow in the moody ground-floor cafe, which also serves fun Vietnamese street food for lunch and stellar cocktails at night. But the real magic is in the unmarked basement, a sultry, candlelit lair scented by the robatayaki grill, where chef Kevin Yanaga is also serving some of Philly's most exceptional sushi. The fashion scene can be a bit much, and the vast menu has a few weak links, but the sushi is worth it, and the space transports like few in town.
Onetime food cart operators Cristina Martínez and husband Benjamin Miller have gained national acclaim for the rustic power of their authentic barbacoa served with a side of political activism - and for good reason. The tacos they make each weekend from whole steamed lambs, served on tortillas made from house-ground masa (and locally grown Mexican corn) is one of the most profoundly good meals Philadelphia has to offer, no matter how casual the setting. This remains true despite the move this year from their original 11th Street storefront to El Compadre's space in the Italian Market, where they've consolidated the weekend barbacoa with a weekday lunch menu of torta sandwiches, daily "guisado" plates (amazing guajillo shrimp tacos), and crispy taquitos rolled around that lamb. If you come for a weekend meal, don't miss the chickpea-lamb consommé steeped from the drippings and spicy pancita sausage.
Co-owner Ellen Yin's Old City pioneer is the rare restaurant that's improved steadily over two decades, taking its final step up to four bells under the watch of partner and culinary director Eli Kulp. The emergence of rising star chef John Patterson has maintained that trajectory since Kulp was tragically paralyzed in the 2015 Amtrak crash, and Fork has honed a seamless contemporary dining experience with elegant and witty food that evokes memories, seasons, spontaneity, and sense of place. The restaurant's $78 "house menu" is a deal considering the quality, but the à la carte menu is also full of wonderful surprises, including large-format entrées for sharing and inventive pastas. The elegant brunch remains one of the more accessible ways to experience Fork and its beautiful dining room. But stay tuned for other special menus coming soon as Fork celebrates its 20th anniversary all year long.
This Rittenhouse institution has undergone a bold evolution under new owners Chad and Hanna Williams, who have completely rehabbed the bi-level townhouse and handsomely transformed a restaurant renaissance relic into a relevant destination for great cocktails and contemporary fine dining. The change is drastic for some old-timers, who may hedge at edgy ingredients (smoked beef heart?) and complain about noise. But the new downstairs bar and airy upstairs room are gorgeous; the drinks are superb (try the Fibonacci series); and the flat-out delicious plates from Chad, a longtime Garces vet, make his case as one of Philly emerging kitchen talents.
1303-1305 N. Fifth St., Philadelphia, 215-309-2211
Dust off your best bottles and head to ... Kensington? Yes. One of Philly's "it" BYOBs helped pioneer the rapid gentrication of this emerging neighborhood thanks to talented co-owners Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths, named my co-chefs of the year for 2015. The duo has continued to open other great restaurants, including South Helm in Pennsport and new bruncherie Tierce, which replaced Pickled Heron in Fishtown. But the original remains a favorite, and is still one of my top BYOB picks in Philly, as its transformed a simple (albeit noisy) 34-seat space into a blackboard-menu showcase for ultra-seasonal cooking driven by North Philly's urban farms, from house burrata to lamb with tiny local turnips and Brussels sprouts tortellini.
What's it like to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a chef's house? Probably just like this lovable all-day corner cafe in Queen Village, where co-chef-owners Pat O'Malley (ex-Balthazar) and Scott Schroeder (South Philadelphia Tap Room) collaborate for updated comfort menus built on stellar house-baked goods, local ingredients, and quirky whims, from the city's best breakfast sandwich and amazing croissants to a knockout burger for lunch, and sharing platters for dinner along with multicourse "family meal" themed menus. With charming service, good drinks, a naturally casual neighborhood vibe, and a serious coffee program, Hungry Pigeon is one of the city's most inspired and personal renditions of the all-day restaurant trend.
The aroma of sizzling Mediterranean meats on skewers has returned to 10th and Spruce, where Konstantinos Pitsillides, after moving his more upscale original Kanella to Queen Village (Kanella South, another favorite) has installed a traditional Cypriot kebab house. The pick-your-skewer for sandwich or platter concept and BYOB space are minimalist. The service is relaxed but outgoing. But the deeply wrought flavors are so evocative and fresh, and the prices are so fair - especially the $35 three-course family-style mezze option - that this casual newcomer compensates for a lack of frills by being one of Philadelphia's great dining values. Now that credit cards are accepted, the restaurant is particularly excellent for large groups.
This intimate East Passyunk jewel box from Top Chef champ and Le Bec-Fin alum Nicholas Elmi has begun to redefine what modern French gastronomy can be, from frozen foie gras over foraged knotweed jam and granola to dreamy Dover sole stuffed with truffles. With inventive $96 tasting menus and the addition of a liquor license that gives Laurel's tuned-in service staff an opportunity to make stellar pairings, dinner here is a personal and memorable night. (BTW, it's still BYO-friendly). The opening of Elmi's ITV ("In The Valley") next door has given fans a cutting-edge gastropub and wine bar to linger at and feast on rabbit schnitzel when one of Laurel's 26 coveted seats can't be snagged.
Since opening in 2006, Osteria has become more than simply the casual, more accessible sibling to Vetri. It was a pioneer in the city's wood-fired cooking movement, the first of our great Neapolitan pizza destinations, a stellar all-purpose destination for a special occasion, and also a showcase for talented James Beard-winning chef Jeff Michaud to produce inventive seasonal pastas and salumi, plus modern twists on rustic Italian cooking. If some concerns for Osteria's future are valid, given its sale along with other Vetri restaurants to Urban Outfitters and the official departure of both Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin, a recent meal was reassuring. Michaud was cooking in the kitchen, as he still does most nights, and we had one of our best Osteria meals in recent memory, from an exceptional pheasant ragù pasta to a memorable pork chop and a luscious fig carpaccio. The restaurant's already-stellar Italian wine list has only continued to grow.
It's been a members-only secret in Italian South Philly for nearly a century, but suddenly everybody wants to belong to the Palizzi Social Club. The reason? Joey Baldino, who owns Zeppoli in Collingswood, has transformed the rowhouse hideaway once owned by his uncle into a tribute to the family recipes he grew up with in the Italian Market, from stromboli to spaghetti in crab gravy and spumoni made in-house. Paired with a creative bar crafting Italian-themed cocktails and late hours catering to an industry-heavy crowd, it feels like a genuine time capsule come to life. Nonmembers will have to find an in-the-know host to take them as guests - new memberships have been temporarily suspended. Its private club status explains why I've assigned no official rating. But suffice it to say Palizzi is absolutely one of Philly's most essential places to eat.
This spare little storefront near the Walnut Street Bridge is another entry to the all-day restaurant trend, morphing from a cafe serving top-notch coffee and breakfast sandwiches in the morning to light but cheffy lunches, and then an unexpectedly compelling Italian BYOB at night. Almost every bite at this hybrid co-owned by Stock's Tyler Akin and the partners behind ReAnimator Coffee is thoughtful and delicious. But it's the Sicilian-driven dinner menu - minimalist in style but vividly flavored - that certifies first-time exec chef Michael Vincent Ferreri (Zeppoli, Aldine, Zahav) as a star in the making. Don't miss the octopus, agrodolce chicken, clam spaghetti, fazzoletti with bottarga, lamb tartare, or whole fish.
Japanese food lovers will rejoice at the return of father-son chef duo Matt and Jesse Ito, who'd been absent since selling Fuji in Haddonfield. Jesse has taken the lead at this very different project in Queen Village, a collaboration with the gastropub masters behind Royal Tavern, which is actually two restaurants in one. A lively izakaya in front serves simple but well-executed classics to a no-reservations barroom lit by anime cartoons, with an epic list of sakes, shochus, whiskey, and beer. Behind a curtain in back, a reservations-only crowd indulges in serene omakase tastings at a stunning mahogany sushi bar overseen by Jesse. The tastings are ultra-pricey, but the craftsmanship and the quality of fish, most imported from Japan, vie for the city's best sushi splurge.
Skewers-up to this aromatic BYOB dedicated to the Malaysian art of saté. The deeply marinated meats (try the goat!) sizzle in back over open grills filled with coconut shell charcoal, and the rest of the small menu offers boldly flavored Malay specialties, like the superb rendang, laksa noodles, blue rice nasi kerabu, and several specialties wrapped in "bungkus" banana leaf bundles that evoke restaurateur Angelina Branca's homeland. If you're lucky, you'll visit when the Dungeness chili crabs are in season. The casual East Passyunk space has a street-food motif and doubles as an authentic Malaysian kopitiam coffee and tea bar, with frothy hand-pulled drinks that are unique and richly tasty. One of Philly's unique dining experiences.
Perhaps, after all, Stephen Starr and chef Peter Serpico could not single-handedly alter the seedy decline of South Street as people had hoped when the budding New York star came to Philadelphia to open his signature restaurant. Nonetheless, the former Momofuku Ko chef has still become the city's most ingenious modernist chef, crafting inventive plates that are both beautiful and delicious, from torqued duck hot dogs to frozen foie gras snow, hybrid Franken-creations (like the scallop-crusted halibut known as the "scallobit") served forth in intricate and polished plates that prove the chef is an exacting artist. Some of the Starr group's best service happens in Serpico's dark and broodingly handsome dining room, which is one of the city's uniquely edgy spaces. And there is no better seat to watch all the culinary excitement unfold than at the counter that rings the central open kitchen.
Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr's side-by-side collaborations in farm-chic dining on Washington Square have become essential standbys for those seeking a sophisticated and seasonally inspired meal east of Broad Street. The Garden is an expansive and creative farm-to-table destination with an urban garden overlooking the square; a beautiful dining room ringed by quotes from Alice Waters; an organic wine program; and a dreamy artisan cheese bar that, in sum, help make a night at Talula's Garden one of the city's most reliable special occasional options. The Daily next door is a lively city cousin to Olexy's Talula's Table in Kennett Square. It's a humming café, lunch spot and gourmet market with homey baked goods, frittatas, salads and sandwiches during daytime hours, then transforms into a set-price "supper club" at night, with $55 menus that change monthly based on seasonal inspirations. The Garden's breezy image recently suffered a major black-eye with a big penalty for underpaying kitchen staff. Nearly $400,000 later, Olexy says lessons have been learned, and policies changed to ensure it doesn't happen again. Meanwhile, it remains one of Philly's best places to eat.
210 W. Washington Square, Philadelphia, 215-592-7787, visit website
208 W. Washington Square, Philadelphia, 215-92-6555, visit website
Former Lacroix disciple Townsend "Tod" Wentz has overseen one of Philly's best all-around restaurants since emerging from his postrecession hiatus in gastropubs a few years ago to channel refined French cuisine in a charming converted bi-level storefront on East Passyunk Avenue. The understated excellence of the food, cocktails, and wine-savvy service add another layer of maturity to this hot dining strip, and has become an oasis for those who appreciate good cooking minus the flash. Don't miss the tartares, baked oysters, rabbit pot-au-feu, delicate seafood, or retro desserts. Wentz's other projects, the Italian BYOB A Mano in Fairmount and his new Spanish restaurant, Oloroso, also are noteworthy.
They prefer to call it a "vegetable restaurant" rather than vegan. But no matter how you classify Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's open-kitchen perch in the stunning backdrop of a historic manse revamped with modern style, Vedge is the kind of place that has defied stereotypes to become one of the region's best dining destinations in any genre. The small-plate cuisine continues to evolve, from sushi-like riffs on radishes and pastrami-spiced carrots to Jacoby's stunning vegan desserts. With polished service and a distinctive focus on cocktails and natural wines, Vedge is rightfully now a national destination. Their more casual and internationally-inspired V Street also is a favorite.
Is Vernick Food & Drink the "toast place"? A crudo counter for uni and soft-scrambled eggs? Or the trendsetting wood-fired kitchen that turns out the city's ultimate roast chicken? That chef Greg Vernick's Walnut Street destination is all of those things - and cooks it all with such powerfully refined simplicity - is the reason it has captured the current spirit of American dining. Add in stellar service, spot-on seasonal cocktails, and a linen-free bi-level space that feels special without being stuffy, and you have Philly's best overall restaurant. The rest of America is starting to get the message, too, as Vernick this year won the James Beard Foundation's award as the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
Marc Vetri has refocused his attention more fully on the intimate townhouse homage to Italian alta cucina that first made his name in 1998, especially now that he's officially left Urban Outfitters, which bought most of his restaurant group two years ago - except for this namesake on Spruce Street. In fact, the restaurant itself never stopped evolving, from the move to all-tasting menus several years ago, to milling all the grain for the restaurant's extraordinary pastas and breads; the creation of a gorgeous upstairs event space for private events and pop-ups (like the recent BYOB nights) that have extended Vetri's appeal; and the $85 Friday lunches for those who don't want the $165 blowout dinners. For those who do, a personalized free-form feast here is still one of Philly's most exceptional gastronomic adventures, melding Vetri classics (spinach gnocchi, capretto, casoncelli) with contemporary creations (antelope alla Fiorentina in amarone sauce?), outstanding service, and a wine cellar that is now 2,500 bottles deep.
Cira Centre South, 2929 Walnut St., Philadelphia, 215-867-8067
This airy all-day café, restaurant, and bar may be hidden behind the sloping glass walls of the latest Cira Centre skyscraper, but it's one of Philly's most sophisticated newcomers, courtesy of the crew behind New York's Michelin-starred Rebelle. The modern American menu rises on high-level scratch cooking, from baker Melissa Weller's exceptional morning pastries to chef Daniel Eddy's standout pastas, raw bar, and meats. Add a splendid modern space, stellar cocktails, and one of the most exciting wine programs in town from star sommelier Patrick Cappiello, and University City has landed a knockout destination.
A former whiskey blending house from the 1870s has been gorgeously rehabbed into an Italian gem that is the grown-up restaurant Fishtown has been waiting for. With a wood-fired oven and grill, former Il Pittore chef Chris Painter makes his case as one of Philly's best Italian cooks, turning out refined Neapolitan pizzas, elegant pastas, and impressive grilled meats like the dry-aged porterhouse splurge. An excellent drink program (Italian wines, great cocktails, and extensive amari), smart service, and a beautiful tile-and-wood decor that pays homage to the building's historic character complete Mulherin's as one of the city's best new restaurants in the past couple years. A lively brunch scene - with individually made frittatas and à La Bomba espresso cocktail that makes for a swell wake-up - is a smart way to grab a table at what has become one of Philly's most elusive reservations.
Israeli street food meets modern brilliance in the hands of nationally renowned chef Michael Solomonov, whose wood-fired Society Hill kitchen turns out some of the most evocative and inventive little dishes anywhere, from charcoal-grilled duck kebabs to fried cauliflower, soulful pomegranate-braised lamb shoulder and hummus so good it redefines hummus. The personable and knowledgeable servers ably guide diners through the small-plate menu (which still offers one of the city's best tasting-menu deals), as well as a standout Israeli wine list that helps make Zahav a completely transporting experience. The restaurant has continued to evolve, despite the company's rapid expansion with other concepts (Dizengoff, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher). Unfortunately, since Solomonov was crowned best chef in America by the James Beard Foundation earlier this year, the reservation challenge has only gotten worse.