This time last year, I was counting up all the new restaurants in King of Prussia with amazement. Now look what's happening. Also this week, I found a new chef has amped up a well-regarded suburban brew pub and I visited a new Indian bar-restaurant near Logan Square. And listen up, folks: Craig LaBan is talking about restaurant noise.
Nothing, it seems, can stop the King of Prussia restaurant boom. This time last year, I ran down a list of a dozen fine-dining restaurants, as well as four dozen casual restaurants and cafés. In short, about 4,000 seats had been added in the preceding 18 months — virtually all chain- or group-owned. This includes the entire King of Prussia Town Center, which factors in the 300-seat Founding Farmers and the 250-seat Davio's.
Well, there's more: Last month saw the debut of North Italia, a polished mod Italian eatery founded by Arizona-based James Beard nominee Sam Fox, in King of Prussia Mall's expansion corridor between Macy's and Neiman Marcus. North Italia, a 300-plus-seater, serves a menu of pastas, pizzas, and familiar entrees and includes a bar.
Nov. 2 marks the public opening of the luxe, $$$$ Eddie V's Prime Seafood (waterfall out front! 247 seats! piano in the bar!), built from the ground up on a pad outside the mall on Dekalb Pike at Mall Boulevard, across from Sullivan's Steakhouse. Eddie V's, owned by Darden (Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse), at least has local operators: chef Greg Vassos (who won three bells from critic Craig LaBan for his work at Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell, N.J.) and operating partner Steve Olson, who has a chain background.
But wait, there's more: Bartaco, a syndicated beach-themer focused on Brazil, Uruguay, and Southern California and run by the people behind the monstrous hit Barcelona on East Passyunk Avenue, is in the hiring phase for a large spot next to North Italia. Its opening is penciled in for early 2019.
Classic Cake Co. | Center City
The baking giant opens an all-day cafe at 1617 JFK Blvd. on Oct. 31.
Eddie V's Prime Seafood | Center City
Keep | Jenkintown
This gracious (but not white-tablecloth) American BYOB with a seasonal menu from chef Mike Jenkins (a Di Bruno's cheesemonger-turned-Garces executive chef) and Melody Lauletta (who, after managing with the Garces organization, helped Nick Elmi open ITV on East Passyunk) opens Nov. 2 at 417 Old York Rd.
Taqueria Del Norte | Northeast Philadelphia
What was the Blue Duck (2859 Holme Ave.) is now a taqueria, opening Nov. 1.
Verona Ristorante Italiano | Haddonfield
Ela | Queen Village
Saturday, Nov. 3 is the last call at chef Jason Cichonski's bistro at Third and Bainbridge Streets. Crybaby Pasta & Wine Bar is up next for the space.
The Thirsty Soul, 1551 W. Passyunk Ave., 4-7 p.m. Monday to Friday
New on the scene is The Thirsty Soul, a corner bar at 16th and Passyunk. Partners Billy Hines, Adrienne Salvatore-Markey, and Tom Lidiak packed the joint with reclaimed church items, including a backlit stained-glass bartop and a real confessional booth with a secret back door leading into a speakeasy-like second room.
Happy hour includes a fine cheeseburger on brioche with crispy fries for $7, and on the liquid side, half-price punch bowls ($20 instead of $40) and $1 off drafts, including Victory Storm King, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, Lord Hobo's Angelica, and Evil Genius' Cocktails & Dreams.
Forest & Main Brewing Co., 61 N. Main St., Ambler
Less is more in menu-making, the logic being that you can focus on quality. This is one smart move by chef Maurice deRamus, who recently joined Forest & Main, the fine brewpub tucked into an old house in downtown Ambler. DeRamus, whose long resume includes a slew of Main Line restaurants such as A La Maison and Paramour, divides his list into 10 "smaller things" (such as wings, a cheese plate, and mac and cheese) and only eight "bigger things," such as two burgers, two mussel preparations, fish and chips, and a chicken sandwich. These Brussels sprout tacos ($12) are built on a gloriously garlicky refried white bean spread and topped with slaw and chipotle aioli. That's also a 10-ouncer of Temporary Short Pants, a British bitter.
Thanal Indian Tavern, 1930 Arch St.
The name means "flame" in Tamil, and I detected a few flashes at the bright, modern Thanal — say it "tunnel' — which opened last week at 20th and Arch Streets. Owners are ramping up slowly, and so the menu is growing. For now, the best bets seem to be the extensive lunch buffet ($13.95, served 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily), stocked with the usual (chicken vindaloo, chicken tikka masala, cauliflower 65, dal tadka, saag paneer), and the buy-one/get-one drink specials at the bar over happy hour. (How about a Madras mule, with green chili vodka, ginger jagger beer, and chamomile liqueur?) You'll also want to check chef Vivek Mohan's Hyderabad-inspired biryani dishes; he's southern Indian. It's open daily from lunchtime through dinner.
Last week I sat down with Han Chiang of Han Dynasty to talk about how the self-described "outcast" built his mini Sichuan empire. He was pretty much an open book about everything from his childhood to how he came up with that name.
The former Yards Brewing site in Northern Liberties is coming alive once more when Mainstay Independent Brewing Co. opens on Nov. 1. Yes, there will be a tasting room.
Some of my colleagues bravely tasted all the local foods named and designed after the Flyers' new mascot Gritty so you don't have to.
Reader: I'm looking for a quiet restaurant, but all the places you visit seem to be too loud, based on your decibel readings. Do quiet restaurants even exist?
Craig LaBan: SORRY? WHAT WAS THAT??
You've just asked one of the most frequent questions I get from readers — and one I've increasingly had difficulty answering. That's in large part a result of both restaurant design trends and changes in sound-measuring technology, and they are the primary reasons I've decided to do away with the decibel readings — for now — and pay closer attention to what restaurant noise means in more direct terms for the dining experience.
Let me explain. The short answer to your question is no. There really are very few quiet restaurants in Philly that either (1) are not half-empty, or (2) measure up to the decibel standards we established in 2002 when I met with an audiologist who recommended a proper device for measuring sound (a clunky Radio Shack special) and launched many years of sound measuring in restaurants.
In fact, that earliest recommended target number for a "quiet restaurant" — 70 decibels — instantly proved to be an unattainable audiologist's library dream, so we bumped up that baseline to a somewhat more reasonable 75 decibels. Even that, however, became an almost impossible number to hit as Philly's restaurant scene energetically took off, and was fueled by cozy BYOBs with little budget for soundproofing, boisterous-by-nature gastropubs, and increasingly casual venues that deliberately stripped away the tablecloths and carpet as a design statement to channel the zeitgeist of leaving fine dining behind. (Hard surfaces, by the way, also are cheaper to maintain.)
As my own ears adjusted to the new normal, I began to consider any place that hovered around 80 decibels to be manageable for conversation. Then my trusty old sound meter died (along with the local Radio Shack to replace it). Of course, there are plenty of phone apps out there now that measure sound, and I've used several of them for years, with mixed success. I've found them to be incredibly inconsistent, with wide variation between readings on different apps, even when cross-referenced at the same meal. So which numbers should I rely on? Ultimately, I've come to believe that those situational readings are less valuable at this point than simply relying on my own senses and experience to tell you whether conversation at a restaurant is a breeze or a chore.
And I will. In recent weeks, I've praised places that spent the money to invest in artfully hidden but effective sound-proofing from the start, like Spice Finch, or went to the trouble of adding expensive but meaningful upgrades to an existing space, like Friday Saturday Sunday, whose once un-talkable second-floor dining room is now manageable for conversation over a special meal. I wouldn't call it "quiet," per se, but it's not so noisy, either, that it gets in the way of the pleasure of dinner. My recent dining guide focus on classic restaurants was a fine reminder that older restaurants still value cushy ambiance. Places like La Famiglia, the Saloon, Bibou, Townsend, and Mustard Greens remain, on the whole, quiet survivors.
Of course, there are still plenty of noise-bomb newcomers whose lack of consideration for diner comfort will be loudly chastised in their reviews. As we continue to mature as a restaurant scene, it only makes sense that we start to value that aspect of more sophisticated design, as well. I'll be sure to shout about it when the occasion arises — just to make sure I'm heard.