More than a year in the works, the $40 million renovation of the retail space on the ground floor of the Bourse, across from Independence Mall, is complete enough for a grand opening. Also this week: I share an Albanian-style diner in South Philly and tell you about one of Center City's new and transporting breakfast/lunch options. Read further, and Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan will offer a look at his typical workday. To anyone who eats for a living, it's safe to say his story will ring a bell (or two) . If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it free every week.
Bourse sets a new course
The Bourse Food Hall — assembling 29 varied vendors beneath the nine-story atrium in the Beaux Arts building between Fourth and Fifth Streets north of Ranstead Street — marks its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting Thursday and giveaways Friday.
The $40 million renovation has been opening in dribs and drabs over the last two months. Three vendors — Break Juicery, Rebel Taco, and Bricco Pizza — are delayed, and the previously announced seafooder/raw bar from Easton's 3rd & Ferry is not happening, leaving a prime center space empty for now.
A peek at the vendor list shows a mix of local entrepreneurs and more far-flung brands (the developers are originally from D.C.) hitting all sorts of cuisine: Soup, Korean-inspired tacos as well as Mexican tacos, breakfast all day, ice cream, pizza, Filipino food, sliders, coffee, baked goods, cheesesteaks, noodles, poke, Indian food, fried chicken as well as other fried foods, Egyptian food, tea, grilled cheese, spices, fresh pasta for take-home as well as pasta dishes, dumplings, Italian sandwiches, beer and spirits, and flowers. Supposedly, a speakeasy-type bar-restaurant also is on the way.
The hall is a welcome change for the Bourse, which for more than three decades offered a dismal "marketplace" of about 10 chain-like food-court stands (deli, pizza, chicken, gyros, cheesesteaks, Chinese food, coffee, and the like), plus souvenir shops.
That said, the big question is whether the historic district's daytime population — including the school-bus crowd that tends to seek only the very basics in food — will embrace all this ambition, especially in the tourist offseason. Delivery business, via Caviar, will be key.
This week’s openings
Bourse Food Hall | Old City
Nick Filet | Paoli
Fast-casual specialist in filet mignon sandwiches replaces Devon Donut at 111 E. Lancaster Ave.
Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall | Atlantic City
A soft opening is set for Nov. 15 at this hops heaven at 133 S. Tennessee Ave., featuring 100 beers on tap. Grand opening will be Thanksgiving Eve.
This week’s closings
El Compadre | South Philadelphia
The sister eatery to South Philly Barbacoa has shut down, as Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller yield to new operators early next year.
Felina | New Hope
This pop-up restaurant in a Main Street mansion has moved on after barely a month, as its permanent home in Ridgewood, N.J., is expected to open soon.
Where we’re enjoying happy hour
Brick & Barrel, 870 Welsh Rd., Maple Glen; 5-7 p.m. weekdays
Even on weeknights, there's a lively, chatty vibe at play at this handsome, family-friendly pub near a busy crossroads between Ambler and Horsham. The big draw: two dozen craft beers on tap, plus dozens more in bottles.
At happy hour, pints are knocked down to $4, while house wines are $5 and lemon-drop martinis and cosmos are $6. If you're not up for an outstanding margherita pizza from the brick oven ($5), everything on the pub-bites menu (wings, mussels, etc.) is discounted $2.
Where we’re eating
Vernick Coffee Bar, 1800 Arch St. (enter on 18th Street)
Chef Greg Vernick, whose eponymous bistro in Rittenhouse is one of the toughest reservations in town, is behind this dual-purpose cafe at the top of the 18th Street escalators at the new Comcast Technology Center.
It's a coffee bar opening at 7 a.m. weekdays, with a full line of coffees, teas, pastries, and light food amid a mod spaceship design whose seating shares Comcast's lobby.
Just off the cafe is a civilized, full-service dining room overlooking the indoor tree canopies in the building's lobby. Weekday breakfast there includes eggs in purgatory ($10) and smoked salmon and buckwheat crepe mille-feuille ($14).
Weekday lunch (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) includes a shaved porchetta sandwich ($12); wild mushroom and avocado grain bowl with Green Goddess dressing ($15); and olive-oil-poached salmon belly over fregola salad, cucumber and basil ($24).
Don't miss the Caffe Umbria single-origin coffees available for pour-over or the Rishi organic teas.
But wait; there's more. Come spring, Vernick will open a second restaurant, Vernick Fish, on the ground floor, more or less below the coffee bar.
Two Eagles Cafe, 1401 S. 20th St.
It may be in South Philadelphia, but there's no Linc to pro football at this snug contemporary corner diner, the culmination of an American dream shared by Nadire and Rudi Karaj. The oldest of their three children was born in Albania, while the next two were born in the United States.
Both nations' symbols are eagles.
Two Eagles opens at 6 a.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. weekdays with a perfect-for-Point Breeze menu of reasonably priced eggs, sandwiches, omelets, French toast, pancakes, and waffles.
At lunch, Nadire's Albanian roots come out. Besides the obligatory cheesesteaks, clubs, and hoagies, you can enjoy crepes, the meatballs known as qofte (served in a tomato sauce with fries and yogurt dill sauce); goat-cheese polenta topped with pulled pork; and fergese (a sort of Albanian version of shakshuka with a baked egg served with toast in a cast-iron skillet atop a sauce of chunky tomatoes and bell peppers).
Closing time is 6 p.m. weekdays, 5 p.m. weekends.
Are you thinking turkey? Chef Eli Collins at a.kitchen created a French country feast for us for Thanksgiving Day.
Want to think outside the oven? Try your hand at Craig LaBan's incredible barbecued turkey.
Craig LaBan says Louie Louie — the new University City restaurant with the convenient double name — is so ear-splittingly noisy he couldn't even complain properly to the well-meaning manager standing right beside him.
Craig LaBan answers your dining questions
Craig LaBan: This week, I took questions from colleagues at Philadelphia Media Network, home of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, who wanted to know a little more about how I do my job. Though we work together in an open newsroom, everyone has different challenges and diverse routines depending on their beat. I thought I'd share my answers with readers, too.
Describe your job in one word.
Take us through a typical workday.
Every day is different, but I typically bike commute to a café for a couple very early quiet hours, transcribing restaurant notes, catching up on emails, smaller features, and social media. Then a couple hours at the gym, spinning away at least some of the previous night's dinner assignment. Frequently, I have a lunch mission to scout a restaurant (better reserve that car share early!) then I'm back in the office for the afternoon doing chef interviews, writing articles, planning with editors and coordinating photo assignments. More often than not, I head out by 6 p.m. to pop by home to see my family before going out for a review dinner.
How do you try so many dishes at a restaurant? Multiple visits? Do you go with a group or just appear to be an especially hungry customer?
The more lengthy bell-rated Sunday reviews are always the product of multiple meals, and almost all of those meals are always eaten with trusted companions. By the time I'm done reporting, I'll typically have sampled at least 20 or more different items at each restaurant, provided their menu is that large.
What's the most fun part of your work?
I'm so lucky I get the opportunity to learn more about the friends and colleagues who come along while I'm working at a review meal. I really am paying attention to them — even if it seems like I'm just muttering food notes to myself. But really, the best part of my job is covering people who are so incredibly talented and creative, who are shaping one of the most vital, diverse and meaningful parts of our city's culture one plate at a time.
What's your best shortcut or time-saver?
Summer interns! I could never produce my annual dining guides without them. This year, they transcribed nearly 70 recordings of restaurant notes and input data for 130 more. And I still barely made deadline.
What do you wish others at PMN (and beyond) knew about your job?
I'm a reporter first and foremost, and eating is just the beginning. Reviews don't just emerge fully formed when I walk out that restaurant door. So much more goes into each Sunday article: the transcription of notes from multiple visits; extensive post-meal phone interviews with chefs and restaurant owners; detailed coordination with photographers; and, of course, the writing, which is always the hard part.
Also, everyone thinks they want the job with free food until they realize the brutal pace. Depending upon the time of year, I eat out for work 6 to 12 times a week between lunches and dinners. But it's even more when I'm in the thick of research for the annual dining guides and visiting, say, 120 restaurants in six months. I have been known to visit as many as eight restaurants between lunch and dinner on a single day in the name of research. But I can't recommend it. Because some of them aren't good. Luckily, though, I am always a hungry customer. Otherwise doing this over and over would be torture — instead of what I still regard as the luckiest job in the world.
Email Craig here.