January always has a touch of restaurant drama, and this year is no exception. I recap some of the recent madness. I also visit an old favorite in Washington Square West, an old, old favorite in Lafayette Hill, and an old, old, old favorite in Old City. Craig LaBan is here to offer his favorite places to watch the Super Bowl. (You didn't think you'd escape a mention of the game here, right?) If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded this free newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it every week.
As the calendar flips to a new year, those who follow the restaurant scene hold our breaths. After a busy December, the cold light of reality settles in for restaurateurs.
Baril, the French bistro just off Rittenhouse Square, pulled the plug, as did Union Taco in Manayunk, Meltkraft in Rittenhouse, Ambler Feedstore in Ambler, Gryphon Cafe's Rosemont location, Llama Tooth in West Poplar, two of Matt & Marie's locations, and two of Snap Kitchen's stores. Two long-running spots, Minar Palace in Washington Square West and the Johnny Rockets at Fifth and South Streets, balked at rent increases and chose to close.
Perhaps more surprising this January is the city's shutdown of Kanella South, the Cypriot destination at 757 S. Front St. in Queen Village, over back taxes. Given that this location is just over a year old, that's not a good sign, but owners Konstantinos Pitsillides and Caroline Christian say they'll be back, as they have found an investor to infuse cash and help with operations. Meanwhile, their Kanella Grill BYOB at 10th and Spruce Streets has a new chef (Justino Jimenez), expanded hours (11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday), and weekend brunch.
On the plus side, all these closings will be more than offset by the surfeit of openings.
Fishtown & Tonic
Alla Spina in Spring Garden may have an enviable beer list of both locals and Italians. The cocktail list, nothing to ignore, includes a double-play from just a few miles away: a vodka and tonic that uses Stateside vodka infused with La Colombe espresso and Fever-Tree tonic. The coffee taste rolls around the palate. Don't expect a caffeine buzz, though.
Now that Cheu Fishtown is a hit, it's the perfect time to revisit the original Cheu Noodle Bar in Washington Square West, a narrow, garishly decorated barroom where you pack in for assorted Asian-inspired plates and bowls at lunch and dinner. Happy hour is a particularly great deal, what with these mojo pork dumplings and other snacks priced at $5 and discounts on beer, sake, and cocktails.
Amid all the change in the dining world, there's always Caspian Grille, Fredoun "Ali" Rashidian's friendly Middle Eastern/Mediterranean market in a strip center in Lafayette Hill and, for 30 years, at the Flourtown Farmer's Market. Humble may oversell Lafayette Hill's decor, which has the fluorescent-lit charm of a deli and a few tables covered in clear plastic for those who dine in. But what food and prices: hummus and assorted salads, kebabs, moussaka, and the like, plus Abali yogurt soda and Burg apple nonalcoholic beer to wash it down.
Luca Sena's Panorama, tucked into the Penn's View Hotel in Old City, has rolled with the times since its 1990 debut. It's always been the "wine restaurant" with the dispenser that allows 120 wines to be poured by the glass, under the eye of manager William Eccleston. Last year brought fresher decor, and food has hit its stride under chef Matt Gentile, who is playing a bit with the Italian format. His house-made burrata is accompanied by frisee and gets a sweet balance from pear and raisin and a drizzle of honey.
Center City District Restaurant Week wraps up Jan. 26. Here are the details.
Au Bon Pain shops will give every customer a free mini chocolate croissant from 2 to 5 p.m. Jan. 30 — National Croissant Day.
Acadia | Bella Vista
The tastes of New Orleans are the specialty of this newcomer at 824 S. Eighth St.
Broadmoor | Lambertville
Chef Alex Cormier (ex-Rick's) returns to Lambertville on Jan. 31 with a bistro at 6 N. Union St.
Center Square Tavern | Swedesboro
Jim Malaby (Blueplate) goes the tavern route in Woolwich Township; opening is set for next week.
Redcrest Fried Chicken | East Passyunk
Adam Volk is looking at Feb. 1 to open his fried-chicken eatery at 11th Street and East Passyunk Avenue.
Kanella South | Queen Village
Konstantinos Pitsillides' well-rated outpost was shut down over city taxes; he says he's taking on a partner who will resolve the issues. Kanella Grill, his BYOB at 10th and Spruce Streets, is unaffected.
Reader: So where are you going to see the big game?
Craig LaBan: First choice is always at a home party with friends! But seeing as I'm still waiting for my invitation, I've been mulling the possibilities to see the Super Bowl somewhere with a local flair other than the usual sports bar suspects.
My first instinct is to rekindle that NFC Championship Linc feeling and head to South Philly. Stogie Joe's Tavern on East Passyunk is a fantastic destination for updated takes on neighborhood Italian-American classics like roast pork, spaghetti in crab gravy and stromboli. If you think eating in the shadow of I-95 adds to the game day ambiance, try Toll Man Joe's, a massive year-old sports bar on Oregon Avenue with an all-weather beer garden and full menu of Italian favorites — stuffed long hots, stuffed meatballs and wings, of course, in honor of former Wing Bowl champ Joe (Toll Man) Paul.
Northeast Philly is home to some die-hard sports bar classics, too, like Nick's Roast Beef and the original Chickie's & Pete's on Robbins Ave. But I'd head for the mod glass box-enclosed bar of P Square Lounge behind Macaroni's, which has a surprisingly great selection of craft beer to go along with its Calabrian chili chicken wings.
Of course, some local beer pride should also be flowing on Super Sunday, so go to the source and check out Second District Brewing, also in South Philly, where the Bancroft Pale Ale will be $4 a pint and the vegan riblets are a sleeper hit. They'll be busting out the big screen — and plenty of hazy IPAs and barrel-aged beauties — at Tired Hands Fermentaria in Ardmore. Head for some optimistic pours of Man Full of Trouble Porter at Dock Street Brewing if you're in West Philly, or, for another gastropub option with one of the best beer selections in that neighborhood, detour to Local 44 for $3 pints of Nodding Head's 700 Level ode to the Vet. Local 44's well-TV'd Center City sibling, Strangelove's, is offering a bottomless beer and all-you-can-eat special for $75 all in. If local spirits are more your speed, no venue represents Philly's craft distillers better than funky Martha in Kensington, where a green punch is planned to go along with the creative series of hoagie "jawns."
To channel the fighting spirit of Creed, head up North Broad to Max's Steaks (3653 Germantown Ave.) for one of the city's most underrated steaks (loved mine with peppers) and the "largest drink in Philly" at its adjoining Eagle Bar.
Another of the region's other great steaks, the oniony-kaiser roll variation at Donkey's Place in Camden, comes with one of the best line-ups of craft brews from South Jersey (and it'll be open on that Sunday). Eagles fandom cannot be bound by any river or border. Wherever the flat screens are playing the Birds, they bleed green at the best bars in South Jersey, too.