Well built and spacious pods with clear plastic dividers make the sidewalk seating at Booker's in West Philadelphia one of the neighborhood's more appealing outdoor dining options.
Craig LaBan
Well built and spacious pods with clear plastic dividers make the sidewalk seating at Booker's in West Philadelphia one of the neighborhood's more appealing outdoor dining options.

A year that put restaurant reviews on hold

I was blissfully eating my way through a feast of hummus and kebabs inside a Kensington restaurant in late February when I got a distress call from my daughter overseas.

Her studies abroad in Italy were about to end months early, because a fierce new virus there had begun to flare out of control.

It was obviously concerning. But at that moment, the novel coronavirus still felt like a distant crisis — not the deadly pandemic that would soon circle the globe and alter the most fundamental ways we live, work, shop, and eat.

But the reckoning wouldn’t take long. A few weeks later, Philadelphia went into lockdown mode and an unthinkable reality hit home. My daughter had thankfully returned safe. But the restaurants where I’d spent the past two decades chronicling the culinary triumphs and traditions of this region had been closed overnight to stem the virus' spread. Sharing food and drink inside a busy room surrounded by bare-faced strangers? The notion of such communal closeness now (still) sounds scary.

And so suddenly the pursuit of reviewing restaurants critically seems beside the point while the question of mere survival for an industry is on our daily table. The bells that usually ring ratings across my weekly reviews and annual dining guides? They’re in storage for now, quietly biding their time for a return to some version of normalcy, whatever that is, and whenever it eventually happens.

But the ability to still celebrate the remarkable resilience of our food scene has never felt so essential. The stories we’ve written are different, but they’re just as important and more telling than ever. The fragility of our massively entwined food system was revealed when dining rooms closed and abruptly idled the entire fishing fleet along the East Coast. Early food shortages launched a self-rising nation of sourdough bakers (including me.) Chefs foraged for wild treasures. And I embraced the challenge of cooking more for my family, too, consulting chefs and cookbooks and drawing inspiration from remarkable ingredients like the plump Lancaster chickens, heirloom grits and seasonal produce from Green Meadow Farm, whose faltering restaurant business was balanced by enthusiastic retail demand for its new CSA.

The privilege of such bounty was not wasted on me as thousands of hospitality workers lost their jobs and scrambled to make ends meet, bearing the unfair brunt of a national crisis. So many chefs rallied to feed those in need. In the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd, chef Omar Tate’s fascinating Honeysuckle pop-ups exploring the Black American experience took on even deeper resonance. The Black Lives Matter movement also spurred necessary self-reflection for white media gatekeepers like myself, and I’ve pledged to do more than I have to showcase Philly’s Black culinary excellence moving forward.

So many other systematic flaws laid bare by this pandemic must also be addressed, from persistent racism to wage inequities. And I hope our local food community prioritizes those issues as part of its mission as it continues the struggle to remake itself whole.

But pushing forward is exactly what our irrepressible restaurant scene has already been doing, perfecting takeout, rediscovering the joy of hospitality with outdoor dining and creatively reinventing public spaces to maintain revenues. Because while I remain determined to keep supporting our restaurants, I also still believe eating inside is too risky for both the public and restaurant workers. I’m willing to bundle up in warm clothes for dinner these coming months! But let’s hope for a mild, short winter.