NEW YORK - Just a few years ago, Philadelphia came into its own as a magnet for ambitious young chefs from around the country who sought their culinary fortunes in a city rich with restaurant opportunity.
But the story line has now reversed, as Philadelphia's restaurant stars have begun exporting their brands, especially, at the moment, to Manhattan.
These days, New Yorkers can find spicy dandan heaven at a Han Dynasty in the East Village. Or a Hickory Town breakfast sandwich at the new High Street on Hudson in the West Village. Or how about some tapas and paella at the gleaming new Amada that Jose Garces opened in Battery Park last week?
And that's only the beginning. With two more restaurants set to open this month, one from hummus hero Michael Solomonov and another from Stephen Starr, Philadelphia's culinary stars are having their Big Apple moment - and with ambitious concepts that go well beyond the old cheesesteak clichés.
"It's amazing to look up and all of a sudden realize that Philadelphia is such a bright spot on New York's landscape," says Kate Krader, restaurant editor for Food & Wine magazine, based in New York. "And these Philadelphia restaurants are bringing a really distinctive point of view."
That Philadelphians are now bringing their concepts to New York's main stage is a point of pride for a community that's often felt underappreciated by the nation's food-erati.
"People in New York are impressed by what is happening in Philadelphia's food scene," says Ellen Yin, who together with chef Eli Kulp recreated Old City's High Street on Market in New York. "It has arrived as a major restaurant city."
The Philly culinary push has been national, in fact, with local chefs opening restaurants from Washington, D.C., to Florida and Texas. (Local coffee giant La Colombe has been in mega-expansion mode, too.) But there is a special challenge in New York.
"People warned me not to go to New York because everything is harder - the contractors, the customers, the health department, and the rent, which is quadruple what I pay in Old City," said Han Dynasty's Han Chiang. "But I love to do things when people tell me I can't."
His first location opened in 2013 (ironically next door to a cheesesteak place called 99 Miles to Philly) and has seen both raves and mixed reviews ("when it opened it was a sensation," says Krader). But Chiang is already scouting his third New York branch near the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.
"If I can make a name here," he says, "it will be much easier for my global domination."
Starr is already well on his way, with his 36th restaurant, Le Coucou, a "boutiquey" French-inspired project set to open May 9 at the 11 Howard hotel in SoHo. It will be his sixth restaurant in New York, where he's been called a "blockbuster crowd-pleaser" by the New York Times for mega-restaurants like Buddakan and Morimoto, which pioneered the Philly-to-NYC move 10 years ago.
"If you do something in Philly you feel good about, you can take it to New York," said Starr, whose Buddakan NYC last year topped $21 million in sales. "I was very insecure to begin with. And I'm still a Philly guy at heart. But I feel like I'm a part of New York right now, too. It feels like it's part of my beach."
Honing his concepts in Philly's more intimate scene, he believes, has given him the advantage of a deep appreciation for customer service he doesn't always see in his New York competitors.
"In a smaller town, you know your customers," he said. "You can never have the attitude some restaurants have here that there will always be new customers no matter what."
For many Philly chefs now setting up kitchens in New York, though, it's a return to familiar roots.
Steven Cook, who's soon to open a branch of his Dizengoff hummus cafe in Chelsea Market with chef-partner Solomonov, learned to cook in New York.
"It's where I fell in love with restaurants," said Cook, who just won the James Beard "Cookbook of the Year" award for Zahav, which he wrote with Solomonov. "There is an underlying sense that you haven't really proved yourself until you've done it in New York. But it's really scary right before you sign on that line."
A return to New York is also the case for Jose Garces, who came to Philadelphia a virtual unknown as chef Douglas Rodriguez's proxy to open Alma de Cuba for Starr in 2001. Fifteen years later, with an Iron Chef title, 14 restaurants scattered across three cities and a tried-and-true hit in Amada now launching its third iteration, Garces still must to prove himself to an audience jaded by big names.
"Jose Garces is probably the best chef a lot of people here still don't know," says Food & Wine's Krader. "But he's in an emerging place where there's an immediate need for more restaurants where you can proudly go and Instagram your meals. It's a smart business move."
Opening a restaurant in New York was always in the plans for Fork's Yin since she partnered with longtime Manhattan vet Kulp. "I always want to be the best, and we're both ambitious people."
So they laid plans to open the West Village spin-off of High Street long before the Amtrak derailment that left Kulp paralyzed one year ago.
Undeterred, and with much of their Philly team staffing the exceptional kitchen and bakery, High Street on Hudson opened in December to stellar notices. New York Times critic Pete Wells praised "the high level of intelligence the kitchen applies to everything it does from morning through evening."
Perhaps the timing of the Philly surge is opportune, as it became fashionable in 2015 for the national food press, from the Washington Post to Eater.com, to complain that New York's homegrown scene has become a bore.
"Last year was not our best year," Krader concedes, though with admittedly homer hesitation. "The death of New York is greatly overstated. But I will say the time is right for talented chefs with good ideas to come and show us what they've got."
New Yorkers appreciate chefs with a distinctive story. And none, Krader said, come with quite as much anticipation as Solomonov, with his prize-winning new cookbook, recent documentary movie (In Search of Israeli Cuisine), and current Beard nomination for outstanding chef. Bloomberg Business called Dizengoff NYC one of the 26 most exciting restaurant openings in the world.
Not bad for a little hummus stand from Philly. So does that mean a New York branch of gastronomic Zahav is next? Don't bet any hot pitas on it.
"No way. Opening another Zahav in a different city would take away some of the magic," said Solomonov. "People will still to have to come to Philly for that."