How restaurant critic Craig LaBan picks his Top 25 restaurants each year
Plus: 5 restaurants that almost made it in.
My 2019 cravings-centric Dining Guide came out recently, with more than 120 restaurants across two dozen categories, from old-school hoagies to puffy-crusted pizzas and funky brunches.
But my primary starting point for each year’s guide is always coming up with my Top 25 list. Considering all the great choices in Philly’s dining scene these days, it’s an exercise that could be repeated, resulting in different rosters depending on your mission and point of view. Of course, having done this now for several years, there’s also precedent to consider along with inevitable annual changes.
My goal has always been to render a snapshot of the city’s most essential restaurants at a particular time, with consideration for diversity of flavors, styles, locations, and price points (which is how I like to eat, anyway). That’s why a pair of two-bell places like Amma’s South Indian Kitchen and Mike’s BBQ can make the list. They may not be perfect restaurants in every aspect, but I found their flavors so compelling — especially in a year dedicated to cravings — that they each represented an important new aspect of our dining scene. We need more serious BBQ in this town! And the steady rise of South Indian flavors, especially in Center City, has been one of the most exciting new Philly food trends this year. These are the best of their genre.
The beauty of this project, as opposed to weekly reviews, is the inclusion of long-standing restaurants in creating that complete picture. But changes must happen, and sometimes for different reasons.
This year, two long-standing Top 25ers, Fork and Townsend, were in the midst of major transitions — one changing chefs, the other moving. I gave them a break from the list until they can be properly reassessed. A couple of former Top 25 restaurants made it back onto the list — Res Ipsa and Serpico — because they’ve continued to evolve and resonate.
But our dynamic dining scene makes it inevitable that half a dozen new entries annually push their way into that elite group. And yet, the decisions are hard! So many others came very close, including this list of five other places I also seriously considered for this year’s Top 25.
Cry Baby Pasta (627 S. Third St.), 3 bells: One of my new favorite restaurants from this year, Cry Baby in Queen Village has set a high bar for what the neighborhood restaurant can be, with incredibly affordable handmade pastas (and a must-try take on “Chicken riggies” from upstate New York) to go with a stellar bar and lively ambience.
Hiroki (Corner of Lee and Master Streets), 3 bells: this serene omakase in Fishtown from a Morimoto alum is making its case as one of Philly’s finest sushi experiences, from the quality of the fish to the stellar sakes and hideaway ambience. My Top 25 list doesn’t need more than one luxury sushi splurge, though, and still-new Hiroki can use more seasoning before it has a chance to edge out my four-bell pick, Royal Sushi & Izakaya.
Abe Fisher (1623 Sansom St.), 3 bells: From savory rugelach to Montreal smoked meat, the Nouveau Shtetl cooking here is forever overshadowed by the national glow of its Israeli sibling, Zahav. But it’s nonetheless one of Philly’s best restaurants, and talented chef Yehuda Sichel seems to get better every year.
a.kitchen (135 S. 18th St.), 3 bells: This Rittenhouse bistro and wine bar was one of the hardest Top 25ers from 2018 to leave off this year’s list. Chef Eli Collins, with his inspired seasonality and charcuterie chops, remains a top kitchen talent. But as much as I praise a.kitchen as an overlooked gem, there’s still an intangible energy sometimes missing here. Warmer service? A more visible location? Hard to say. It’s still a favorite, but best in its more accessible role as our little secret.
Fiore (757 S. Front St.), 3 bells: This all-day café with an Italian theme in Queen Village is another of this year’s new stars. I loved the pastries, pastas, and hearth-roasted meats. But Fiore also occupies a genre shared by a couple other Top 25 restaurants with similar traits (Andiario and Res Ipsa), so I’m giving it another year to grow.