Classic restaurants thrive in the Philly suburbs
Some of the suburbs' best restaurants are long-standing classics. Here are 16 choices across a variety of genres from Pennsylvania and New Jersey that have delivered consistent satisfaction for a decade or more.
Reader: I loved your new dining guide's focus this year on classic Philly restaurants. But what about the suburbs?
Craig LaBan: Well, of course, last year's dining guide was all about the suburbs! I put more than 4,000 miles on my car scouting more than 180 recommendations from Chester County to South Jersey, so I decided this year to stay a bit closer to home. There were, nonetheless, a number of suburban classics noted in this year's edition, too, both in Pennsylvania (Margaret Kuo's, Eve's Lunch, Han Dynasty, Pica's) and in New Jersey, where veterans like Sagami, Ponzio's, Library II, Donkey's Place and Corinne's Place were singled out. But there were many I could not find room for, so here's a list of 16 more great suburban classics that have been serving consistent excellence across a wide range of styles for at least 10 years.
The Original Clam Tavern (2 bells) is a throwback in the very best sense, an old-school fish house of the sort that's all but disappeared in Philly. It has stayed true to blue-collar Clifton Heights for 50-plus years, with fair prices, classic nautical ambience, and devotion to the seafood classics. The clams casino is among the best around. The red-sauced mussels, creamy chowder, lumpy crab cakes, spaghetti with clams, and lobster fra diavolo are all spot-on. But don't miss the signature baked middleneck clams roasted whole in a distinctive steel tray beneath lightly browned Italian seasonings and a tangy, mysterious red dot. 339 E. Broadway Ave., Clifton Heights. 610-623-9537; clamtavern.net. $-$$
Charlie's Hamburgers is a Delco institution that's been serving hamburgers and shakes since 1935, and it has occupied this no-frills shack in Folsom since 1986, when then-owner Bernard "Bunny" McDonald moved it from the original location in Springfield. Now owned by McDonald's son, Steve, Charlie's still cooks every little patty fresh to order just a few feet away, toasting the buns on the shiny side of the flattop for extra flavor. And what those slider-sized burgers lack in size they more than make up for in a powerful savor. There are no froufrou truffled toppings here — unless the Velveeta-like cheese that oozes between the layers counts. Try the "Bunny" cheeseburger combo with raw onions, or fried onions and pickles on the "Charlie." Either way, you'll want two. You'll also want a black-and-white shake. 336 Kedron Ave., Folsom. 610-461-4228. $
Nectar (3 bells) has long been regarded as the Buddakan of the 'burbs, thanks to its Asian fusion menu and the massive silk-printed Buddha behind glass that watches over the soaring modern space. But, really, Nectar has convincingly blazed its own identity as a special-occasion destination, thanks in large part to talented chef-partner Patrick Feury, whose skills epitomize the sophisticated possibilities of East-West fusion. The sushi here is stellar and creative, but don't miss the crisp lobster dumplings and great steamed pork buns, as well as the wild boar lo mein and butter-poached lobster pad Thai. 1091 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn. 610-725-9000; tastenectar.com. $$$
Birchrunville Store Cafe (3 bells) at first glance appears to have changed little since I first drove into the bucolic heart of Chester County to visit in 2000. Ringed by misty cornfields and steepled churches, this old general-store-turned-idyllic-French-BYOB remains one of the single most charming dining experiences in the region (except for its cash-only policy). There's almost always stuffed roast pheasant, fresh fish with wild mushrooms, rack of lamb with minted risotto, and warm butterscotch cake for dessert. But so much here has continued to evolve. Chef-owner Francis Pascal's native Provencale touch has acquired some refined Asian accents (thanks, in part, to his marriage to Nui Kullana, who owns Phoenixville's Thai L'Elephant), from Sichuan-crusted duck to gorgeous summer rolls stuffed with delicately poached lobster marinated in Korean chilies, posed over a creamy lobster bisque. 1403 Hollow Rd., Birchrunville. 610-827-9002; birchrunvillestorecafe.com. $$$
Majolica (3 bells) was a fine-dining pioneer in this old mill town before the new, hip version of Phoenixville took root. This ambitious 44-seat BYOB, launched more than a decade ago by Savona alum Andrew Deery, brought a French-inspired menu devoted to seasonal local ingredients sourced largely from the borough's farmers' market, a warm bistro vibe, and polished service. With a satisfying menu that ranges from a tuna tartare starter to perfect roast duck over lentils in hazelnut oil, molasses-glazed sweetbreads, a hearty crock of cassoulet, and beignets with coffee-cardamom pot de crème, Majolica remains strong. It's not only Phoenixville's most sophisticated dining experience, but one of the top restaurants in the western suburbs, period. 258 Bridge St., Phoenixville. 610-917-0962; majolicarestaurant.com. $$$
Blackfish BYOB (3 bells) in Conshohocken was Chip Roman's big debut more than a decade ago, and now, after he's opened and sold multiple other projects, it is once again his primary address. This onetime trendsetter in the New American BYOB movement has benefited from the renewed focus with fresh items like the lobster ravioli topped with mild habanada chilies and a tostada piled with sweet crab, complementing menu standbys like the roulade of boneless chicken, the short rib-scallop twist on surf and turf, and the beignets. Look for the Tuesday-Thursday $49 themed-menu deals, and also, any nightly special that Roman — an avid fisherman — might have landed himself. 119 Fayette St., Conshohocken, 610-397-0888; blackfishrestaurant.com. $$$
Blue Sage Vegetarian Grille (2 bells) was one of the region's true innovators of serious vegetarian cooking when I first reviewed its globe-hopping menu in 2001. But a lot has changed since then, as mainstream audiences have learned to embrace their veggies and vegan cooking became the new meat-free dining norm. So I was delighted at my 2017 revisit to discover that not only had Blue Sage moved from its original strip-mall storefront into a larger contemporary space, but that chef-owner Michael Jackson's cooking was as fresh as ever. Arancini rice fritters took on an unexpected fall tone with pumpkin. "Buddha" tacos over soft yellow tortillas were stuffed with sweet potato hash. The Korean fried chicken trend appeared as fried cauliflower in spicy-sweet sauce over rich popcorn grits. Even dessert — a white chocolate cashew tart filled with whipped banana cream and brûléed bananas — was memorable. 727 Second Street Pike, Southampton. 215-942-8888; bluesagevegetariangrille.com. $$
Teresa's Next Door (3 bells) began more than a decade ago as a Belgian bar with a novel Mexican twist. But it has settled in, refined its Euro-taqueria bistro menu, and evolved into so much more than just a great beer bar. There aren't many places on the planet where you can order a bowl of delicate waterzooi seafood stew alongside some amazingly tender goat tacos. But even more compelling, TND, which is in fact right next door to the Italian-themed BYOB Teresa's, has blossomed into what may well be the single greatest place to drink in the suburbs, with nearly 400 whiskeys from around the world, a dedicated gluten-free tap box with several meads, ciders, sake, and wines on draft, and an extensive list of "natural" wines. And, of course, you can also still find some of the greatest beers in the world on its 24 other taps, with 150 more bottles to choose from. 124 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne. 610-293-9909; teresas-nextdoor.com. $$
Persian Grill (2 bells) opened in 1984 and, after more than three decades, it remains one of the region's only reliable destinations for the distinctive flavors of Persian cuisine, from charcoal-grilled kebabs over fluffy basmati pilaf to exotic sweet-and-sour sauces vivid with aromatic spice, and slow-stewed delights like chicken Fesenjan. Try any of the great kebab platters (koubideh; joojeh; lamb chops; Bareh, Dandeh and Soltani), the funky aged garlic and "five-year-old relish" (torshi), or refreshing faloodeh shirazi Persian ice for dessert. The Grill has now doubled the Persian pleasure with a new second location in Hatboro. 637 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill. 610-825-2705; persiangrillusa.com. $-$$
Little Saigon is indeed tiny. But this cozy pink dining room in Upper Darby is one of the region's longest-running Vietnamese restaurants and still makes some of the best spring rolls, with crackly rice paper crusts and meaty, mushroom-flecked fillings. I also enjoyed the soulfully aromatic soups (try the chili-laced bun bo hue), as well as a bo luc lac of tender sautéed beef cubes served with a dish of salt, pepper, and lime for dipping on the side. 113 Fairfield Ave., Upper Darby. 610-352-1002. $
Hymie's and its cross-street rival, Murray's, have been Main Line deli staples for decades. But I'm firmly in the Hymie's camp. The matzo ball soup, amped up with a "mishmash" of kreplach, bow ties and rice, has a soulful natural flavor. The pickle bar is abundant. And, most important, the house-made corned beef is superbly tender. As with all good delis, Hymie's is clearly a neighborhood hub for affordable, made-from-scratch takes on a variety of comfort foods, from wraps to smoked fish, huge salads, and hearty all-day breakfasts. But it's that corned beef I'd return for, especially paired with the peppery pastrami for a "Shmoozer" combo layered with coleslaw over fresh and crusty rye. 342 Montgomery Ave., Merion Station. 610-668-3354; hymies.com. $
Arpeggio was founded in 1995 but was reborn last year into an impressive new space in the Spring House Village Center. This Italian-Med BYOB owned by Mary Gigliotti Collum and Hamdy Khalil has a splashy contemporary dining room with soaring 24-foot ceilings and a big deck overlooking the valley. But the service is down to earth and personal. And the expansive menu still has an almost dineresque reach, ranging from wood-fired pizzas (try the Palermo) to pastas and simply cooked fresh fish. I favor the Middle Eastern flavors that speak to Khalil's Egyptian roots, especially the sesame-crusted falafel and baba ghanoush, flaky spanakopita, and marinated chicken shish taouk skewers served with fresh-baked pita. 1101 N. Bethlehem Pike, Spring House. 215-646-5055; http://arpeggiobyob.com/. $$-$$$
Creed's Seafood and Steaks is a welcome alternative to the chain-saturated landscape of King of Prussia. And there's a personal character to this independent King of Prussia survivor since the early 1980s — now thoroughly ringed on its service drive island by swanky new developments — that remains a worthy example of old-school chophouse class. Rich lobster bisque, no-nonsense lump crab cakes, and excellent steaks (I splurged on the fairly priced $42 Pennsylvania-raised one-pound rib-eye) that keep the clubby dining rooms bustling with a business crowd. 499 N. Gulph Rd., King of Prussia. 610-265-2550; creedskop.com. $$$
The Kibitz Room (2 bells) has been South Jersey's best deli since 2000, and it's a good thing the Katz JCC gym is just down the road, because I could eat my weight's worth of creamy blintzes and steamy corned beef. No place (outside of Famous 4th Street Deli) brings the New York-style deli savor quite like Kibitz, from the comfort soups to the grilled rye bread sandwiches piled high with pepper-edged pastrami, hot roast beef platters, and homey entrées (stuffed cabbage, chicken pot pie) to the bottomless pickle bar. The counter-service-only setup is my biggest complaint. 100 Springdale Rd., Cherry Hill. 856-428-7878; greatpastrami.com/cherryhill. $-$$
Chick's Deli may be hidden on an alley strip just off Route 70, but it has remained a worthy cheesesteak destination for cops, high school kids, and locals of all stripes for 60 years. The chicken cheesesteaks are the big draw here, though the beef steaks are also solid, in a basic, squishy roll, American cheese kind of way. The Italian hoagies aren't bad, either. 906 Township Ln., Cherry Hill. 856-429-2022. $
Caffe Aldo Lamberti is the upscale flagship to the ubiquitous Lamberti empire, and its sleekly modern dining rooms are Celebration Central for a senior slice of South Jersey diners. And though it may not be the most personal setting, it is nonetheless a reliable — if expensive — destination for a refined meal of high-quality seafood (expertly cooked whole fish, stone crabs, hard-to-find seppia "tagliatelle" salad), classic indulgences like Tuscan-spiced rack of lamb, and a lively bar scene. 2011 Marlton Pike W., Cherry Hill. 856-663-1747; caffelamberti.com. $$$