Craig LaBan's Year in Bells: Top new restaurants of 2014
By Craig LaBan Philadelphia's kitchens stepped up big this year, fueled by live fires, a return to French cuisine, and an influx of exciting new talent.
Philadelphia's kitchens stepped up big this year, fueled by live fires, a return to French cuisine, and an influx of exciting new talent.
The overall quality of restaurants took a noticeable leap in 2014, as 13 of the 46 rated scored three bells (excellent) - the most ever for a rating system that has averaged fewer than 10 a year.
The details, though, are telling. Some of the year's big new moon-shot attempts at elaborate multi-course tasting menus struggled, with Avance, the avant-garde successor to Le Bec Fin, closing by fall. The most resonant successes, meanwhile, focused on exciting flavors for everyday dining, from the lip-stinging heat of "hot chicken" at Kevin Sbraga's Southern-inspired Fat Ham to the life-altering, ever-changing hummus plates and fresh-baked pitas of Dizengoff.
No place did more to redefine what dining out in Philadelphia meant than the year's Best New Restaurant, High Street on Market, the inventive, yet casual Fork sibling from owner Ellen Yin and chef Eli Kulp. Their creative focus on local grains, fermentation, and handcrafted charcuterie wowed me at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. High Street's genius baker, Alex Bois, turned out extraordinary loaves (Anadama, yo!) that helped spark a city-wide surge of new artisanal breads.
French flavors, once written off as irrelevant, made a major comeback (minus the stuffy haute-cuisine pomp) at nearly a quarter of the restaurants reviewed this year, from the socca cakes and glasses of Picpoul de Pinet at a neighborhood bistro like the Good King Tavern, to Pierre Calmels' exceptional takes on forgotten classics like quenelles, choucroute, and blood pudding at elegant Le Chéri off Rittenhouse Square. Steak tartare was everywhere. Few, though, managed to capture Philly's modern French movement like Townsend "Tod" Wentz, a longtime scene veteran whose understated refinement at Townsend earned him my nod as Chef of the Year.
There were many young talents, meanwhile, that rose to prominence: Laurel's Top Chef champ, Nicholas Elmi; Eli Collins, who brought Pub & Kitchen to three bells; the Petruce brothers (Justin and Jonathan); MacGregor Mann, the Garces alum whose chef-owner debut, Junto, was the year's Best New Suburban Restaurant; Natalie Maronski at Volvér; Jon Nodler of a.Kitchen; and schmaltz-wielding Yehuda Sichel at Abe Fisher, whose sublime Montreal-smoked pastrami short rib anchored my most memorable Feast of the Year. And yet, how could I forget the hauntingly good mole tamales at Mole Poblano on Ninth Street? The lacy onion crunch of the rava dosa at Bangles in Downingtown?
The food this year was at times so good, it put some old survivors in new perspective. The year brought more official revisits (nine) than ever, including both full re-reviews and smaller updates noted in other weekly forums. (They're denoted farther down with asterisks.)
A couple stepped up (Pub & Kitchen; Will BYOB) and a few held steady (Marigold Kitchen; a.Kitchen; Lolita).
But a few big names lost their three-bell mojo, from Buddakan to Barbuzzo to Osteria Jersey, the Moorestown Mall sibling of Marc Vetri's Broad Street hit, which was one of six restaurants reviewed this year that received year-end revisits to check for progress.
As Philly's restaurateurs continue to raise the standard, The Inquirer's bells - zero to four - will evolve accordingly. That also means that keeping them becomes a greater challenge.
But with so many exciting new meals already waiting for us on the horizon, I have a feeling that the bells of 2015 will ring with just as much gusto.
THREE BELLS: EXCELLENT
» READ MORE: A.KITCHEN
135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030;
Already one of Rittenhouse Square's best restaurants, a.kitchen has struck gold with the arrival of chef Eli Kulp and Ellen Yin, the team behind Fork and High Street on Market. A new charcoal grill drives the seasonal menu and perfumes the beautifully minimalist, open space, where sharing plates and a casual sophistication strike the perfect modern tone. Only a few service missteps (and a pickpocket) dimmed our night. Reviewed June 1.
» READ MORE: ABE FISHER
1623 Sansom St., 215-867-0088; abefisherphilly.com
If Zahav is about Israel, Abe Fisher is a modern culinary ode to the Diaspora, from Brooklyn to Budapest and Montreal. But don't expect bubbe's kishke from Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. With breakout chef Yehuda Sichel running the kitchen, this trio uses tradition only as a point of departure for interpretations that are often as intellectual as they are delicious (and nonkosher). The order-ahead pastrami-smoked short-rib feast is extraordinary. The restaurant as a whole, from service to the outstanding drinks, proved to be one of Philly's most distinctive openings this year. Reviewed Nov. 30.
» READ MORE: DIZENGOFF
1625 Sansom St., 215-867-0088; dizengoffphilly.com
Take America's best hummus from Zahav, a talented young chef in Emily Seaman to create daily farm-inspired toppings and fresh baked-to-order pitas, roll up the garage door, grab a seat next to a stranger at a picnic table, and experience the magic of an Israeli "hummusiya" done right - the best lunch concept Philly never knew it needed. The latest Michael Solomonov-Steve Cook creation (attached to also-new Abe Fisher) is as casual as it gets, but hits a hummus home run as the most obsession-worthy $10 lunch in town. Reviewed Oct. 5.
» READ MORE: THE FAT HAM
3131 Walnut St., 215-735-1914; sbragadining.com
Eating off a tree stump has never been so rewarding as a meal at Kevin Sbraga's second restaurant, a small but lively wood-clad space where Deep South inspirations masterfully blend rustic flavors and refinement into dynamic sharing plates that are refreshingly affordable. Service can vary. But the impressive wall of American whiskey should adequately pre-numb palates for the nonnegotiable sting of a "hot chicken" that lives up to its name. Reviewed March 16.
» READ MORE: HIGH STREET ON MARKET
308 Market St., 215-625-0988; highstreetonmarket.com
The makeover of Fork Etc. into an edgy sharing-plate cafe with its own identity is another hit from the dynamic duo of Fork owner Ellen Yin and chef Eli Kulp (who now also run a.kitchen). Leaving Etc.'s safer market behind, High Street's "grain-focused" menu redefines the possibilities of a casual breakfast-through-dinner concept, built on extraordinary breads from baker Alex Bois, unusual pastas, and a unique, handcrafted kitchen vision for everything from a Danish (with country ham and creamy red-eye gravy) to a (duck) meatball sandwich. The food can be esoteric. But with a smart drink list and sharp service, the total pursuit of quality has been embraced. By my year-end revisit, it was clear no place had done more to reshape our dining culture, which is why it has been named Philly's Best New Restaurant of 2014. Reviewed Jan. 19. Revisited in December.
» READ MORE: JUNTO
100 Ridge Rd., Olde Ridge Village Shoppes, Chadds Ford, 484-574-8041; juntobyob.com
Former Amada chef-de-cuisine MacGregor Mann turns to his Pennsylvania Dutch roots for an inspired chef-owner debut at this Chadds Ford BYOB. Experiences with Jose Garces and a stint at Copenhagen's forage-centric Noma are clear influences, but Mann's menu shows a personal vision that channels seasonality and updated traditional local flavors better than most. The focus on well-crafted flavors and professional service transcends the simple strip-mall space for what is the best new restaurant in the Pennsylvania suburbs I've visited in a long time. Reviewed Sept. 21.
» READ MORE: LAUREL
1617 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-8299; restaurantlaurel.com
After high-profile stints at Le Bec-Fin and Rittenhouse Tavern and a celebrity run to a win in Season 11 of Top Chef, Nicholas Elmi does the unexpected and dives into a tiny space for his owner-chef debut with a 22-seat BYOB where he can touch every plate. And his elegant New American cooking is more inspired than ever. With fewer seats than its predecessor (Fond), Laurel proves that BYOs can be comfortable, further confirms East Passyunk as Philly's most exciting dining district, and surely lays the groundwork for Elmi's star to grow well into the future. Reviewed Feb. 9.
» READ MORE: LE CHÉRI
251 S. 18th St., 215-546-7700; lecheriphilly.com
Pierre and Charlotte Calmels embrace a true bistro spirit (and a liquor license!) in an elegant Art Alliance restaurant more than twice the size of their tiny Bibou. The food is a shade less expensive and refined than at its four-bell sibling, but Pierre resurrects French classics from quenelles to boudin noir with such passion, the icons of Larousse Gastronomique taste fresh again. The noisy space still feels a shade unfinished, but a welcome sense of accessibility - both seats (first come, first served at the bar, plus garden seating) and fair markups on the French wine list - means that more can experience the Calmelses' special magic. Reviewed March 2.
» READ MORE: MARIGOLD KITCHEN
501 S. 45th St., 215-222-3699; marigoldkitchenbyob.com
After five years of refining his wide-eyed molecular ambitions into more mature tasting menus of clear-eyed cuisine, chef Robert Halpern finally earned three bells, then promptly sold his West Philly BYOB to employees and took his frozen gazpacho "Dippin' Dots" to go.
A recent meal under young new chef-partners Tim Lanza and Andrew Kochan (and exec chef Keith Krajewski) brought an impressive 13-course feast notable for a subtle retreat from foam and smoke in favor of slightly more traditional cooking. It was hardly less inventive, from the foie gras-stuffed chicken nuggets to a risotto redolent of sunchokes and a smart gorgonzola custard layered with jelled riesling, honeycomb, and grape sorbet - an entire fruit plate in one bite. Some of the flavors, though, were downright earthy, especially a coffee-infused sweetbreads in red-eye gravy over grits made from popcorn, and a gorgeous cube of venison with gingery carrot puree and brandied cherry jus. The fine-dining legacy of one of the city's continuously most ambitious (and often overlooked) destinations remains in good hands. Reviewed Jan. 5. Revisited in December.
» READ MORE: PETRUCE ET AL.
1121 Walnut St., 267-225-8232; petrucephilly.com
The primal art of wood-fire cooking meets sophisticated modern interpretations at this inspired debut from three young talents - the chef brothers Petruce (Jonathan and Justin) and beverage savant Tim Kweeder. This bi-level Washington Square West destination serves seasonal plates meant for sharing, with a wide palate of influences (from lasagna to kimchi) that always frame fine ingredients. The bar is a destination in its own right, featuring exceptional cocktails and spirits, plus a fascinating list of unusual small-producer wines. Reviewed June 15.
» READ MORE: PUB & KITCHEN
1946 Lombard St, 215-545-0350; thepubandkitchen.com
After six years serving the gentrifying blocks near the former Graduate Hospital, this trendsetting corner gastropub has continued to evolve and mature, with a handsome building makeover last year and, more important, a young new talent in the kitchen, Eli Collins. He's added some consistent "gastro" polish to the seasonal New American menu, from stylish whiskey-soda bread with seasonal ramp butter to venison tartare, chorizo-stuffed squid, and the ultimate gnudi. A rare neighborhood bar that's managed to serve many audiences and continuously improve. Initially reviewed in 2008. Re-reviewed May 18.
» READ MORE: TOWNSEND
1623 E. Passyunk Ave. 267-639-3203; townsendrestaurant.com
Former Lacroix disciple Townsend "Tod" Wentz has emerged from his postrecession hiatus in gastropubs to open this refined take on modern French cooking in a converted bi-level storefront on East Passyunk Avenue. The understated excellence of the food, cocktails, and wine-savvy service add another layer of maturity to Philly's hottest dining strip, and has become a haven for those who appreciate good cooking without unnecessary flash. Sit at the bar and go for a copper pan of choucroute-for-two. Easily one of the year's best all-around restaurants. Reviewed July 27.
1911 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-7683, willbyob.com
There was never any doubting the talent that fueled Christopher Kearse's artful modern French cooking at Will BYOB. But like many young chefs in the throes of avant-garde techniques, his early enthusiasm often translated into a few too many flourishes. That's no longer the case. After two years of honing, Kearse's presentations are still gorgeous. But at a fantastic return meal, each intricate touch amplified the central themes, rather than distracted, from a foie gras mousse-enriched rabbit rillettes accented by wine-poached figs, to citrus-caramelized Belgian endive and licorice that called out Sichuan spice on the duck, or a roasted whole maitake scented with sumac and rose hips, Madeira caramel, and smoked ricotta. Will still should work to soften its somewhat bare-bones ambience, but has nonetheless risen to elite status as one of the city's best BYOBs and modernist kitchens. Reviewed in 2012. Revisited and upgraded in November 2014.
TWO BELLS: VERY GOOD
» READ MORE: AVANCE
1523 Walnut St. CLOSED
The successor to Le Bec-Fin couldn't have been farther from it in look and style, from the austere dark dining room to the hypermodern aesthetic that drove chef-partner Justin Bogle's ambitious menus. There were genuine qualities, from inventive cocktails to fine house-baked breads and great ingredients. But the dishes too often stumbled over self-conscious complexity, exacerbated by awkward service and long, exorbitantly priced tasting meals. It did not make a strong case for the future of cutting-edge fine dining at this legendary address - and officially closed in October. Reviewed April 6.
» READ MORE: BANK & BOURBON
Loews Hotel, 1200 Market St., 215-231-7300; bankandbourbon.com
While hotel restaurants struggle for relevance, the Loews has delivered a thorough revamp of forgettable SoleFood into a smart American brasserie that hits all the right notes. From the extensive bourbon program to the casually styled leather decor, professional service, and a menu of American classics refined with spot-on technique and seasonality by veteran Tom Harkins, this is a venue with mass appeal (and great steaks) that's already popular with conventioneers - but deserves more local attention. Reviewed Dec. 14.
» READ MORE: BANGLES INDIAN CUISINE
889 E. Lancaster Ave., Ashbridge Shopping Complex, Downingtown, 610-269-9600; banglesindiancuisine.com
The rapidly growing hub of Indian-born tech workers in Philadelphia's far western suburbs has generated half a dozen authentic new restaurants this last year, and Bangles aims to serve that audience, plus attract mainstream diners, with a little more upscale polish. The all-American service staff can be stiff, and the big banquet room gives the smaller dining area an odd feel. But creative young chef Dhirendran "Dhiru" Paulraj has the skill to create both worthy fusion dishes and genuine spice-charged South Indian specialties so good, it's hard not to over-dosa it. Reviewed Nov. 2.
110 S. 13th St., 215-546-9300; barbuzzo.com
Barbuzzo was a three-bell pioneer when it opened, perfectly capturing the wood-fired Mediterranean, vegetable-forward, barn-plank-clad, rustic-chic ethos of Philly 2010. It's a tribute to its success that so many restaurants today have borrowed those trends. But some key elements in Barbuzzo's successful formula - the vegetable antipasto tasting board and the pizzas - were noticeably lacking at a recent revisit. The board was mundane. The pizzas were especially lackluster, with a one-dimensional, low-puff dough and carelessly added toppings that only covered about two-thirds of the pies' surface. The legendary budino remains a reason on its own to visit. But chef Marcie Turney and her partner, Valerie Safran, have let their still-popular flagship slip into neutral as they continue to expand their 13th Street restaurant family. Last reviewed in 2010. Revisited and downgraded in November.
» READ MORE: BARDOT CAFE
447 Poplar St., 267-639-4761; bardotcafe.com
Dennis Hewlett evokes the sensuality of France for this velvet- and damask-wrapped restau-lounge tucked into a hideaway corner of Northern Liberties. The intimate vibe and wine-dining focus are departures for both the gentrifying neighborhood and Hewlett (owner of beery Pub on Passyunk East), and both service and drink program show growing pains. But chef Rhett Vellner's menu of French-inspired bistro flavors is worth a visit, even if they can stray well beyond authenticity. Reviewed Nov. 9.
325 Chestnut St., 215-574-9440; buddakan.com
Buddakan had been a three-bell sensation since it debuted in 1998 as one of the sparks for Old City's restaurant revolution (and Stephen Starr's ascendancy.) And it remains a fun destination that's still a touristy favorite. Unfortunately, while Starr opened a far more dynamic version in New York years ago, food at the original has evolved too little, lingering on bland late-1990s fusion standbys while Philadelphia's dynamic Asian dining scene has progressed and passed it by. The faithful clientele apparently resists any change. But based on our poorly executed meal - rubbery chicken dumplings; greasy tuna rolls; dry lobster fried rice; soup dumplings that didn't hold their juice - I can't understand why. The five-spice duck may still be fine. But if Buddakan wants to become a part of the city's culinary conversation again, it's time to "dip sum" doughnuts then move on. Last reviewed in 2007. Revisited and downgraded in September.
» READ MORE: CHARLIE WAS A SINNER
131 S. 13th St., 267-758-5372; charliewasasinner.com
If you didn't know vegan cocktails were a thing, you will after a night of "plant-based" imbibing and nibbling at this sultry lounge revamp of a seedy old strip bar on 13th Street, reimagined with some literary pretension by HipCityVeg owner Nicole Marquis. The small-plate menu created by opening chef Michael Santoro and continued by successor Max Hosey was one of the more sophisticated vegan efforts in Philly, and strongest when avoiding mock meats. Hosey has moved on since the review. His replacement, Ted Manko (formerly of Alma de Cuba), is expected to keep the menu as-is. Reviewed Oct. 19.
Village Two Shoppe, 1200 S. Church St., Mount Laurel, 856-780-5240; chuliciousrestaurant.com
The Chu family has taken its woks from Chinatown to Mount Laurel, where daughter Sheri is now the owner and dining-room host, and her chef-dad, Chun, creates the same excellent Taiwanese and Sichuan flavors that earned him a loyal following at Four Rivers, which they recently sold. Don't let the modest strip-mall locale (and excellent General Tso's chicken) fool you: This is a worthy destination for well-wrought and authentic regional cooking - especially the Taipei street foods - that can be very hard to find, including minced pork over rice, cumin beef sandwiches, and Taiwanese bean-crusted bass. Reviewed Oct. 12.
» READ MORE: COZARA
Chestnut Square, 3200 Chestnut St. 267-233-7488; cozaraphilly.com
Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka had hoped Philadelphians would embrace the notion that there's more to Japanese cuisine than sushi - because there was none this spring when he debuted his "izakaya," a modern bi-level gastropub with an alfresco perch over Drexel University's new Chestnut Square. The adventurous small-plate menu offered authentic bites (yellowtail collar; whole squid) and whimsies (whole chicken yakitori) that made for a fun sharing meal with a good sake collection, earnest (albeit erratic) service, and reasonable prices. Alas, Tanaka gave in, and since September, CoZara got a sushi bar that has been turning out a solid selection of raw-fish basics. Reviewed July 13. Revisited in December.
» READ MORE: CRESHEIM VALLEY GRAIN EXCHANGE
7152 Germantown Ave., 267-766-2502; on Facebook.
The owners of the Falls Taproom have stepped up to Germantown Avenue for this ambitious yet accessible addition to the Mount Airy dining scene. The whiskey-centric cocktails, strong bourbon list, and craft beers are a draw. But so are the outgoing service, rustic-industrial decor, and chef Trevor Elliott's appealing menu of regional American foods updated with a strong focus on vegetables and the inherent comfort of anything served in a mason jar or skillet. Reviewed Nov. 23.
» READ MORE: CROW & THE PITCHER
267 S. 19th St., 267-687-2608; crowandthepitcher.com
After 15 years as one of South Jersey's better fine-dining chefs, co-owner Alex Capasso returned to Center City with a casual restaurant-bar hybrid for this slender, bi-level space just south of Rittenhouse Square. The focus on creative craft cocktails and wines by the glass should appeal to neighborhood bar grazers, bolstered by a flexible scratch menu strong on cheese and small plates (bar snacks, charcuterie, mussels) as well as some quality entrees. Oversalting was a problem. But the revival of Le Bec-Fin's glorious cheese cart is a good enough reason on its own to come. Reviewed Aug. 10.
» READ MORE: FARM & FISHERMAN TAVERN + MARKET
1442 Marlton Pike E. (Route 70), Cherry Hill, 856-356-2282; fandftavern.com
Chef-partners Josh Lawler and Todd Fuller kept South Jersey's recent indie-restaurant surge rolling with a multifaceted tavern-market that presents the local food ethos of Lawler's upscale Farm and Fisherman in a larger, more casual setting. The broad menu ranges from great burgers and "bar pies" to high-end seafood, but was still refining both consistency and the right balance of quality ingredients and scratch cooking with accessible prices during the review. Friendly service, a bar well-stocked with local craft beers, and a worthy prepared-foods market gives this Andreotti's successor a solid chance to become a local standby. Reviewed March 9.
» READ MORE: THE GOOD KING TAVERN
614 S. Seventh St., 215-625-3700; thegoodkingtavern.com
This French-inspired Bella Vista restaurant-bar, from father-daughter team Bernard and Chloe Grigri, captures an appealing energy in its makeover of the old Chick's, from the Provencal-colored pressed tin ceiling to the affordable all-French wine list and chef Paul Lyons' sprawling bistro menu. Enthusiasm for scratch charcuterie, seasonality, and personal twists on classics keep plates fresh - but too many offerings also test the kitchen's consistency, which could be improved. Reviewed May 2.
» READ MORE: INKA WALL
55 Garrett Rd. (basement), Upper Darby, 484-466-4610; inkawall.com
The hoot of panpipes and the aroma of spit-roasting birds were the draws to this simple but tidy family-run restaurant along Upper Darby's ethnic row, one of the area's few genuine Peruvian restaurants. It opened initially as a street-level BYOB, where first-time chef and restaurateur Beatrice Loayza showed a light touch on aji pepper spice, but a solid home cook's grasp of traditional dishes like ceviche, pollo a la brasa, and flaky empanadas worthy of a visit. It has moved since the review (in November) to a neighboring basement space with a liquor license for pisco sours and a stage for live performances. Reviewed Mar. 23.
FringeArts building, 140 N. Columbus Blvd., 215-375-7744; lapegbrasserie.com
Bistrot La Minette's Peter Woolsey has transformed half of the century-old pump house-turned-FringeArts performance space into a soaring modern brasserie with industrial accents, a glorious beer garden (for warm weather), and a mezzanine view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Early struggles with the French-centric menu have given way to legitimate signs of improvement, with a reconceived menu (no more small plates) and better kitchen execution. As riverfront activity grows, La Peg should become a worthy fixture. Reviewed Dec. 21.
» READ MORE: LOLITA
106 S. 13th St., 215-546-7100; lolitaphilly.com
The onetime BYO (Tequila) that sparked the Midtown Village empire of Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran has gotten a smart makeover with a liquor license, a new decor, and a fresh menu focused on more affordable small plates for sharing. The bar still needs work, and some menu items need more consistency. But Turney's culinary approach - inspired by, rather than ruled by, Mexican street food traditions - offers a distinct and appealing (though not necessarily better) alternative to South Philly's now-thriving authentic taqueria scene. Reviewed Aug. 31.
MERITAGE RESTAURANT & WINE BAR
500 S. 20th St., 215-985-1922; meritagephiladelphia.com
The departure of chef Ann Coll (prepping a new project near Rittenhouse with Susanna Foo) has impacted this old favorite and perennial three-beller at 20th and Lombard. A shift away from her distinctive Asian small plates was to be expected. But under a follow-up regime more oriented toward a New American and French spirit, the ideas were not engaging and the execution was not sharp at our revisit, which resulted in a drop to two bells. Consistently outgoing owner-guided service assures that this Graduate Hospital standby remains a quiet option for an under-the-radar meal. But a mid-December change to a new executive chef, Paul Gauthier (formerly at Café du Parc at the Willard Hotel in Washington), assures that Meritage's evolution is still in flux, hopefully for the better. Last reviewed in 2009. Revisited and downgraded in October.
» READ MORE: MOLE POBLANO
1144 S. Ninth St., 215-465-1616; molepoblanophilly.com
Among South Philly's increasingly rich community of authentic Mexican taquerías, this tiny, tidy, tiled little storefront dining room run by the Ríos family has emerged as one of my favorites. Almost all of the traditional dishes are well-crafted, but it has perhaps the best mole poblano in town, plus a series of weekend-only specials worth planning for, from hauntingly good goat barbacoa with consommé to extraordinary tamales (with mole!) that are almost always gone by midmorning, and for good reason. Reviewed April 27.
Moorestown Mall, 400 Route 38, Moorestown, 856-316-4427; osteriajersey.com
"Mall food" got a hopeful jolt when Marc Vetri and Co. opened in the Moorestown Mall to well-deserved three-bell acclaim with a twin to its Osteria, but with better wine prices (and lobster spaghetti). But was it really as good as the Broad Street original? It wasn't easy to tell early on, with members of the company's A-team working there until the opening reviews came in. Eight months later, however, Osteria Jersey appeared to have settled in at a lower level of food and service, as many details that usually elevate Osteria's rustic Italian cooking fell short, from a not-hot Margherita pizza to a skimpy veggie antipasti, poor seasoning on favorite pastas (chicken liver rigatoni flat; Sal's old-school meatballs) and less-than-polished service. Vetri has vowed to remedy the issues. But the acknowledgment highlights the staffing challenges that make suburban expansion for even the most proven restaurateurs a major risk. Reviewed Feb. 16. Revisited and downgraded in October.
» READ MORE: PARIS BISTRO AND JAZZ CAFE
8229 Germantown Ave., 215-242-6200; parisbistro.net
C'est la belle vie for Chestnut Hill since chef Al Paris and the Bynum brothers (Heirloom, Warmdaddy's) opened this evocative corner bistro done up in mustard-yellow walls and Belle Epoque kitsch. A menu of French classics sometimes lacks the finesse of great bistro cooking. But it's good enough, at fair prices, to become a needed neighborhood standby. An intriguing and intimate jazz club in the cellar (open weekends with dinner) should be a destination. Reviewed June 8.
» READ MORE: ROSA BLANCA
707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555; rosablancadiner.com
Nuevo master Jose Garces and his crew show they can deliver soulful updates to Cuban classics in this revamping of Chifa into an accessible Latin diner. The multiroom, bi-level space has too many split personalities (teal-colored lunch counter; dark rear dining room; downstairs cocktail-dance lounge "Nacional 56") to feel coherent. But there are so many well-crafted, affordable Latin flavors, from masterful empanadas to silky ropa vieja and a delicious Cuban-style tortilla Española, that the draw of those meals with a side of perfect black beans alone is enough to justify its existence. Reviewed April 20.
» READ MORE: SIMPLY SHABU
1023 Cherry St. 267-273-0354; simplyshabu.com
The hot pot phenomenon has gone from home-style to one of the hottest dishes in Asian restaurant culture. First-time restaurateur and first-generation Taiwanese American Dennis Tuan has brought a polished version to Chinatown, with a cool modern space and Top 40 soundtrack that draws a young "bubble tea generation" for an affordable and casual DIY experience around bubbling pots of aromatic broth. The plates of ready-to-cook raw local meats and seafood are distinguished from more "authentic" competitors by quality rather than quantity. Reviewed April 13.
» READ MORE: SOCIETY HILL SOCIETY
400 S. Second St., 267-273-1434; societyhillsociety.com
Few places captured an aura of Philadelphia history - minus ye olde kitsch - quite like this Headhouse Square replacement for the former Artful Dodger, artfully revamped with distressed plaster, wooden nooks, and a cozy, shrub-centric bar that feels like a timeless local tavern. The opening menu paid tribute to local foodways with nods to traditional Pennsylvania flavors (pot pie, pork and dumplings, sticky buns) deftly updated by Garces vet Yun Fuentes. However, there has been a change of chef and menu (smoked duck cassoulet, cauliflower steak, duck soup dumplings) since the review. Reviewed Sept. 28.
» READ MORE: STOCK
308 E. Girard Ave. (no phone); stockphilly.com
Pho fanatics and Fishtown hipsters alike grab a counter seat in this minimalist storefront space, where former Zahav sous-chef Tyler Akin and his wife, Nicole Reigle, serve quality updates to classic Vietnamese soups, salads, and banh mi. A limited menu, traditional approach, and focus on ingredient upgrades (quality spices, hormone-free beef) instead of flashier fusion updates, may be lost on devotees of Philly's slightly cheaper soup halls. But the quality is genuine, and though some seasonings still need a little punch, Stock tastes like the beginning of something bigger. Reviewed Oct. 5.
» READ MORE: TAQUERIA FELIZ
4410 Main St., Manayunk 267-331-5874; taqueriafeliz.com
Manayunkers shouldn't be happy - they should be thrilled that chef Tim Spinner and partner Brian Sirhal brought a taqueria sibling of their Feliz family (La Calaca in Fairmount; Cantina in Fort Washington) to Main Street. The colorful and lively space is more casual in spirit than the others, but talented chef Lucio Palazzo brings the same no-shortcut passion and authentic sensibility to updated Mexican street food, from a singular barbacoa to excellent vegetarian options and adventure tacos (grasshopper, chicken skin) that should have a citywide draw. Reviewed Feb. 23.
» READ MORE: THE TREEMONT
231 S. 15th St., 267-687-2237; thetreemont.com
The ever-ambitious Chip Roman (Blackfish, Mica, Ela) has extended his fine-dining reach to the 15th Street heart of Center City. The pretty dishes by talented longtime Roman chef de cuisine Rob Sidor are solid contemporary riffs on fine seasonal ingredients (try the cured cobia). But Treemont's real estate challenges are tall, from the oddly vertical, bi-level space to a locale hemmed in by construction and a strip lacking much residential identity. Are good flavors enough to sustain this project for the long haul? Reviewed Sept. 7.
» READ MORE: VOLVÉR
The Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., 215-670-2303; volverrestaurant.com
A revisit brought improvements, but also a big new concern. Jose Garces' show-kitchen stage for dining "performances" at the Kimmel Center debuted with lofty ambitions - prepaid online tickets for luxurious 14-course tastings in an airy atelier that, at $500-plus for two, ranked among the priciest in town. The prime ingredients and talent were there, with many fine flavors, cocktails, and wines curated by super-sommelier, Gordana Kostovski. But the overall experience felt self-indulgent and misguided, fed by server narratives paying homage to the chef, overwrought concepts, and a lack of balance that left the meal running far too long.
Conventional reservations are now allowed, a new half-price six-course menu option is offered, and the pretty plates - from an exquisite "live lettuce" still-life to the clever KFS (fried squab) - are now delivered gracefully at a better pace, and without the creation stories. The changes make Volvér feel like a more accessible three-beller - at least for a first meal. I was surprised at my December revisit, though, to find an almost identical set of dishes to what I ate last summer (save for a tiny persimmon tart and a different mousse in the faux-deviled egg.)
It's a surprise stagnation considering the expected flexibility of a tasting-menu format and Garces' promise of "seasons" at a venue that would be "my home base for cooking . . . to stretch my culinary wings." He was only present at the first of my four meals. The Champagne bar is a smart destination for a drink and nibble. But until Volvér proves it hasn't already coasted into autopilot on a little-changing menu, I have no compelling urge to return - or award it a third bell to acknowledge it's making the most of an otherwise talented team and its lavish taxpayer-subsidized space. Reviewed July 20. Revisited in December.
ONE BELL: HIT-OR-MISS
» READ MORE: CALEB'S AMERICAN KITCHEN
5738 U.S. 202, Lahaska (New Hope), 215-794-8588; calebsamericankitchen.com
Longtime Marsha Brown's chef Caleb Lentchner has gone solo in nearby Lahaska with an airy and likable BYO beside Peddler's Village serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an upscale American bent. At its best, Caleb's is a friendly neighborhood space delivering polished renditions of familiar fare, from good chops and burgers to seafood risotto and ceviche. Major inconsistency in the kitchen and service, though, dimmed a second visit that was far too pricey for such flaws. Reviewed May 25.
» READ MORE: THE GASLIGHT
120 Market St. 215-925-7691; thegaslightphilly.com
Ela's chef-partner Jason Cichonski has stumbled in this solo attempt to expand his reach to Old City with a stylish gastropub. The concept of an updated but casual tavern for Philly's tourist and nightclub district is solid. But finding the staff to execute the chef's ambitious vision - in the kitchen, at the bar, and in the dining room - has been a serious challenge, resulting in sloppy plates, floundering service, and yet more staffing changes to come for a project that, nine months after opening, was still wobbly. Reviewed Nov. 16.
HONEY'S SIT-N-EAT (ON SOUTH)
2101 South St., 215-732-5130; honeyssitneat.com
The South Street branch of this Northern Liberties institution was a comfort-food hit when it opened in 2013, although its big menu had weak links beyond the breakfast standards. There have been kitchen changes since that review, and the inconsistent cooking persists. It hit a new low at a revisit in the spring, when I was served a spongy meatloaf covered in the single worst gravy I've ever been served somewhere that purports to cook from scratch. It looked like it had broken out with scary lumps - and dropped this Honey's branch down to one bumpy bell until future notice. First reviewed with two bells in 2013. Revisited and downgraded in May.
» READ MORE: THE LUCKY WELL
111 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, 215-646-4242; theluckywell.com
Book printer-turned-pit master Chad Rosenthal has stepped up from his modest suburban starter BYOs (Rosey's BBQ) to a full-service destination in downtown Ambler, where smoked meats and a serious whiskey bar are the draw. The stylishly upscale vibe and Rosenthal's recent Food Network celebrity have generated crowds. But the service is disorganized, and the entire menu struggles with consistency, polish, and depth of flavors, showing much room for an inexperienced restaurateur to grow. Reviewed Aug. 17.
» READ MORE: PARK PLATES
7852 Montgomery Ave., Elkins Park, 215-782-3663; parkplatesrestaurant.com
Restaurant-starved Elkins Parkers have cheered the arrival of this promising Mediterranean-inspired BYOB overlooking the Creekside Co-op from two veterans of the Commissary and Starr Catering. Consistent lapses in execution, though, dimmed my early meals at this potentially game-changing bistro. At a return visit in November, the appeal of its casual but sophisticated room was still obvious. Unfortunately, so was a kitchen still struggling to deliver. I saw small instances of progress from my first visit (a tender and tasty lamb shoulder, far less use of chickpeas as filler.) But a $42.50 tasting menu was a mess (the second course arrived while I was still eating the first!). And too many dishes - an exploded ravioli stuffed with stringy lamb, a rubbery scallop, a "golden" beet soup the color of split peas, a flavorless lingcod - showed a kitchen still far overmatched by its own ambitions. Reviewed May 11. Revisited in November.
» READ MORE: RESTAURANT CERISE
1011 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr 610-527-4400; restaurantcerise.com
The Main Line needs more places like Cerise, a casual but ambitious husband-wife BYO bistro where the prix-fixe menu is often changing and focused on European and seasonal inspirations. What Cerise needed to realize its potential during the review, however, was far more consistent cooking from chef-owner Ben Thomas, who has the pedigree (Lacroix, Sycamore, a year cooking in Paris) to also take more risks on dishes worthy of a tasting-menu format. Reviewed Feb. 2.