Rabbit cassoulet is pictured at Forsythia in Philadelphia's Old City on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (TIM TAI / Staff Photographer)
How Craig LaBan reviewed Philly’s restaurants in 2019

We feasted on an omakase wave of rare sushi. Then we turned that luxury tasting art to a considerably more blue-collar subject — an omakase of hoagies — an absurd-yet-wonderfully Philadelphian blowout in pursuit of the ultimate sandwich.

We dined in soaring new skyscrapers and spaces designed by world-renowned architects. But some of 2019’s hottest restaurants were also hidden behind unmarked doors and the graffiti-tagged bones of repurposed old schools, or down obscure alleys most couldn’t have named a year ago.

Is tiny Lee Street in Fishtown Philly’s unlikely new Restaurant Row? It’s home to Pizzeria Beddia, my pick for Best New Restaurant, where that reimagined hoagie on a fresh-baked roll is also my Dish of the Year. Lee Street is also where you’ll find sushi master Hiroki Fujiyama, who left Morimoto’s shadow to become this year’s Rising Star Chef at his self-named hideaway. Good luck finding them without Google.

CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Hiroki Fujiyama prepares Nigiri, part of the omakase fixed-price Japanese meal at Hiroki. The meal includes a multi-course meal of sushi and cooked food.

Philadelphia’s ever-maturing dining scene this year saw big-ticket projects from famous names and a return to the retro indulgences of tableside service, with rolling carts delivering everything from beef Wellington to Dover sole for two. We obsessed over single-minded upgrades to ramen, pizza, pasta, and wine, now flourishing in its “natural” moment.

The DIY spirit of our BYOBs remained a vital engine for emerging talents. Nowhere was this more true than at boisterous Kalaya in the Italian Market, where Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon’s uncompromisingly spiced homage to Southern Thai flavors is so thrilling that she is my Chef of the Year. But it was also true for Adam Diltz’s fascinating Pennsylvania revival cooking at Elwood, Ari Miller’s hyper-seasonality at Musi, the Tibetan momos of White Yak in Roxborough, and the suburban ambitions of Keep in Jenkintown and Verbena in Kennett Square.

This was Queen Village’s comeback year, with six exciting new restaurants, including Cry Baby Pasta, Sakana, and Fiore, among my three-bell favorites. But Comcast’s massive new tower also loomed as large over our dining landscape as it did our skyline, with two hits from Greg Vernick and one surprising disappointment 60 floors up from world-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

I was just as intrigued by the collateral benefits of relocating all those Comcast tech workers downtown, which helped spur a boom of South Indian restaurants like Thanal Bistro (and a branch of Amma’s that earned a spot in my Top 25). Similarly, at Mama Wong in Exton, a pharma tycoon created an authentic Szechuan — one of the suburbs’ best new restaurants — to remind his Chinese employees of home.

As always, there are second chances, and I revisited four places, with two — Giuseppe & Sons and Stir — improving enough to earn their second bell. Do not mistake all these rosy ratings for a loosening of standards (I’ll be talking about my culling process in the New Year). No restaurants earned new four bell ratings this year (so none are noted in this list), but the Class of 2019 was evidence that Philly’s dining scene continues to improve. And it was a feast to remember.

Three Bells

ALPEN ROSE
Go for the big chops and intimate setting at Alpen Rose, where the barrel-shape wood ceiling, library wall, and crystal chandeliers feel like a retro clubhouse. The tableside carving, customized cocktails, and tufted leather booths evoke a vintage vibe, but the top-shelf dry-aged meats and skillful tweaks from culinary director Leo Forneas are what elevate the experience at Philly’s best luxury steak destination since Barclay Prime. Classic beef Wellington, sliced in the dining room, and anything grilled on the bone are sure bets. Reviewed June 14 and a Top 25 pick.
CONDESA
Inside the new Pod hotel near Rittenhouse Square, the team behind Suraya has created a modern Mexican destination, as surprising for its fire-lit patio entrance off a dingy alleyway as it is for the airy and angular dining room. Condesa’s menu draws power from upgrading basic elements: Chef Nick Kennedy’s kitchen nixtamalizes and grinds heirloom Mexican corn daily for masa, mills its own chocolate, and goes well beyond clichés for stylish renditions of dishes rooted in tradition, from breakfast tacos to goat birria. One of the city’s best mezcal collections is available to wash it down. Don’t miss the ceviches and chocolate tamale for dessert. Reviewed Dec. 20.
CRY BABY PASTA
The neighborhood restaurant has been reimagined for 2019 by the family behind Bridget Foy’s at this well-loved Queen Village corner tavern (formerly Ela), where house-made pastas — from spaghetti cacio e pepe to a zesty rendition of “chicken riggies” — anchor an impressively affordable menu of Italian (and Upstate New York) inspirations. The roaring noise level can be a drag, and the friendly service can be spacey. But the zesty scratch cooking from talented husband-and-wife duo David Gilberg and Carla Gonçalves (ex-Koo Zee Doo), paired with polished cocktails, fairly priced and interesting Italian wines, and a lively rock-and-roll theme add up to the kind of casual-but-quality restaurant I’d visit weekly if I lived closer. Reviewed April 12.
ELWOOD
Are old-school classics like snapper soup, house-smoked ham pot pie, and frog legs fricassee ready for a Philly comeback? They have a passionate advocate in talented chef Adam Diltz, a Northeast Pennsylvania native who, with his wife, partner, and architect, Jenny Ko, has converted a Fishtown rowhouse into a comfortable BYOB that pays contemporary homage to his family roots and the region’s underexplored culinary traditions. There’s an unexpected formality to the white-tablecloth oasis of the intimate back dining room, with thoughtful service and vintage china to match. But there’s also a decidedly rustic gusto to the nose-to-tail cooking, which showcases hyper-seasonal local ingredients, whole-animal family-style feasts, and venison scrapple served on antlers. Reviewed Aug. 2 and a Top 25 pick.
FIORE
Handmade Italian goodness and a talented husband-and-wife duo with experience in some of New York’s best restaurants have brought new life and warm hospitality to the wood-fired hearth of the former Kanella South in Queen Village. All-day menus feature Justine MacNeil’s excellent pastries in the morning, while dinner showcases Ed Crochet’s outstanding pastas, seasonal small plates, and large-format sharing platters of meats and whole fish imbued with the power of live fire. The bar program and wine list offer thoughtful Italian options that are still growing as this lovely space finds its balance between neighborhood standby and special-occasion destination. Reviewed May 10.
FORSYTHIA
Chef Christopher Kearse has left the bubble of Will BYOB, his tiny launch pad on East Passyunk, for a larger, full-service restaurant in Old City that beautifully melds country-bistro elegance with the neighborhood’s industrial chic tone. Most important, Kearse’s culinary style has evolved, shedding some of its avant-garde preciousness for a more mature vision of modern French cooking. The small plates and large-format sharing dishes, like bouillabaisse or rabbit cassoulet for two, are attractive and adventurous, but also more accessible. Reviewed Nov. 8.
HIROKI
Tucked behind a round wooden door on an alley at the back of Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, there’s an impressive new sushi haven in Fishtown, where Hiroki Fujiyama, longtime sushi captain at Morimoto, is making a name for himself with omakase tastings that rank among Philly’s top new splurges. It’s a commitment at $135. But the 20 “courses” are substantial, and the meal melds pristine wild Japanese fish and cooked luxury ingredients with seasonality and master craftsmanship. Refined service, an excellent drink program, and a warm room wrapped in white oak, cypress, and teak make the visit here a complete experience. Reviewed Aug. 9.
KALAYA
The high-voltage flavors of Southern Thailand at this unique Italian Market BYOB burst from the plates with an aromatic vibrance, uncompromising spice, and handcrafted finesse that Thai food in Philly has rarely attained. The crowded little space is incredibly noisy, a problem in the process of being addressed. But this unexpected restaurant from two friends who initially set out to expand their catering business, Thai-born chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon and front-of-house charmer My-Le Vuong, has nonetheless become one of the year’s most essential new hits. Don’t expect pad Thai. More like indigo-blue tapioca dumplings, crunchy rice salad with budu dressing, spicy duck laab, and an epic seafood hot pot with the blazing hot and sour flavors of true tom yum broth — all typical of a menu that avoids clichés in favor of labor-intensive scratch curries and family recipes. For her celebration of what traditional Thai food can be, Suntaranon is my Chef of the Year. Reviewed July 26 and a Top 25 pick.
K’FAR
K’Far is the first of two new concepts from the team behind Zahav to open in 2019, a pink-and-peach jewel box with teal tile off Rittenhouse Square. Celebrated Zahav pastry chef Camille Cogswell is the chef and partner at this bakery/restaurant inspired by Israel’s all-day café culture, and she’s proving equally adept at savory cooking. Toasts on Yemeni kubaneh bread, Jerusalem bagel sandwiches, pastries, and salads anchor the daytime menus, while dinner plates are more complex (freekeh-and-maitake “risotto,” dry-aged steak with green tahina and muhammara) and perform best when the spicing is confident. Desserts are less intricate than what Cogswell serves at Zahav, but no less delicious. Reviewed by Adam Erace Nov. 15.
PIZZERIA BEDDIA
Joe Beddia once ran a tiny corner takeout where he made the “best pizza in America” that hardly anyone could taste. He’s managed to translate that quirky artisan vision into a modern pizza palace for the masses that is this year’s Best New Restaurant. You’ll still have to wait an hour or more for one of the 100-plus seats (if you don’t reserve two months ahead). But the airy industrial space with patio seating and communal tables is worth the fuss, because aside from the well-curated nibbles and the bar’s compelling showcase for natural wines, Beddia’s kitchen delivers crisp-edged American pies with both original seasonal touches and refinements to familiar flavors that resonate, from the ultimate spicy “angry” pie to an anchovy pizza that can win converts. The quirky hoagie omakase — a reserve-ahead sandwich extravaganza for six — is an outrageous feast of only-in-Philly fun that also happens to set the highest bar possible for one of the city’s signature sandwiches. Reviewed May 31 and a Top 25 pick.
RIPPLEWOOD WHISKEY & CRAFT
This whiskey bar and restaurant has evolved into a next-level gastropub for the Main Line, a casually stylish bi-level space to drink well-crafted cocktails and one of the best spirit collections around, but one where the food also consistently exceeds expectations. Chef and co-owner Biff Gottehrer puts his varied experiences (El Vez, Dandelion, JG Domestic, In Riva) to good use with scratch ingredients, broad influences, and witty creativity for some boldly updated comforts like the region’s best burger, Caesar dressing-filled croutons, and an elevated Snickers bar. Just try not to eat an entire pan of those pretzeled Parker House rolls with truffle butter. Reviewed Oct. 18.
SAKANA
It’s all about the rare fish and red vinegar rice at this Queen Village sushi counter, which specializes in offering typically luxe omakase tastings at a relatively accessible price. It’s still a splurge if you aim to fill up on fish, and both the service and space are minimalist at this BYOB. But chef-owner Xiang Yu “Sam” Lin has brought his best recipes from a decade in Manhattan sushi hot spots, along with some smack talk for his new competition. More important, he delivers solid spins on quality fish that make him one of Philly’s new sushi players to watch. Reviewed April 5.
VERNICK COFFEE BAR
There’s so much more than good coffee perking at this restaurant disguised as a “coffee bar,” the first of two new restaurants at the Comcast Technology Center from star chef Greg Vernick. He’s turned the soaring second-floor space of the lobby into a peaceful oasis to rethink breakfast and lunch in a sleek modern dining room that feels like an urban treehouse. Attention to details of service and the white leather-blonde wood design keep it Four Seasons-style posh. But it’s Vernick’s signature approach, with clever riffs on deceptively simple ideas, that elevates dishes from familiar to memorable — from oatmeal (as a souffle) to grilled romaine salad (gratinée), paninis, soups, and elegant pastries. Don’t miss the coffee, which arrives on a pour-over trolley. Reviewed Jan. 18.
VERNICK FISH
Vernick makes a splash with his second creation for the new Comcast tower, an ambitious modern seafood hall that anchors the vast ground floor. The massive yet comfortable room reflects its corporate setting, but the expansive menu presents inventive takes on the ocean’s freshest bounty, from the oyster bar and raw plates to classic Dover sole for two. Several dishes with unique local accents (broiled Oysters Philadelphia) and clever twists (hot beignets with spicy clam ragout) remind why Vernick is one of Philly’s great chefs. There remains room for improvement (see desserts), but this is one of the most complete new restaurants this year. Reviewed Nov. 1.

Two Bells

AETHER
This sleek and slender seafood restaurant-wine bar from the group behind Princeton’s Elements and Mistral (its King of Prussia branch closed this year) brings upscale sophistication to the northern end of Fishtown. Framed by one of the more progressive corners of the city, this globally influenced kitchen doesn’t have quite the trendsetting impact of its suburban siblings. But the ingredients are excellent, the flavors are good, and with a well-curated list of small-producer Euro wines and creative cocktails to complement the beautiful space, aether delivers an overall experience that adds another sheen of polish to Fishtown’s evolution. Opening partner and manager Fia Berisha left the restaurant group in August. Reviewed April 26.
AMBROSIA BYOB
The diner days are long gone at this now-stylish corner BYOB, where a handsome Italian destination has emerged from the complete transformation of Sandy’s, the humble luncheonette that served Fitler Square for nearly four decades. There’s still a cozy neighborhood vibe to this open space, operated with a warm Euro touch by chef Fredi Loka and his partner, George Profi. The food sometimes shows more style than depth, but the menu rises to notable moments on scratch pastas, slow-braised meats, and homemade desserts. Reviewed Aug. 23.
COTOLETTA
Beth Amadio essentially moved her now-closed Belmont Hills hit of the same name to a sleek new city home in this restaurant-bar beside Fitler Square in the former Tria/Dmitri’s space, where a menu built on cutlets and other familiar Italian American dishes harks back to the era of Milan salads. A vaguely retro vibe and liberal interpretations of some classic dishes give pause, but are compensated for by a number of cravable flavors, as well as friendly service that aims to connect with a neighborhood crowd. Also, the “breakfast stack” counterpart to the dinner menu’s signature dish is a worthy draw for brunch. Reviewed Aug. 23.
GEORGIAN BAKERY & CAFE
A trip to the Caucasus awaits in an unlikely location, the backside of a Northeast Philly parking lot across from a Home Depot. But step inside “Tengo” Okropilashvili’s sprawling restaurant and bakery, and you’ll be surrounded by the genuine flavors of his native Georgia: oblong shoti breads baked in giant “tone” floor hearths, egg-topped khachapuri, spice-scented stews, bean pots, giant broth-filled khinkali dumplings, and walnut-sauced salads that make this cuisine unique. Come for the live entertainment on weekends when the BYO vodka- and chacha brandy-fueled crowds like to get up and dance their kebabs off. Reviewed March 15.
GIUSEPPE & SONS
Upgraded to two bells in December
South Philly’s Italian red-gravy tradition got a glamorous new Center City showcase in this vast bi-level complex with a swanky subterranean supper club and a ground-floor luncheonette, initially a collaboration between the Schulson restaurant group and the Termini Bros. Bakery family. The retro setting is date-night gorgeous (unless you end up in a back banquet room stuck behind someone else’s office party). The service and Italian-theme drinks are fine, the prices are fair, and the ambition to elevate one of the area’s birthright cuisines is noble. But supersizing the homey inspiration of Termini’s tiny Mr. Joe’s Café proved far harder than expected, resulting in a one-bell debut. The original partnership ultimately split as Schulson brought in chef Jeff Michaud (his partner at Osteria). A recent revisit proved the new arrangement productive, with more harmonious flavors and sharper execution, soulful osso bucco over polenta, some elegant pastas (don’t miss the tortelloni), and tableside-stretched fresh mozzarella for added dining-room drama. Originally reviewed Feb. 15.
GREEN SOUL
The latest project from Ben and Robert Bynum expands their fast-casual healthy concept (now closed) in Chestnut Hill into a full-service restaurant-bar and performance venue in the sunny, plant-filled former Alla Spina space. The affordable menu roams the African diaspora, from North Africa to Louisiana, along with classic soul-food elements reinterpreted in lighter, brighter salads, sandwiches, tacos, and cocktails whirred with produce. There are still rough edges with service and logistics, and occasional items that are arguably not so healthy. But for a duo known for deep-fried successes at Warmdaddy’s and South, this project serves as an ode to sustainability and community gathering, and has a forward-thinking warmth with flavors that feel worthwhile. Reviewed Feb. 1.
IRWIN’S
Gaze across South Philly from eight floors up in a once-abandoned school building with a craft cocktail in hand and a Mediterranean mezze board for sharing. Irwin’s is the mellow, grown-up cocktail bar antidote to the boisterous Bok Bar across the hall, and chef Paul Garberson is just scratching the potential of this restaurant with his modern interpretations of Middle Eastern flavors. There’s room for fine-tuning on many of the dishes, as well as some of the drinks. But the flavors overall are good, and the sensation of dining and drinking in this former classroom — its graffiti-tagged walls now framed in gold curtains — offers a unique view of the city that should be experienced. Warm weather brings the patio crowds. Reviewed Jan. 4.
KEEP
Chef Mike Jenkins and Melody Lauletta, a talented young couple with experience working with some of the city’s most notable restaurateurs (Starr, Elmi, Garces), have brought a Philly-style BYOB to Jenkintown. Their collaboration has resulted in a project of refined upscale ambitions, warm hospitality, and adventurous flavors for a suburban downtown that can use some bright new culinary energy. A revisit showed some light upgrades to staffing and the same kitschy DIY decor. Meanwhile, the wide-ranging menu, which dabbles in house charcuterie and pasta, continued to impress with its diversity, from shrimp pelmeni dumplings to seared walleye over creamy parsnips and spicy brisket with rye spaetzle. Reviewed Feb. 22; revisited in December.
MAMA WONG
Authentic Chinese cooking has landed with a Szechuan-fired boom in an otherwise bland Exton strip mall thanks to a pharma tycoon who built this restaurant to remind his Chinese employees of home. The result, with a former Han Dynasty chef manning the woks, is one of the best examples of regional Chinese cooking in the area, featuring not just Szechuan heat but also fine Shanghai soup dumplings, Cantonese seafood, and Nanjing flavors. Presented by a personable and outgoing staff in a pleasantly appointed dining room, Mama Wong has been embraced by a diverse crowd far broader than its initial target audience to become one of the year’s best new restaurants in the suburbs. Reviewed July 19.
MUSI
After running a pop-up dinner event company called Food Underground, chef Ari Miller resurfaced with a tiny but compelling brick-and-mortar BYOB in Pennsport. His talent as a freethinking chef, cultivated in Israel and Philly (Zahav; High Street on Market), is obvious in a small-plate menu that showcases hyper-seasonal, local, foraged ingredients and beautifully focused flavors. (The monthly first-Monday “Frizwit” cheesesteak nights are also cult-worthy.) The BYOB’s free-spirited quirks can be both charming and frustrating, though a year-end revisit showed improved acoustics for the tiny room due to soundproofing, and a friendly service staff that seemed more at ease. The kitchen, which seems most inspired by the seasonal spontaneity of roasted produce (charred satsumas for scallop crudo, charred candy onions for polenta with truffles, charred sweet potato for the buttered noodles), reaffirms the intimate BYOB is an essential virtue of Philly dining. Reviewed May 17; revisited in December.
NEIGHBORHOOD RAMEN
Philly’s ramen revolution has an edgy new standard-bearer at this minimalist 20-seater in Queen Village. Cartooned walls and a reggae-rap soundtrack lay an energetic beat for some memorable bowls that show impressive craft and focus, with beautifully layered flavors and textures that range from the golden clarity of the shio to a bold tantan that radiates spice. Given this project’s roots as an Instagram house-party pop-up by two local restaurant vets — chef Jesse Pryor (Morimoto, Cheu, Zahav) and girlfriend Lindsay Steigerwald (CoZara), who’s paying homage to her Japanese heritage — it’s no wonder this soup star has become a favorite late-night haunt for off-duty chefs. If only it were open for lunch during the week. Reviewed Oct. 4.
NEMI
Philly’s blossoming Mexican movement has made a stylish northern landing in fast-evolving Port Richmond. A handsome revamp to an old corner bar has produced a casual cantina with a modern vibe, bracing ceviches, supple handmade tortillas, and well-crafted cocktails at neighborhood-friendly prices. The three restaurant-scene veterans behind this project, including two from Mexico, have created an appealing destination that melds authenticity with warm service and some deft global touches — including some Asian-fusion flavors from the Filipino co-chef/partner — that avoid clichés. Reviewed May 24.
OLLY
Resurging Queen Village gets another promising entry as the team behind Southwark transforms the sunny corner space most recently occupied by Whetstone into an approachable neighborhood bistro. The menu has something for everyone, from reimagined comfort foods like wings, cheese balls, and burgers to more ambitious daily specials (whole duck, prime rib), updated with seasonal vegetables and scratch cooking. Some inconsistent execution, especially with oversalting, held this kitchen back. But welcoming service, extended happy hours and brunch, kid-friendly accommodations, and a bar that does a bit of everything well give Olly a fighting chance to become the fixture that stops this address’ revolving door. An attached pizzeria called Gigi, serving “Neapolitan-ish” pies to a 12-seat dining room, opened post-review in November. Reviewed July 12.
SCANNICCHIO’S
Come for the “saw-zidge n’ figs,” stay for a taste of old-school South Philly Italian flavors at this friendly corner BYOB. Regulars come for the stuffed artichokes, piled-high seafood pastas, and “Italiano” chops as co-owner and chef Christian Varalli pays homage to his dad’s longtime Atlantic City institution. Over its 16 years on South Broad Street, Scannicchio’s has remained one of the best of a dying breed of legacy Italian American kitchens while also embracing its place in the neighborhood’s increasingly diverse landscape of newer immigrant flavors. It’s a great place near the stadiums to pregame on fresh calamari and clams Casino — if you’re lucky enough to get a table. Reviewed March 22.
SEORABOL
Bold Korean flavors have landed firmly in Center City’s mainstream consciousness with a wave of bright new restaurants, including a downtown branch of Seorabol. Still, none delivers quite the edge of spice, fermented funk, and char-kissed meaty savor that galbi fans will find at the original in Olney — a mainstay of North Philly’s fading Koreatown that remains one of the last BBQ houses to use real charcoal in its tabletop grills. Two generations of Cho family cooks also consistently deliver a broad menu of dishes here, from pajeon pancakes to bubbling-hot spicy stews, making it one of the region’s most versatile standard-bearers of traditional Korean cuisine. Reviewed April 19.
SOPHIE’S KITCHEN
The family behind the now-closed Khmer Kitchen is back in business in a new home at this snug bi-level corner with an upstairs dining room on Washington Avenue. The traditional Cambodian flavors emerging from its kitchen, powered by chef Sophia Neth’s handmade kroeung spice pastes, are among the most vivid things I’ve tasted this year. From the irresistible ground pork dip with crudité veggies to stuffed chicken wings (plumped with lemongrass sausage), hot and sour lemongrass soup, spicy papaya salad, crispy frog legs with peppery lime dip, and coconut-milk fish steamed in banana-leaf cups, this menu well represents one of South Philly’s cornerstone immigrant communities. Reviewed Oct. 25.
SOUTH PHILADELPHIA SMÖKHAUS
Eric Daelhousen’s BBQ destination in the auto-body shop of South Philly’s former vocational high school closed in August. Reviewed Jan. 4.
SOUTHGATE
It’s taken a few years for the Korean-inspired gastropub that replaced Tangier to strike the right balance between its fusion aspirations and all-purpose corner bar for its Center City audience. Warm service and some of the city’s best Korean fried chicken have been a constant. But focusing the menu and leaning deeper into traditional Korean flavors have been a plus, with a reliable dolsot bibimbap, multiple lettuce-wrapped ssam variations, and fun house-infused sojus to go along with its popular bulgogi-flavored burger. Most important, the kitchen has become consistent.
STINA PIZZERIA
The reviving neighborhood around West Passyunk Avenue gets a feel-good boost of Mediterranean flavors from chef Bobby Saritsoglou (ex-Opa) and his partner-wife, Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou, who’ve converted a century-old storefront into a 24-seat charmer warmed by a wood-fired oven, outgoing service, and a quirky collage of flea-market finds. The Neapolitan-style pizzas are fine enough to fill a basic neighborhood need. But Saritsoglou’s more distinctive takes on pan-Med cooking — stunning Turkish manti, the city’s best new octo dish, soulful lamb specials, and the more intriguing boat-shaped “pide” variations on pizza — are the menu’s most compelling draws. One more reason to visit: Stina donates a portion of its sales each month to a different local charity. Reviewed Sept. 20.
STIR
Famed architect Frank Gehry has brought his groovy, contemporary lines to the upscale new lunch destination at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but his primary statement — a giant upside-down basket hanging from the ceiling — is more ornamental than functional, given the small room’s surprising noise problem and lack of direct sunlight. The noticeable improvement at a year-end revisit came from a smoother kitchen performance by ex-Sonata chef Mark Tropea. He has deftly balanced the usual suspects (crab cakes, salmon, Cobb salad) with more ambitious seasonal dishes — luscious persimmons and spiced nuts atop creamy stracciatella, herb-crusted cod over updated chowder, and a charred romanesco salad — that are far better, and more ambitious, than a museum restaurant needs to have. Reviewed with one bell Jan. 25.
THANAL INDIAN TAVERN
Philly’s awakening to the exciting diversity of regional Indian flavors continues with the arrival of another South Indian kitchen. This full-service, bi-level corner tavern in Logan Square draws huge crowds from the nearby business district with an excellent lunch buffet laden with uttapam, goat curries, and bottomless Hyderabadi biryani — a multitiered steam table that is especially well-stocked on Fridays. The nighttime scene shifts into spice-accented cocktails and an à la carte menu that offers more refined entrees (stewed lamb shanks, gunpowder shrimp, tandoori-roast pomfret) along with a broad menu of Tamil-flavored classics. Reviewed March 1.
VERBENA BYOB
Chef-owner Scott Morozin has given downtown Kennett Square a sophisticated BYOB that frames mostly local ingredients in creative combinations tweaked with contemporary techniques, from olive “paper” to Parmesan foam and a towering pillar of chicken stuffed with mushrooms. The tableside hype sometimes borders on hyperbole, and some dishes can be overwrought. But that doesn’t obscure the try-hard warmth of the service at this ambitious bistro, or the very good flavors that make a strong case to root for Morozin, a longtime journeyman chef (last at Sola in Bryn Mawr) who has made a promising ownership debut. Reviewed March 8.
WHITE YAK
I’d climb a Himalayan mountain to eat a dinner of hearty momo dumplings. Thankfully, we just need to get up the hill to Roxborough to find one of Philly’s few Tibetan restaurants. There are intriguing flavors here, many of which show similarities to Chinese and Indian influences. But momos are a true Tibetan specialty, and White Yak’s kitchen brings a distinctly elegant touch to many of its dishes, from thenthuk beef soup with hand-pulled noodles to chilli chicken and Tibetan curry (best when washed down with buttered tea). The unique experience is bolstered by warm service and a handsome wood- and window-clad dining room that evokes the village coziness of the owners’ faraway home. Reviewed Dec. 6.

One Bell

BLOOMSDAY CAFE
The all-day café trend has another ambitious player in this beautiful addition to Headhouse Square, a serene space outfitted with dark walnut, cushy sofas, and marble tables. The multiple menus are built on scratch ingredients, fine pastries, and a progressive drink program centered around natural wine, including a retail shop. The menu has high points, especially early, with brioche buns, a veggie-fritter breakfast sandwich, and an “emotional support hot dog.” But consistent execution was a problem, particularly as the team behind Haverford’s Green Engine Coffee struggled to find an identity for its dinner service. Bloomsday was reviewed too recently for an end-of-year revisit, but keep an eye on this place and hope for improvement in the new year. Reviewed Sept. 29.
JEAN-GEORGES PHILADELPHIA
The views from the 59th floor are as inspired as the soaring dining room that crowns the new Four Seasons hotel atop the latest Comcast skyscraper. Unfortunately, the thrill of dining in Philly’s branch of the world-renowned Jean-Georges luxury chain was sabotaged by one poorly executed plate after the other, plus some undrinkable cocktails, leaving the unparalleled vistas, polished service, and fine wines waiting for the kitchen to catch up and deliver what, for such towering prices, should be one of the region’s ultimate dining experiences. I received a message from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten that the disappointing review had given his team “a new focus” and “drive” to improve. Considering the potential, I hope that happens. Reviewed Nov. 22.
PALMA’S CUCINA
Siblings Brunella and Renato Russo’s updated corner standby in Fitler Square closed in late December. Reviewed Aug. 23.