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2021 new restaurants will include 2 from ‘Top Chef’ Nicholas Elmi on the Main Line

The 2021 crop is expected to include an urban winery in Kensington, a Di Bruno’s location on the Main Line, and a Sugar Factory in Cherry Hill.

A rendering of Lark, a restaurant being developed in Bala Cynwyd by Nicholas Elmi and Fia Berisha.
A rendering of Lark, a restaurant being developed in Bala Cynwyd by Nicholas Elmi and Fia Berisha.Read moreCOURTESY LOUBIER DESIGN

You might think that a pandemic that has brought the restaurant industry to its knees would stifle development and growth.

Think again.

It’s sparked all sorts of pivoting and other forms of creativity, enabling many restaurateurs to hang on. For some, especially the well-heeled restaurant groups, expansion is now in order.

The 2021 crop of new restaurants is expected to include two on the Main Line from chef Nicholas Elmi and veteran restaurateur Fia Berisha, as well as an urban winery in Kensington, a Di Bruno’s location on the Main Line, two Mexican restaurants in Kensington from the owners of Jet Wine Bar, a Mexican restaurant from Stephen Starr, a sandwich shop from the owners of SliCE pizza, and a Sugar Factory American Brasserie in Cherry Hill.

We’re discussing expansions, even with so many closings?

Restaurateurs have optimism hardwired into their DNA. They live to create. They believe that now might be the best time to do it. Interest rates are low, many investors still have cash, rents have dropped in some areas, and vacancies are up. The price of liquor licenses, which rise and fall as a commodity, are at 10-year lows. There is an ample supply of talented managers and workers who have been squeezed out of a job. The pandemic put the brakes on many projects, but work now is resuming as COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out.

Eventually, restaurateurs are guessing, the public will feel comfortable returning to indoor dining. To the cozy, 30-seat storefront BYOBs? Perhaps not right away. And that is one great tragedy of the pandemic: We will lose the small restaurants that define our dining scene and establish the neighborhoods. The 5,000-square-foot dining rooms sectioned off with dividers, ringed by fling-out windows, and ventilated by state-of-the-art HVAC systems will rule the day.

Last year at this time, I saw 27 restaurants on the horizon for the first few months of 2020, of which more than half came to fruition (Fiorella in South Philadelphia, Fabrika in Fishtown, Sly Fox in Malvern, Mei Mei in Old City, Solstice in Newtown, Troubles End in Collegeville, The Wayward and Morea in Center City, Añejo and SET NoLibs at the Piazza in Northern Liberties, Jin Ding in Bryn Mawr, the Lucky Well in Spring Arts, and Laser Wolf and Zig Zag BBQ in Kensington among them).

This year, I see the same number of projects on the books for early 2021. Some are awaiting the return of indoor dining, which could happen in mid-January.

I’m bending the 2021 calendar to include two late-December entries: Down North, chef Kurt Evans’ mission-led pizzeria that employs formerly incarcerated people, to give them a chance to start over, has just started operating from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday to Sunday at 2804 W. Lehigh Ave. Square pizzas are the deal. Also, Dec. 29 is the opening of Ember & Ash (1520 E. Passyunk Ave.), whose specialty is nose-to-tail grilling.

January is the scheduled launch of Mural City Cellars, an urban microwinery at 2011 Amber St. in Kensington. Couple Nicholas Ducos and Francesca Galarus, who live nearby, are sourcing local grapes and bottling their own wines. The winery, decorated to feel like an extension of their living room, will allow in-person visits and purchases.

January is also the target for Biederman’s Specialty Foods, an “appetizing shop” — an old-time retailer specializing in smoked fish, cream cheeses, and other accompaniments to bagels — at 824 Christian St., just off the Italian Market. Owner Lauren Biederman is sourcing her smoked fish locally (via Community’s Michael Sultan) and from elsewhere.

January also is the projected opening of Lost Bread Co., a cafe and retail shop from Alex Bois and Avram Hornik, at 2218 Walnut St. It will be takeout only at first. Menu will include sandwiches, bagels baked throughout the day, seasonal sides from local produce, and a nighttime pizza operation. I’m hearing about a new line of whole-grain pastries and something called a waffle egg pocket.

Warmdaddy’s, the soul food-and-blues destination from Ben and Robert Bynum, is expected to open in new quarters at 1410 Mount Vernon St., next to their jazz themer South, when indoor dining resumes.

When Philadelphia Live! Casino & Hotel opens at Ninth Street and Packer Avenue in early 2021 — when indoor operation is allowed — the casino dining lineup will include The Prime Rib, two Guy Fieri restaurants (one featuring tacos, the other burgers), and a food hall billed as 10th Street Market with stands by Lorenzo & Sons Pizza, Sang Kee Noodle Bar & Kitchen, and Termini Bros. Bakery.

Glu Hospitality, behind such bar-focused establishments as Vesper, SET NoLibs, and Añejo, has shifted more into food. It’s planning a January-February opening for Bagels & Co. on the Second Street side of the Piazza in Northern Liberties (formerly Saige Coffee). It will be a cafe, bake shop, and sandwich spot open for breakfast and lunch. Its outdoor space will be under the Piazza’s overhang for all-weather dining.

Lamberti Pizza & Market is being set up at 707 Chestnut St. (the long-ago Chifa/Rosa Blanca) to coincide with the return of indoor dining. It will be a larger version of Aldo Lamberti’s Pizza Fresca, which closed a few doors away in June. Menu of pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and pasta for dine in, takeout, and delivery will be supplemented by prepared foods to go.

Justin Weathers and executive chef Joseph Monnich await the return of indoor dining to open Stove & Tap’s West Chester location at 158 W. Gay St. A bar concept with a separate entrance on Darlington Street is farther off. The partners, who have two other Stove & Tap locations, Al Pastor, and The Bercy, are also looking for a mid-spring opening of a new restaurant in Chester Springs.

The Landing Kitchen will be an all-day café from chef Nicholas Elmi (Laurel, ITV, Royal Boucherie) and partner Fia Berisha (ex-Elements and Aether) at 619 Righters Ferry Rd. in Bala Cynwyd, as part of a redevelopment of the old Pencoyd Iron Works. It’s up for a February debut. It will serve what they describe as “light, bright, and nourishing” breakfast and lunch options alongside fresh bread and pastries, baked in house. There also will be scenic riverside outdoor seating. Read on for a second restaurant in the same building.

Bridget Foy’s has returned from a 2017 fire, setting up at Second and South Streets initially as an outdoor/delivery pop-up called East Philly Cafe, its original name from 1978. In late February or March, depending on the indoor-dining situation, it will pick up the Bridget Foy’s name and a new, more expansive menu.

Di Bruno Bros. will expand its footprint in the Main Line in late winter with a new destination at 375 W. Lancaster Ave. in the Stafford Shopping Center in Wayne, sharing a parking lot with Lancaster County Farmers Market. Look for a wine and cheese bar, pizza counter, and coffee bar in addition to specialty cheese, charcuterie, and specialty foods.

Lark will be a coastal restaurant from Elmi and Berisha on the seventh floor, above The Landing Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd. It will have a seasonal menu influenced by the flavors of both the Mediterranean and Mid-Atlantic, with an emphasis on sustainably sourced seafood, heritage meats, and local vegetables. It’s up for March.

Rex, the popular bar-restaurant at 1516 South St., is looking at early April for its move next door into the historic Royal Theater, 1524 South St. (Owner Jill Weber says Sor Ynez, a sibling of her Mexican restaurant Cafe Ynez, is awaiting licensing issues. It’s opening at 1800 N. American St. in Kensington.

Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, the toast of New York, is looking at April for the opening of a shop at 13th and Sansom Streets, where Capogiro was. Across the intersection, where Zavino was, Michael Schulson’s corporate address is linked to a liquor-license application. No comment from him on that, as well as on the two Camden restaurants he announced in May 2019.

Stephen Starr is saying April for LMNO (1739-49 N. Front St.), his collaboration with nightlife impresario Serge Becker (La Esquina, The Box). It will be a Mexican themer next door to Evil Genius in Fishtown. Starr had this on the books for April 2020 but elected to wait a full year to avoid pandemic hassles.

Chris Fetfatzes and Heather Annechiarico (Hawthornes Beer Cafe and Pivot, Wine Dive, The Cambridge, Tio Flores) are saying “early to mid-spring” for Grace & Proper, a neighborhood corner bar and kitchen with Jon Medlinsky (Martha in Kensington), at 941 S. Eighth St. (corner of Carpenter). The menu will be influenced by the cuisines and products sourced from the Italian Market a block away. The interior will mix sleek and retro elements with industrial materials. Look for indoor and outdoor seating, cocktails to go, day and evening service, weekend brunch, delivery and takeout.

“Warm weather” will see La Chinesca, a melding of Chinese and Mexican cuisine with a bar in a former Jiffy Lube at 11th and Spring Garden Streets, says Michael Pasquarello (Kensington Quarters, Cafe Lift).

Avram Hornik (Morgan’s Pier, Rosy’s Tacos, Lost Bread, etc.) is headed to the Main Line in the spring with Lola’s Garden at Suburban Square, an indoor-outdoor restaurant, patio and beer/wine garden hybrid taking inspiration from his company’s popular Rittenhouse restaurant Harper’s Garden.

May is the target for the region’s third location of the Chinese bar-restaurant DanDan, which Cat Huang plans to open in Suburban Square next to Lola’s Garden.

Back to Glu and the Piazza in Northern Liberties: It’s taking over the former home of Wahlburgers with at least two, yet-unnamed restaurants overseen by chef Hee “Chino” Chang in the spring.

Marlo and Jason Dilks, the couple behind SliCE and P’unk Burger, are headed to 21st Street and Passyunk Avenue in the spring for an unnamed eatery that will be what they say is “a modern take on old-world favorite sandwiches.”

Sugar Factory American Brasserie, which has a sweet and savory menu (like Max Brenner), will take over for Zinburger at Cherry Hill’s Garden State Park Town Center by June.

And patience, for those awaiting Victory Brewing Co.’s taproom and brewery on the Ben Franklin Parkway at 18th Street. That is up for the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest.