Pop! Pop! Pop!
Camera lights flash across the moody shadows of Buddakan like a paparazzi strobe. And with each bright pulse reflecting off the giant Buddha's golden face — a serene presence over this room for 20 years — the celebration scenes revealed below were as timelessly festive as this restaurant itself. A woman still in a mortarboard toasting her graduation with selfies and kung pao lobster. Power-suited business diners loosening up over chicken dumplings and impossibly tall haystacks of mustard-drizzled fries ringed by fans of togarashi-spiced beef.
I wonder: Is their steak cold, too? I also wonder, as the fitful waves of "family style" plates sputter and slow, is there a celebrity in the house? After all, Meek Mill came here in the spring with some Sixers for his first meal after leaving jail, reportedly sea bass with truffles. I peer beyond the water wall, the glowing onyx table where servers pad around in black pajamas. Nope. Just a room of regular Philadelphians — some still in their post-game Eagles jerseys — stepping out for a night of "dip sum" doughnuts and Asian fusion glamour, circa 1998.
Little has changed the sexy, scene-maker vibe that Buddakan brought to Old City that year, setting trends and expectations high and launching Stephen Starr's restaurant empire into liftoff mode. But is the food at Buddakan still good? Does this onetime pacesetter still matter?
The same questions can be also asked about Parc, Starr's mega-brasserie on Rittenhouse Square, which this summer turned 10 — an anniversary worth celebrating in its own right.
I've spent a lot of time this year pondering the value of old restaurants, especially against the backdrop of a vibrant food scene where multiple new ventures open weekly and diners' attention spans are as short as the next Instagram story. As a result, this year's Ultimate Dining guide, which comes out Thursday, Oct. 18, showcases the best Philadelphia classics alongside the current hits of today's Top 25.
Sustained relevance matters. And that's why only one of these two restaurants is included in that guide.
Nobody has left as deep an impact on Philly's dining scene over the last 20 years as Stephen Starr, whose reach of 36 restaurants is now international but still includes 20 restaurants in the city employing 2,900 workers and serving 2.7 million meals last year. In terms of volume, no one comes close. And considering the high quality that most of those places still deliver consistently, his company's value too often is taken for granted. But Starr's current impact as a cultural tastemaker? Lately, not so much.
Yes, he achieved national validation from the James Beard Foundation in 2017 as America's best restaurateur with Le Coucou, which was also named America's best new restaurant. But Le Coucou is in New York.
It's been too many years since Starr opened any local projects of major importance. The Love, his most recent collaboration with Aimee Olexy, has finally settled into a lovely groove as an understated destination for grown-up American dining and is rising to its third bell now after my most recent meal. But it essentially feels like a more mellow Ritttenhouse version of their Talula's Garden, which is worthwhile but hardly the game-changer of Starr's earlier Philly work. Cutting-edge Serpico and sleek Morimoto are still great, but not very busy. Alma de Cuba is solid, but I still can't see my food. El Vez is still humming along as a fun taco-tequila anchor for Midtown Village. But the original Continental is desperately in need of a major makeover (which Starr has promised.) And the pizza sauce at Stella, the pioneer of our now-ubiquitous Neapolitan pizzeria movement, has gotten thick and tinny. It's been on cruise control, getting lapped by the competition.
Starr has been preoccupied with projects in D.C. and Florida, but he assures me he still has more Philly mojo in him, with two big new places to be announced by year's end, and maybe someday even an "innovative new Asian restaurant."
"I figured Buddakan would last three to four years, because I didn't have any confidence in myself at that point," he said. "In Parc, I was looking to develop something that could last forever."
One has far outlived even its creator's expectations. The other has admirably grown into its lofty ambition and become a landmark along the way. As both hit milestones of longevity this year, these two restaurants still define Starr's Philly restaurant legacy more than any others. So it's time for a status check, beginning with the good news.
PARC 3 bells (Upgraded from 2)
Are we in Paris or Rittenhouse Square?
When you take a seat in one of the rattan chairs beside an icy plateau fruits de mer, a molten crock of onion soup, and a basket of crackle-crusted fresh breads, you might do a double-take. The gorgeous mosaic-tiled floors, vintage pewter-topped bar, and patina mirrors are genuine French.
But when you gaze through the open cafe windows across the street at the park's azaleas blooming in spring, or watch the glam crowds (and their pooches) bask in the society glow of 18th Street passing by, or jostle for steak-frites space amid the joyful chaos of graduation-day lunch, you cannot mistake it: This bustling hive of brasserie energy is one of the most iconic Philadelphia corners today.
Parc was an instant classic that transformed this slice of the city the moment Starr opened his Balthazar-inspired mega-restaurant on Bastille Day a decade ago. It fast became Philadelphia's top-grossing restaurant and now serves more than half a million dinners each year — all masterfully conducted with political grace by longtime manager Carol Serena.
Except in the beginning, it was a mess. Parc cycled through chefs who couldn't handle the volume, pace, and breadth of this kitchen's morning-to-midnight mission. Eighty-three savory menu items must be attended to, and more than 4,000 of the city's best baguettes, boules, and cranberry-walnut loaves are baked in shifts throughout the day, now under the watch of head baker Nicholas Brannon.
That Parc has, at that relentless pace, since become one of the most consistent kitchens in the city is remarkable, and it's only gotten better, earning it an upgrade from two to three bells. There have been steady classics, like the warm shrimp salad, the trout amandine in brown butter and almonds, and the sheer pink rounds of tuna carpaccio speckled with leek vinaigrette. The roast chicken has continued to evolve nicely, and the moule-frites anointed with garlic-shallot butter and wine may be the best bowl of classic mussels in the city. Is there a splurge in Philly as decadent as a generous raw bar platter of chilled lobster, crab, oysters, and scallop ceviche devoured at a cafe seat overlooking the park with a split of Champagne? Pas question!
The raclette burger is ever-popular, a testament to Parc's soul as essentially a fancy diner (not unlike the spot-on pancakes, quiche Lorraine, vol au vents with fluffy eggs and omelets for brunch). But if I'm doing boeuf, it had better be a hanger steak-frites, or the worthwhile upgrade of sirloin au poivre pebbled with a cracked pepper crust and rich Cognac veal sauce.
If Parc has a secret weapon, it's pastry chef Abby Dahan. Her rainbow-colored macaron explosions, gilded bûche de Noëls for Christmas, chocolate-drizzled profiteroles, and elegant updates to frumpy classics like baba au rhum can lend any meal the extra shimmer of a special occasion. It's the ultimate brasserie trick, because all-purpose Parc has become Rittenhouse Square's ultimate neighborhood restaurant.
BUDDAKAN — 1 BELL (Downgraded from 2)
Stephen Starr hears the little voices in his head. And it's a dialogue fueled only in part by critics like myself, who've called the original Buddakan outdated and in need of a makeover (perhaps in the style of the more progressive NYC Buddakan) since 2014, when I demoted it to two bells. But there's an inner struggle there, too, as Starr the innovator sees its flaws ("You did this already. Maybe it is time to change!") then turns to Starr the populist businessman, who counters: "Everyone who goes loves it. It still makes money. Why am I paying attention to this?"
If it's a battle between the food elite seeking more edge and authenticity in their food these days vs. the masses who still enthusiastically embrace wasabi mashed potatoes as stylish comfort, I've already heard how this Buddakan movie ends: "We've tried a million different things, but if you get too foodie with our core audience, they don't sell."
And so Buddakan, which was once an electric turning point in Philly's awakening to its greater potential as an exciting restaurant town, has gotten stuck in another millennium. It's resigned to remain a repository of fusion cliches: doughy tuna pizza; truffled edamame dumplings that are pretty, but that are such mushy dough bags filled with pasty, bland pureed beans that their universal adulation remains a mystery to me. Especially the other night, when they were over salted.
Which brings me to the bottom line: Buddakan might as well remain true to its devoted audience. But at these prices, ranging into the high $30s for entrees, the cooking must be better. Because based on my recent meals, it's never been worse. The kung pao lobster was overcooked and rubbery inside a thick batter that tasted of spent oil. The greasy tempura vegetables beside the tasteless Kobe beef satay gummed up and stuck to my teeth. The Szechuan pork dumplings were inoffensive, even if they didn't taste remotely Szechuan. But I missed any trace of the promised hot-and-sour zing in the General Tso chicken dumplings. The big fried "sweet and crispy" shrimp in citrus aioli sauce with candied walnuts were out of register, too tart from added grapefruit, with none of the balancing sweetness in the mayo glaze typical of the Cantonese classic.
There were a couple of solid successes: the fall-off tenderness of tea-smoked ribs; the sweet and fermented glaze of flaky miso black cod; fried rice studded with nuggets of Dungeness crab and a mild but present funk of house X.O. sauce. But then there was the creative flop of the scallion pancake, a dense slab of scallion-green dough lathered with yuzu-chili paste and piled high with so much shredded short ribs, microgreens and tart Asian pear relish that the elegant minimalism of its origin dish was thoroughly lost in the pile-it-on fusion noise.
I do understand the appeal of the aged beef, because it's a great piece of sirloin, and the clown hat pile of shoelace fries is fun to eat. But so much fuss is made over fanning those slices of beef in the kitchen, the entire $36 dish was cold by the time it got to our table. ("The fries are supposed to be room temp," a manager assured me.) The whole Peking duck was also quite good, cooked properly with a laborious process that left crispy skin and tender five-spice-scented meat. But anyone who eats in Chinatown a few block west knows roast duck isn't really served with "duck sauce," the sticky sweet pink condiment that was a particularly American addition to the usual hoisin.
Then again, great fusion cooking can rise on savvy winks to pop culture, and I find the notion of updating a chop suey-era eggroll with lobster fanciness impossible to resist. Buddakan even smartly runs the thick wrappers through a sheeter to achieve a 40 percent thinner skin. But the details again trip it up. The shredded cabbage that cushions the nuggets of crustacean inside was so wickedly oversalted it conspired with a mean streak of MSG in the eggroll's Thai chili dip to stoke a harshly bitter aftertaste that wouldn't fade, no matter how much I sipped my sake Negroni or my wife's kiwi-flavored cocktail, Joy.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Another flash lit the room and I looked up: Did I just see the giant Buddha do a golden face palm? Sorry, pal. Philly apparently loves you too much, and so we're stuck, just the way you are.