Jim Creed was helping to run the nascent Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau in 1982 when a hotel-developer friend posed the question: "How would you like to have a restaurant?"
With no experience, Creed and a partner (who fancied himself an Austrian baron) opened the posh Baron's Inne (the "e" for effect) at what was The Sting on North Gulph Road near the old Valley Forge Convention Center.
"We were the only real game in town," Creed said last week. "There were places, but unless you count Lily Langtry's [at the old Sheraton Valley Forge Hotel], there was no fine dining, let's put it that way."
Now, within 10 minutes of his restaurant — renamed Creed's Seafood & Steaks as part of a renovation in 2001 — there are at least a dozen fine-dining establishments, as well as four dozen casual restaurants and cafés such as Panera and Corner Bakery.
The King of Prussia restaurant scene — growing steadily over the years, reflecting the rise of the Route 202 corridor — exploded last year. The King of Prussia Mall added several large restaurants on outparcels and opened Savor, a food hall, as part of its Pavilion expansion. Also, the first of a dozen restaurants opened at the King of Prussia Town Center, a mixed-use development built on what had been a 158-acre golf course about five minutes from both Creed's and the mall.
All told, according to an informal count, about 4,000 restaurant seats were added in King of Prussia in the last 18 months.
Though Creed said the new competition would make 2017 a leaner year financially for him, he said he was not worried. The area's residential count is rapidly growing as well, and "we have such a great, loyal customer base after all these years," he said. "Everybody refers to this as their Cheers."
Most of the new restaurant operators are based out of town. While they may be saddled with the "chain" label, most also are smaller companies — with six units or fewer — and are making their debut in the Philadelphia area. One newcomer in particular, Mistral, whose other location is in Princeton, N.J., has enjoyed outstanding reviews.
The latest, opening this week, is Founding Farmers, a sprawling bar-restaurant tucked into the Town Center, open from breakfast through late night with a farm-to-table menu. It's the first location outside of the Washington, D.C., area. In an interview, the operators said they expected to feed 1,600 people over the opening weekend.
Among those still due are MidiCi, a pizzeria with a live tree growing in the middle of its dining room, opening next month at the Town Center, an outpost of Jose Garces' Buena Onda at the Mall, and Eddie V's, a seafood restaurant from the behemoth Darden, opening next summer on a pad outside the mall.
The boom's effects can be felt in the price of liquor licenses, which in Pennsylvania are traded on the open market. Of the 36 active restaurant liquor licenses in Upper Merion Township, 30 are now attached to restaurants in zip code 19406.
Matthew Goldstein, a lawyer who specializes in liquor-license transactions, said that at the height of the demand in 2015 and 2016, the price of a Montgomery County license had soared above $500,000. The price has now settled to about $390,000 — a huge rise over the typical price five years ago, which was about $300,000, he said. The increase was driven not only by the influx of restaurants but by supermarket operators wishing to sell alcohol. The Wegmans store at the Town Center not only sells wine and beer but has a large pub of its own.
Not that a King of Prussia address guarantees success. Savor lost its central tenant when The Fat Ham closed with the collapse of Kevin Sbraga's empire. The Taco Truck's space at Savor sits empty, though Buena Onda will replace it this fall.
Will this growth continue? Ron Gorodesky, a restaurant and hotel developer and consultant, said that super-regional malls like King of Prussia are repositioning into entertainment centers and product showcases. "Think of the Tesla store," he said. "Driving traffic to the centers are destination restaurants."
And it's only beginning, Gorodesky said. "The big malls 20 years from today will look more like theme parks," he said.
For steak, there's the Brazilian churrascaria Fogo de Chao at the Town Center.
For burgers, Shake Shack has one location inside Savor at the Mall and a free-standing location outside of the Mall. The Habit Burger is new at the Town Center.
For American cuisine: Mistral, the branch of the Princeton standout tucked under the Grand Lux Cafe at the Mall, offers an accessible, farm-to-table menu at various price points (sandwiches to full dinners), plus a bar. Founding Farmers, at the Town Center, shows promise with its scratch baking program and counterstyle breakfast. Mission BBQ at the Town Center, which gives back to military and first responders, is a family-friendly destination. True Food Kitchen, on a pad outside the Mall, preaches the healthful theme to extremes, as does b.good, at the Town Center.
For snacks: Duck Donuts, which sells customizable doughnuts at the Town Center.
For lunch: Halal Guys, in a strip center north of The Mall. Naf Naf Grill, at the Town Center, does pita sandwiches and other Mediterranean food. Honeygrow, the salad/stir-fry specialist, has a corner spot at the Town Center. Paladar, a Latin concept at the Town Center, has reasonably priced specials.
For Italian: Davio's, the Boston-based white-tablecloth destination that opened long ago in Center City, is at the Town Center; it also operates the offshoot Davio's Galleria, serving panini, salads, and gelato, across the street.
For pizza: Pizzeria Vetri is set up next to corporate masters Urban Outfitters at the Mall. Easily trumps the quarter-pies served at Nicoletta Pizzeria, at Savor at the Mall.
For beer: The roomy City Works at the Town Center has 90 on tap, while Yard House at the Mall has 130 on tap.