Philadelphia’s restaurant scene came into 2010 with a chip on its shoulder. By the end of 2019, we had become one of America’s cool-kid destinations for dining, a city with multiple James Beard Award winners, a bevy of rising stars, and a lock on national “best food cities” lists.
Looking back, I see dozens of restaurants that made serious contributions. But which places were the most impactful over the last 10 years? Here’s my pick of the all-decade team that helped make this the most exciting era ever in Philadelphia dining.
Asian fusion was officially put on the back burner when Han Chiang opened his first branch of Han Dynasty in Old City and began presenting genuine Szechuan food to the masses. His monthly tasting menu events — lip-numbing feasts in the basement — launched thousands bowls of dan-dan noodles as his empire expanded to the suburbs, New York, and his native Taiwan. Over time, some Szechuan experts have questioned whether Han Dynasty’s cuisine is “authentic” enough, a conversation that speaks to this decade’s food-culture awakening.
The nightlife hub at 13th and Sansom is unimaginable without the contributions of Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, from Lolita to Jamonera, Bud & Marilyn’s and Little Nonna. But Barbuzzo is their most complete restaurant — one that captured the push toward wood-fired Mediterranean flavors, veg-forward grazing, and a more casual style. It also staged the careers of several young stars, including George Sabatino. Sweet plus: Turney’s salted caramel budino may well be the dessert of the decade.
Who knew rutabagas could be sexy? Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby did. The couple had been exploring the possibilities of vegan cuisine since Landau opened Horizons Cafe in Willow Grove in 1994. But when they created Vedge in 2011, rehabbing a Frank Furness mansion in Center City, their brilliant cuisine moved to the spotlight, becoming one of the city’s best restaurants of any sort and a national leader in the trend now called “plant-based” cooking.
Zahav opened in 2008, but it took a couple years before this modern Israeli found its true mission. Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook refined a vision rooted in the old world and the new — and helped define the nascent concept of modern Israeli cuisine with the life-changing hummus, award-winning cookbooks, and a documentary. Aside from multiple Beard kudos (culminating in 2019, when it was named America’s best restaurant), it also set the tone for a new restaurant atmosphere, proving that a rock-and-roll vibe and world-class food and service aren’t mutually exclusive. With subsequent projects (Dizengoff, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, K’Far) and several notable alums, no Philly restaurant was more impactful this decade.
This was the decade Philadelphia benefited most from homegrown talents returning to the region from famous restaurants in other cities. No chef embodied this more compellingly than Greg Vernick, a veteran of Jean-Georges in New York and Ken Oringer’s orbit in Boston. Few places tackled live-fire cooking or managed to encapsulate the new style of American dining as deftly as Vernick Food & Drink, where the menu is effortlessly diverse and seasonal, and dinner always feels like a special occasion — minus the fuss of white tablecloths. The methodical chef took years before deciding to expand, opening two ambitious winners this year. But the mother ship remains one of the city’s all-around best restaurants.
Yes, Ellen Yin’s Market Street institution was one of Philly’s most influential restaurants of the ’90s, aiding Old City’s rise during the advent of the modern American bistro. But Fork rocketed to relevance again with the 2012 arrival of chef Eli Kulp, a New York restaurant veteran who brought whole-animal excitement to the kitchen and who championed local producers with inventive polish. He revamped Fork Etc. into High Street on Market, creating an ambitious template for the all-day cafe and jump-starting a citywide embrace of artisan breads, alt-grain pastas, and fermentation. A tragic 2015 Amtrak accident that left Kulp paralyzed was a blow to Fork’s momentum. A promising new chef is running the kitchen now. But Kulp’s influence is still evident in the Fork/High Street alums making waves of their own, including the teams behind Helm, Musi and Cadence.
South Philly’s Mexican community is one of the city’s biggest stories this decade, extending far beyond the food world. No restaurant captures that more than South Philly Barbacoa, the joyful corner taqueria with limited hours and ethereal lamb tacos. Chef Cristina Martinez and husband Benjamin Miller, who met at Amis, began their extraordinary journey in 2014 with a little food cart that drew early-morning crowds to the corner of Eighth and Watkins. By the time they landed at 9th and Ellsworth in 2018, following multiple moves and name changes, their restaurant had gained international acclaim. Martinez, the subject of a Netflix’s Chef’s Table episode, is celebrated not only for her exceptional food, but also her advocacy for workers’ rights.
French food seemed all but dead when Le Bec-Fin finally closed in 2013 after more than four decades. But one of its last great chefs, Nicholas Elmi, proved there was a bright path forward here for French cuisine — or at least its gastronomic spirit — as the Top Chef champ created an intimate tasting atelier built on polished plates at once inventive, refined, and imbued with Pennsylvania ingredients. Whether tasting menu culture survives into the next decade remains to be seen, even in an unstuffy ambience like Laurel’s. But with subsequent creations like ITV and Royal Boucherie, Elmi’s culinary influence remains as strong as ever.
There’s no underestimating craft beer’s cultural impact, not simply as a beverage phenomenon, but for its potential to create a new kind of neighborhood restaurant. Yet no local brewpub kitchen, in my opinion, has matched the sophistication and creativity of its beer — Tired Hands’ Fermenteria included. But the opening of this sprawling tasting room proved the power of good beer to draw a devoted crowd. A lot of great breweries are doing good work now (see this year’s Brewvitational for proof), but Tired Hands set the bar this decade with innovative beers, from “milkshake” brews to barrel-aged saisons. Fermenteria’s expanded footprint also allowed Tired Hands to branch out beyond Ardmore to become a coveted tap handle in the region’s bars and restaurants, where a good beer selection now is expected, not the exception.
The all-day cafe trend found a free-spirited star in this Queen Village favorite, where the chef-buddy duo behind the project — Scott Schroeder and baker Pat O’Malley — run it like a house party, with updated comforts inspired by seasons, local products, and whatever they feel like cooking. In a city with increasingly great pastries, O’Malley’s croissant work set the gold standard. A recent decision to eliminate weekday breakfast and lunch (but not weekend brunch) was a shock, but reflected the challenge of sustaining hands-on quality with the all-day concept.
Southeast Asian restaurants gained traction this decade beyond the well-established Vietnamese community, and this Malaysian grill house created by Kuala Lumpur native Angelina Branca and her husband, John, led the way. The duo imported coconut charcoal for live-fire grills, Malaysian beans for a kopitiam coffee bar, and family recipes that spared no funk or spice. Branca, who left a career in international consulting for this passion project, has also become a central collaborator in the wider chef community.
The Vetri family tree, which includes Michael Solomonov, Dionicio Jimenez, and Jeff Michaud, launched another influential star in Joey Baldino, whose Sicilian-inspired Zeppoli easily became one of South Jersey’s best restaurants (and a training ground for chefs like Michael Ferreri of Res Ipsa and Dominic Piperno of Hearthside). It was Baldino’s return to his native South Philly, however, that spurred his most inspired work. This century-old private Italian club had been owned by his uncle, and Baldino’s revival — reinterpreting the great dishes of his Italian American heritage — was an instant sensation. And for good reason: There isn’t a better spaghetti and crabs on the planet. Unlike other private clubs, annual membership here is accessible, but limited allotments keep dinner here a coveted invite.
The addresses don’t get more classic than this corner townhouse near Rittenhouse Square which, for four decades, was an emissary of Philly’s first Restaurant Renaissance. But current owners Hanna and Chad Williams showed that bold changes for a beloved institution aren’t just possible, but sometimes necessary, too. They completely rehabbed the bi-level space, inverted the dining room and bar, installed cutting-edge mixology, and under Chad’s vision, cut the kitchen free to create modern American cuisine with edge. The result is a restaurant that pays homage to a proud legacy while presenting an exciting future for the next decade.
This rarefied sushi bar opened as a distinct operation inside Royal Izakaya in 2017. But it didn’t take long for chef-owner Jesse Ito’s sublime omakase to catch on as one of the city’s hottest reservations, despite the fact its twice-nightly tasting menus ($130 for the full selection) are among of the priciest in town. Ito’s talent for hand-crafting wild-caught, seasonal Japanese fish at the intimate 10-seat counter merited the excitement after the long lull in luxury sushi offerings in Philly following Morimoto. By no coincidence, it has been followed by a number of ambitious omakase competitors.
The rise of Fishtown — and its graduation from “emerging” to “arrived” — was confirmed by this gorgeous, block-long palace dedicated to Lebanese cuisine. The spectacular space — a gilt-ceilinged cafe segueing to a moody dining room and a back-patio oasis — is courtesy of co-owner Roland Kassis, the Lebanese-born developer responsible for much of Frankford Avenue’s resurgence. Suraya’s triumph, though, is in its beautiful renditions of Lebanese flavors, inspired by recipes from Kassis’ family and his sister’s, partner Natalie Richan. They’re executed by chef Nick Kennedy, whose menu hits a rare sweet spot between traditional and modern. Suraya was the first of several impressive projects from the Defined Hospitality group, including Condesa and Pizzeria Beddia.