CHICAGO — In a first for Philadelphia’s vaunted restaurant scene, Zahav, which rewrote the script for Israeli food in the United States when it opened in the Society Hill Towers in 2008, was named the best restaurant in America on Monday by the James Beard Foundation.
This was Zahav’s first nomination for the award, given to restaurants open 10 years or more — the culinary equivalent of the Academy Award for best picture — though it has received a passel of prizes in recent years.
Chef and co-owner Michael Solomonov was named the outstanding chef in America in 2017, the same year that he and business partner Steve Cook won the book of the year award for Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. The restaurant was nominated for outstanding service in 2017 and 2018. Last year, Zahav pastry chef Camille Cogswell won rising star chef, awarded to chefs under 30.
It also is solidly booked two months out, as far as reservations go. Crowds gather before the 5 p.m. opening to try to snag the 16 seats at the bar set aside for walk-ins.
Cook and Solomonov, whose empire has grown to include Abe Fisher, Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, The Rooster, and Goldie, brought 11 people to the awards ceremony at the Civic Opera House, including Okan Yazici, general manager of Zahav and director of fine dining for the CookNSolo group, and his wife, Zehra Husikic; Zahav beverage manager Jeff Bartash; Zahav manager Kailey Jenkins and chef de cuisine Andrew Henshaw; Abe Fisher chef Yehuda Sichel; Zahav pastry chef Camille Cogswell; Abe Fisher general manager Yasmin Roberti; Cook’s wife, Shira Rudavsky; Solomonov’s son David, 7; and publicist Dani Mulholland.
Yazici, born and raised in Turkey, was selected to speak first, recounting the warm welcome that he received as a new busboy 10 years ago. Cook followed, quietly thanking his staff. Solomonov, ever the showman, followed up by playing a reggae horn sound on his iPhone and beaming.
Cook and Solomonov plan to open three more restaurants this year, and recently traveled to Israel with a team of employees to refine the cuisine. The trip was documented in Inquirer articles last weekend by critic Craig LaBan that can be found online at www.philly.com/Israel.
Philadelphians were nominated in four categories this year, in addition to outstanding restaurant. Marc Vetri of Vetri Cucina was up for chef; Ellen Yin of Fork and High Street on Market for restaurateur; Jesse Ito of Royal Izakaya for rising star chef; and Rich Landau of Vedge and Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa for chef/mid-Atlantic.
Vetri, who recently opened a second Vetri Cucina in Las Vegas, was a semifinalist in 2008, 2009. 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2016, and a nominee in 2014 and 2015. He won best chef/mid-Atlantic in 2005, and his 2016 book Mastering Pasta was nominated for a Beard book award. His restaurants have scads of nominations for service.
Yin, who also owns New York’s High Street on Hudson, was nominated last year as well. She burst on the scene in 1998 with Fork, a luxe-casual dining option in Old City.
Ito, who just turned 30, learned Japanese cooking and sushi preparation under his father, Masaharu, at the family’s previous restaurant, Fuji.
This was the fifth mid-Atlantic nomination for Landau, whose holdings also include Wiz Kid and V Street as well as Fancy Radish in Washington.
It was the third nomination for Martinez, who with her husband, Ben Miller, parlayed a Mexican food cart into a brick-and-mortar restaurant that has become a touchstone in the immigrant-rights movement. Martinez, an undocumented immigrant, was featured on the Netflix series Ugly Delicious and Chefs’ Table.