Yes, we need a little Christmas. In the case of Tinsel, a seasonal Center City bar, you get a lot of Christmas. Now. This week, I’ll also steer you to West Philly for outstanding Yemeni food and to an old favorite on Rittenhouse Square. Critic Craig LaBan, meanwhile, drops info on restaurants that have solid bars.
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Tinsel: Deck the halls. Then do it again.
Teddy Sourias, whose Center City bar holdings include Tradesman’s, BRU, Cinder, and U-Bahn, got a line last year on the jewelry store next door to his Finn McCool's at 12th and Sansom. Why not turn it into a Christmas-theme bar with lights and festive drinks? Tinsel was a hit, drawing lines nightly.
Tinsel is back, effective Thursday, Dec. 6, through New Year's — with even more Christmas spirit. Designer Anne White created a wall festooned with more than 1,000 Christmas bows, a chandelier made from more than 500 glass and plastic ornament balls, and set up a Santa throne in the back room — the idea being that off-duty mall Santas can hold court and ask fellow patrons if they've been naughty or nice this year.
Cocktail list has been amped. You can get a "Canned Good" — a choice of Deep Eddy’s vodka or Bacardi cuatro with cranberry and cinnamon that is served in a custom Tinsel soup can you can take home; $1 from each $13 purchase benefits MANNA. Another cocktail, made of Grey Goose La Vanille and White Cranberry, is served in a snow globe with edible tapioca "snow."
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 2 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday, noon to midnight Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
This Week’s Openings
Del Frisco's Grille | Center City
The somewhat-more-casual sibling of the Chestnut Street steakhouse grand-opens Dec. 10 at 255 S. Broad St. at the Cambria Hotel; meanwhile during soft launch, lunch and dinner are half-price through Dec. 9, with proceeds donated to charity.
Makhani | Old City
Indian BYOB is in its soft-opening phase at 7 N. Third St.
Oath Pizza | Ardmore
Across from the Apple store in Suburban Square, this chain out of Nantucket rocks the ethical-souring mantra and offer pizzas whose thin and crispy crusts are grilled and seared in avocado oil.
Tinsel | Center City
This Week’s Closings
Imbibe | West Conshohocken
The bar-restaurant that replaced Stella Blu only six months ago has closed because of "internal issues," said owner Sean Weinberg.
Mi-Lah Vegetarian | Ambler/Broad Axe
The Asian BYOB has wrapped a 10-year run in a strip mall on Skippack Pike.
TALK | Center City
Gone after five months at 2121 Walnut St. Never clicked with neighbors, who seemed to want a more-accessible menu.
Where we’re enjoying happy hour
Yamitsuki, 1028 Arch St., served 4-6:30 p.m. daily
Yamitsuki, Jack Chen's bright, wood-clad Japanese bar-restaurant on Arch Street near 11th (which whimsically features an Iron Man suit at the entrance), delivers fine happy-hour values for Center City commuters seeking a snack and a sip before the train ride home and for concertgoers at the Troc down the block in need of a pregame.
Hits: Two-for-$5 buns filled with pork, chicken, or eggplant. Four pan-fried gyoza (dumplings) for $4. An order of the Japanese fried chicken dish called karaage for $4, or perhaps takoyaki, the creamy fried fish balls, topped with green onion and bonito. Two sushi rolls will run you $8, and there's a five-piece sushi/sashimi app for $6.
Also on the bill are $6 cocktails, $5 wines, and $3 beers, and if you want to get a little crazy, you can get two soju and sake bombs for $10.
Where we’re eating
Hadramout, 136 S. 45th St., 215-386-0919
Most of us are rookies when it comes to Yemeni cuisine — which comes off mainly Middle Eastern with smatterings of Africa and Asia, befitting its trade-route location on the tip of the Arabian peninsula. Earlier this year, Frank Ebah, who proudly says he's been in "this beloved country of ours" since Feb. 9, 1988, set up a spare yet homey cafe on a West Philly corner to execute the foods of his homeland.
Many customers simply order through the delivery services. It's best you go in, sit down at one of the half-dozen tables, and talk to Ebah.
He'll walk you through the menu, most likely steering you to haneeth (roasted lamb, the most expensive dish on the menu at $15.95), or to the more familiar kebabs, or perhaps saltah (a bubbling stew of vegetables and ground beef) or its related fahsah (with shredded lamb) served in clay pot, or chicken mandi, whose spice blend includes coriander, cumin, cardamom, and clove. The house tea has notes of the same spices.
Whatever you order, for two bucks you'll get a side of khobz, a house-baked flatbread roughly the size of a pizza whose surface is charred by the tandoor.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Rouge, 205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622
Twenty years in, the elegant boîte that Neil Stein created on the 18th Street side of Rittenhouse Square still chugs along, a happy crowd hanging at the massive bar and the locals holding court in the window tables (alas, not on the sidewalk this time of year).
There is a constant: The luscious Rouge Burger, whose 12-ounce beef patty is topped by Bibb lettuce, a tomato slice, carmelized onions, and Gruyere cheese and tucked into a brioche bun with a side of truffle fries.
Chef Sam Noh adds a burger of the month to the mix; this month, it's literally a ham burger — a beef patty topped with mustard greens, Coca-Cola-braised onions, whole-grain mustard, and a thick slice of maple-glazed ham.
And if you're not in a burger mood, try his Noh Pho, a mighty respectable version of the Vietnamese classic served with a choice of protein.
It’s open for lunch/brunch and dinner daily.
For Philadelphia firefighters, dinnertime can be a race against the clock, or a quieter ritual of eating a family meal.
At Thirsty Dice, Philly's board-game bar, the $7-per-person “library fee” for access to the games feels steep, but it comes with not just a library of 800 board games but also personalized help from “gametenders."
There are two Philly competitors on this season of Top Chef, which premieres at 9 p.m. Dec. 6 on Bravo.
Craig LaBan answers your dining questions
Reader: I was sad to hear that longtime Philly cocktail genius Katie Loeb has become so gravely ill she’s now in hospice care. Do you know her well?
Craig LaBan: I do not know Katie well personally, but I’ve covered her, drunk many of her cocktails over the years, and admired her work. She was certainly an important presence on the Philly drink scene for the last couple of decades, becoming one of our earliest and most colorful champions for craft cocktail culture, working everywhere from multiple Neil Stein restaurants (Rouge, Avenue B) to Amada (where she’s credited with the famed red sangria), to Han Dynasty (the Chengdu Mule) and, of course, Chick’s Wine Bar. That’s where many people first discovered her talent for making infusions and fresh mixers, including a lime cordial for her gimlet that was superior to the typical store-bought product she described as “lime-flavored furniture polish.”
Katie was never at a loss for strong opinions or drama behind the bar, where I once saw her “spanking” a leaf of sage between her palms (“Bad sage! Naughty sage!”) before floating it over a Prince tribute drink called Blackberry Beret. It was little wonder she often called herself a “bartendrix.”
Her friends have rallied to set up a GoFundMe campaign to help with her significant medical costs.
But this is also a perfect moment for a toast to Katie at one of the many great restaurant cocktail bars that have opened in Philadelphia thanks, in part, to the enthusiasm for craft and originality she so enthusiastically helped to foster in the local drink scene.
Among my current favorites is Friday Saturday Sunday (261 S. 21st St.), where Paul McDonald and his skilled crew have been known to combine mathematical theories with creativity and art in glass. The bars at both Vernick Food & Drink (2031 Walnut St.) and Townsend (1623 E Passyunk Ave.) are among the most polished restaurant cocktail programs around, often with vivid seasonal twists.
At Oloroso (1121 Walnut St.), Townsend’s Spanish-themed cousin, many of the drinks cleverly incorporate sherry on theme, and bartender Alison Hangen is one of the city’s rising mixology stars.
At Abe Fisher (1623 Sansom St.), one of Philly’s most underrated restaurant bars, a passion for amari and whiskey are front and center. Bitters, local historical references and witty make-overs for undervalued spirits are key to the ambitious cocktail program at Spice Finch (220 S. 17th St.), one of the year’s most beautiful new hits near Rittenhouse Square. (Try the Corpse Reviver #2).
I love the international flavors that infuse the inventive (and vegan) cocktail list at V Street (126 S. 19th St.), as well as the surprising Middle Eastern anise kiss of arak that informs the gorgeous drinks at Suraya (1528 Frankford Ave.)
For pure cheffy creativity, it’s hard to top some of the concoctions at ITV (1615 E. Passyunk Ave.), which is currently serving a Christmas Miracle pop-up list with drinks like the Bad Santa warm milk rum punch and a Snowball Old Fashioned.
But I’ll admit: I’m sort of a traditionalist, which is why I can’t stop thinking about the pristine perfection of the Gibson over at Nick Elmi’s more casual brasserie, Royal Boucherie (52 S. Second St.). Likewise, the classic martini at gin-rich Oyster House, crafted with the restaurant’s own house-made vermouth, is the ultimate elixir to wash down a plate of raw oysters. Of course, the Oyster House (1516 Sansom St.) is yet another of the many restaurant bars that Katie Loeb helped animate and energize over the years with her craft and cocktail passion.
So, raise a glass and cheers to her legacy!
Email Craig here.