A reader recently asked if I could explain the surge in great new restaurants in Queen Village, which made me reflect on what a pleasant surprise it has been to watch this old neighborhood take such a noticeable step forward, because the story line here is a little different and, perhaps, more subtle.
In recent years, it seems, all the hot restaurant talk centered on neighborhoods like Fishtown, Kensington, and East Passyunk, where gentrification has delivered obvious and dramatic transformations. But it’s fascinating to consider a well-established neighborhood that has not really experienced a significant decline as a candidate for Philly’s hottest new restaurant district. And 2019 has been some kind of special year for new Queen Village restaurants, especially south of South Street (which is a discussion in its own right).
So far this year, the historic district bounded by the Delaware River, Sixth Street, Washington Avenue, and Lombard Street has already scored three new three-bell restaurants: omakase specialist Sakana, the affordable noodle-centric comforts at Cry Baby Pasta, and the all-day Italian wood-fired cafe at Fiore. There’s a fantastic next-level ramen shop, Neighborhood Ramen. Another ambitious new neighborhood spot, Olly, recently got a two-bell review. There’s an elegant chocolatier in Aurora Grace. And I’ll be looking forward to digging into the seasonal small plates and natural wines soon at the bright, new Bloomsday Cafe on Head House Square.
That’s a lot of notable new places for one neighborhood in a short period of time, but it’s an acceleration of a trend that’s been brewing for years, one that can be explained by a number of factors. The ongoing reinvention of the family businesses along Fourth Street’s Fabric Row into fashion-focused retail boutiques has been a major sign of new life, reaffirmed by the success of restaurants like the charmed Hungry Pigeon and Southwark, which successfully survived a potentially tricky transfer of ownership.
Those two neighborhood-friendly concepts speak to the maturing diversity of residents who want to use these restaurants morning, noon, and night (plus special occasions at Southwark’s tasting-menu sibling, Ambra). There’s a worthy new Bagel Place at Fourth and Queen Streets for morning options (a forthcoming Spread Bagelry at Fifth and South, too), as well as the city’s best deli at the classic Famous 4th Street Delicatessen. Three-bell Royal Izakaya targets a neighborhood crowd with its no-reservations front room, while offering an upscale option in its four-bell omakase counter, Royal Sushi, in back.
Longtime residents say the emergence of the William M. Meredith elementary school as a high-achieving public school option has begun to retain young families with expendable dining income who previously would have left for the suburbs: “In the old days you’d see a lot of strollers, but now you see older kids riding bicycles, too, which means people are staying,” says John Foy, 67, who’s been a restaurateur on Head House Square since 1978. The return of his Bridget Foy’s from a devastating fire is expected this fall.
For potential restaurateurs, meanwhile, Queen Village’s status as an established neighborhood just beyond Center City’s higher-rent districts plays in its favor, especially as some of its well-maintained storefronts naturally cycle. The operators of New York’s Emmy Squared are moving into a new boutique hotel at Fifth and Bainbridge Streets, across from Olly’s forthcoming pizza sibling, GiGi. And the owners of Fiore, for example, saw the lovely but quirky old Kanella South space as a better fit for them economically than the larger, raw spaces available in Kensington, the much-publicized neighborhood where they had initially hoped to open a restaurant when they moved from New York.
Realtor (and former Vernick bar manager) Vince Stipo of MSC Retail says it makes sense: “We have seen commercial rents increase as high as 100 percent to 250 percent in some areas [like Fishtown and East Passyunk], whereas Queen Village has remained relatively stable.”
If Queen Village’s three-bell gold rush continues, though, could the dining scene here get so crowded that its current success stories become threatened by the kind of oversaturation that eventually slowed other hot neighborhoods? Unlikely, according to Foy.
“I’m with the rising-tides-lifts-all boats crowd,” he says. “I want critical mass. If someone wants to open a restaurant across the street from me, I’ll help them build it.”