Phyllis Stein-Novack, 70, of Center City, who reviewed restaurants and covered the arts as a freelancer for newspapers including the South Philly Review for more than 20 years, died Tuesday, July 30, after a long illness at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
She never went to a doctor, said her husband of 38 years, real estate broker Edward Novack. She had “a number of ailments that caught up to her,” he said.
Ms. Stein-Novack, known for wearing hats that also helped her shun the camera (she owned about 30 “and many more handbags,” her husband said), was born in Southwest Philadelphia. The family moved to Lower Merion as she entered junior high school. She graduated from Temple University. Among her early jobs was working on the presidential campaign of George McGovern, where, her husband said, she hobnobbed with celebrities and politicos and learned to play cards.
Her father, Manuel Stein, a car dealer, was a member of the Vesper Club, and her visits to the then-private club in Center City helped inform her tastes.
She met her husband when she moved into an apartment at Park Towne Place, where he had lived for a few years.
Ms. Stein-Novack had always wanted to be a reporter, and began freelancing for newspapers including the Camden Courier-Post, The Inquirer, and the Daily News.
A love of cooking led her to the Daily News in 1982, she told an interviewer for Philadelphia City Paper. She pitched a story idea about a Mother’s Day breakfast in bed that children could cook with adult supervision. She later reviewed local cookbooks for the paper.
Maria Gallagher, a former Daily News food editor, described Ms. Stein-Novack as enthusiastic about the subject. “She liked cooking as much as visiting restaurants,” she said. Although her work was “very Philly-centric,” Gallagher said, she had “quite wide-ranging interest in food and kept up with trends.”
In 1996, Ms. Stein-Novack became a regular contributor to the South Philly Review, her most visible work. Her last reviews appeared in 2016. She also was a supporter of the Book and the Cook, a city-sponsored event that paired cookbook authors and restaurants, and wrote its cookbook.
“She demanded certain things, no matter the caliber of the restaurant,” Edward Novack said. “Hot dishes had to be hot, not lukewarm. She didn’t want a conversation with a waiter or waitress. Their job is to deliver food; the customer will ask the questions. She hated ‘What are we having?' The server is not joining us. She wanted light, not dark. Food is a joy. If the restaurant is dark, you should be suspicious. She also didn’t want to be drowned out by loud music.”
She liked her beef rare, her lamb medium rare, and her cooked vegetables served with a bit of crunch. She loathed sweet brioche rolls enveloping savory hamburgers. She especially loved gin martinis. She told City Paper that she developed a taste for gin and vermouth when she was about 2 or 3 years old and used to swipe the olives from her father’s martinis.
In a profession whose critics dole out stars and sometimes bells to sum up a review, Ms. Stein-Novack awarded “tips of the toque” — a seemingly quaint tag that belied the passion of her opinions but reflected a certain quirkiness of her writing style.
Often including her husband and her cousin Carl in her reviews, she embraced an everywoman’s take on the dining experience. She was not afraid to admit that she was unfamiliar with some of the foods she sampled. In her 2015 review of V Street, she wrote: “I had no idea of what a langos ($9) was going to be. It looked like a small pizza sliced into four wedges. This dish is prepared with bits of smoked beets mixed with a sauerkraut remoulade topped with small fronds of fragrant dill. I have never tasted a sauerkraut remoulade.”
In a 2010 pan of her dinner at Adsum, then in Queen Village, she found the foie gras “as small as half a premature baby’s foot. We evenly divided it between two share plates and found it OK, but just too small.”
In an otherwise positive 2016 review of the now-closed SuGa, she recounted a composed seafood salad that was served with slices of ripe avocado. “After several attempts,” she wrote, "I discovered it is difficult to eat avocado with chopsticks.” She was gratified to learn that restaurateurs heeded her criticisms, her husband said.
And while she was happy to see tomato salad on the menu of Morgan’s Pier on the Delaware Riverfront, as she wrote in a 2014 review, “my pleasure quickly turned to despair as soon as I took a look at the mushy tomato wedges slopped into a deep clear plastic bowl of slightly sweet sauce that lurked at the bottom."
“They lacked herbs and seasoning of any kind, especially salt,” she wrote. "Not even a bit of sodium helped this poor excuse for a tomato salad. If they were heirloom tomatoes, I’m the Queen of Sheba. The dish was inedible.”
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan called Ms. Stein-Novack “an emissary from an earlier era of restaurant criticism, with her bottomless martinis and the recurring cast of quirky family members in her opinionated reviews. But she earned a devoted following because of that: Whether they agreed with her or not, readers never wondered where she stood on a restaurant. Four ‘tips of the toque’ to a critic who wore her mission proudly, no matter how colorful the subsequent comment sections became.”
Besides her husband, she is survived by a sister and nieces.