Craig LaBan's 2015 restaurant reviews
What follows is a summary of the restaurants reviewed this year, primarily on Sundays, but also in Thursday Food features.
What follows is a summary of the restaurants reviewed this year, primarily on Sundays, but also in Thursday Food features.
As always, there were second chances and revisits to a handful of restaurants to check for improvement. I went back to six places that seemed within striking distance of a rating change - those are designated with an asterisk.
Good news there: One stepped up from two to three bells (Aldine), one moved from one to two (Ardé), another climbed out of the no-bells basement (Bonchon), and another (the Mainland Inn) held steady at three after a major chef change.
There were no new four-bells restaurants this year.
1901 Chestnut St., 2d floor, 215-454-6529; aldinerestaurant.com
First-time owners George and Jennifer Sabatino have moved up in the world, literally, to a moody, purple second-floor perch north of Rittenhouse, where they've created an appealing destination for modern dining wrapped in city lights. (Say it "al-deen.")
The above-street locale hasn't been an easy draw. But George Sabatino's creative and labor-intensive food has undergone enough continuous refinement over the last year that Aldine deserves a return visit from all - and has also earned its third bell.
Our recent visit brought some stunningly beautiful plates whose intricacy did not obscure the good flavors, from sous-vide shrimp ceviche splashed in colorful blood-orange vinaigrette and fennel cream to delicate oysters en gelee topped with frozen tarragon granità, savory house sausage, and masterful veggie takes on carrots and romanesco.
Excellent service and creative cocktails (try the hot buttered rye) complete the package for one of the year's more personal and ambitious projects. Reviewed with two bells Feb. 15. Revisited and upgraded in December.
1520 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-318-7341; brigantessaphila.com
The team behind Abruzzi-inspired Le Virtù embraces the same updated rustic approach to reconnect South Philadelphia to its more Southern Italian roots (Campania, Sicily, Calabria) at their second East Passyunk project, a lively bilevel restaurant-bar that hits a perfect medium of casual elegance.
Co-owner chef Joe Cicala channels his inner-pizzaiolo for serious riffs on Neapolitan pizza. But it's the rest of this big menu, from the wood-fired antipasti to the exceptional pastas (black chickpea pappardelle with whey-braised lamb, mmm . . .), plus an ambitious drink program and diligent service, that make Brigantessa an essential new player on Philly's Italian scene. Reviewed Jan. 11.
66 Witherspoon St., Princeton; 609-924-0078; elementsprinceton.com
The new location of chef Scott Anderson's culinary atelier in Princeton, in a lofty space above its more casual sibling, Mistral, is one of the most ambitious efforts to redefine fine dining within an hour of Philadelphia.
From the exceptional wine pairings to the hyper-inventive "New Jersey Naturalist" cuisine, presented over foraged branches, birds' nests, and handmade crockery by chef-servers in a range of tasting menus (from four courses to 20-plus), this is luxe dining as immersive and surprising as theater.
The longer menu leaves too much room for weak-link dishes, and the tired '80s sound track is out of place. But elements is, nonetheless, a fun culinary adventure worth the trip, with potential to mature to next-level status. Reviewed Nov. 22.
FITLER DINING ROOM
2201 Spruce St., 215-732-3331; fitlerdiningroom.com.
This corner fine-dining boutique near Fitler Square has made a concerted effort to recast itself with more neighbor-friendly accessibility since undergoing a chef change, adding steady hours for affordable lunches, brunch, and a $35 Sunday supper with casual family-style meals.
Though dinner prices still hover in the mid- to high $20s and the ingredients are still prime, the personality adjustment has continued in the kitchen, where Fat Ham vet Gabriel Alcaraz has veered toward more rustic comforts with some Southern accents, including irresistible pimento cheese fritters, fried oysters with Caesar salad, and a charcoal-grilled skirt steak over smashed fingerlings in herb butter that's one of the better $26 steaks in town. Revisited and re-reviewed Sept. 3.
1303-1305 N. Fifth St., 215-309-2211; helmphilly.com
Dust off your best bottles and head to . . . Kensington?
Yes. Philly's next "it" BYOB landed, true to genre, on the fringe of an emerging neighborhood with talented young co-owners making the most of their first shot. My co-Chefs of the Year, Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths (Lacroix, Fork, Will, Stateside between them), have transformed a simple but pleasant 34-seat space into a blackboard-menu showcase for ultra-seasonal cooking driven by North Philly's urban farms, from house burrata to lamb with tiny local turnips.
Delivered with personal service and an eclectic vinyl record-collection sound track, the Helm experience hits all the right notes.
One caveat: It's noisy! Reviewed June 21.
757 S. Front St, 215-644-8949; kanellarestaurant.com
Cypriot chef Konstantinos Pitsillides took a major risk in moving his hit BYOB from its beloved little Wash West corner to a much larger space with a liquor license on the edge of Queen Village, and it has paid off.
The new edition of Kanella is better in every way, from the gorgeous white wood and glass-wrapped dining room to the hand-chosen wines and cocktails, and an evocative Mediterranean menu that draws greater inspiration and deeper rustic resonance from the addition of a wood-fired grill and oven.
With excellent service that has grown alongside the kitchen, this is a project that exudes passion and personality in every aspect, and it has earned my nod as the Best New Restaurant of 2015. Reviewed Dec. 20.
MAINLAND INN *
17 Mainland Rd., Harleysville, 484-704-2600; mainlandinn.com
This classic Montco country inn has been spectacularly updated with a sharp rehab and an ambitious kitchen taking farm-to-table cooking to sophisticated heights with all-organic produce and sustainably raised meats largely from nearby Quarry Hill Farm (owned by the inn's new owner).
Any inconsistencies resulting from the sudden departure of the star opening chef shortly after the review appeared has been ably steadied by successor Max Hosey (ex-Charlie Was a Sinner), who's narrowed the focus of the menu a bit, but who is still deftly melding rustic whole-animal cooking with modern takes on seasonality and fermentation.
A recent revisit brought an extraordinary pork chop and memorable housemade scrapple.
The most noticeable letdown since my early visits was in the level of desserts (the pastry chef and opening chef were a couple). But with a serious service staff to round out the experience, the new Mainland Inn remains the most ambitious new suburban destination this year. Reviewed May 10. Revisited in December.
1934 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-928-4339; www.lukepalladino.com
Long a star at the Jersey Shore, Luke Palladino brings his stylish regional Italian cuisine to the big city in a swanky, striped wedge of a building at the southern gateway of East Passyunk Avenue, where wood-grilled chops and elegant updates to classic flavors anchor the city's hottest dining strip with a fresh, upscale polish.
The sleek interior with padded banquette nooks, a large Italian wine list, and big-ticket prices will evoke the chef's Borgata casino days, but Palladino's consistent, hand-crafted excellence proves that he belongs and that Philly still has room for another great Italian restaurant. Reviewed March 29.
126 S. 19th St., 215-278-7943; vstreetfood.com
Vedge fans can get a more casual, globe-trotting taste of Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's culinary magic at this affordable Rittenhouse Square ode to international street foods, which just happens to also be vegan.
From Hungarian langos fritters to Latin-inspired carrot asado, borders melt away on these small plates, thanks to the chefs' inventive vision and uniquely wide-ranging command of bold ethnic flavors. The long and minimalist three-room space is an intimate and cozy haven to graze, watch chefs work the grill at the back kitchen counter, or sip an excellent and usual cocktail (mixed with mustard? Turkish coffee?) at the airy front bar while 19th Street strolls by. Reviewed Jan. 18.
618 Collings Ave., Collingswood, 856-854-2670; zeppolirestaurant.com
After four years at this tiny BYOB, Joey Baldino has mastered the art of traditional Sicilian cooking, refining the subtleties and soulfulness to take seemingly simple and rustic plates to a place of deep satisfaction, with amazing braised rabbit and tripe, daily focaccia, outstanding pastas, and an epic antipasti.
Some work has been done to dampen the noise issues of this homey little dining room. It's still noisy. But the chef's steady presence has shaped Zeppoli into one of the most personal Italian dining experiences in not just South Jersey, but the entire region. Revisited and upgraded from two to three bells on Nov. 5.
ARDÉ OSTERIA & PIZZERIA *
133 North Wayne Ave., Wayne, 484-580-6786; ardewayne.com
Wayne's bid to become pizza capital of the Main Line gets a boost from this appealing corner BYOB from the DiMeo family with partner Scott Stein.
The rustic Italian menu goes well beyond pizzas - which is fortunate, because the Neapolitan-style pies were scorched one night, then unavailable the next during my initial review.
On a year-end revisit, the pizza still wasn't great - the dough was too chewy and tough. Thankfully, the other cooking had become more consistent and begun to realize the potential for this BYO as a stylish stop for Italian trattoria cooking, from the superb buffalo mozzarella bar to well-cooked authentic pastas and tender, slow-cooked short ribs. Service still lags, but overall progress has been made. Reviewed Feb. 8 with one bell. Revisited and upgraded in December.
BING BING DIM SUM
1648 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-279-7702; bingbingdimsum.com
The latest deliberately inauthentic and funky twist on Asian street food from the talented duo behind Cheu Noodles is a high-energy fusion take on dim sum.
The lively room of Chinese booths, community tables, and dumpling-inspired pop art brims with a youthful, no-reservations crowd that comes for the hot pastrami bao, Bing bread clams, and soup dumplings, then washes them down with tea-infused cocktails by the pitcher.
There are some misses. But the prices are affordable, the experience is fun, and chef Ben Puchowitz's plates work best when straying farthest from tradition. Reviewed May 3.
THE BLUE DUCK
2859 Holme Ave., 267-686-4687; blueduckphilly.com
Co-owners Joe Callahan and chef Kris Serviss have returned to their native Northeast to open a much-needed 21st-century update on the neighborhood restaurant.
Their modest strip-mall BYOB, bright with white subway tile and a lively young crowd at the kitchen counter and community table, succeeds with creative updates to such comfort food favorites as "Quack & Cheese," burgers ground with pork roll, deconstructed French onion soup (inspired by the traditional version at a favored local diner), and more ambitious dishes that don't necessarily all include duck.
Consistency was an issue, as was fine-tuning the concept, but these eager young restaurateurs did well correcting any gaffes in-meal, and showed potential to become pioneers for a new wave in the old Northeast. Reviewed Jan. 4.
BRICK & MORTAR
315 N. 12th St., 215-923-1596; brickandmortarphilly.com
This ambitious newcomer to the growing Loft District channels the neighborhood's industrial spirit with a long concrete space dressed up in graffiti, rich woods, and steel, plus a menu targeted at a young bar crowd that likes to graze.
Ex-Kennett chef Brian Ricci's grill-centric menu can seem a bit minimalist as he finds the proper tone, but it rises on seasonality and exotically spiced flavors.
Soccer fans come for the early-Sunday full-English plate and Premier League games on the big screen.
The bar, however, stocked with craft beers and excellent cocktails from Christina Rando, may be the best reason to visit. Reviewed Sept. 6.
BUD & MARILYN'S
1234 Locust St. (at 13th St.), 215-546-2220, budandmarilyns.com
With a restaurant portfolio on 13th Street that already strides from Mexico to the Mediterranean, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran have added a lively corner space serving retro American comforts inspired by Turney's grandparents' old supper club in Wisconsin.
The banquette-lined room is noisy and fun, with well-made cocktails and an evocative retro decor.
Turney offers appealing modern takes on familiar dishes, from fried cheese curds to mini-lobster rolls and stuffed meat loaf. But note: The hearty nostalgia plates, despite their updates, can also add up to a surprisingly heavy meal. Reviewed Nov. 29.
233 Chestnut St., 215-897-9999; capofittoforno.com
The owners of Capogiro have plunged into Neapolitan pizza-making with as much passion, style, and attention to authenticity as they do gelato.
The result is a handsome space that's an oasis of affordable sophistication amid a touristy hookah-bar stretch of Old City, where pizzaiola-owner Stephanie Reitano makes some of the best thin-crust pies in town alongside homey Italian pastas, fresh salads, and paninis, plus a fairly priced Italian wine and beer list.
Service at a recent revisit was slow and unevenly paced. But this is nonetheless a bright addition to both this neighborhood and the crowded pizza scene. Reviewed March 8.
CROW & THE PITCHER
267 S. 19th St., 267-687-2608; crowandthepitcher.com
Michael Franco had to scramble to save his bistro and bar just south of Rittenhouse Square after the headline-grabbing arrest of his chef-partner, Alex Capasso, on federal child-pornography charges.
Good thing Franco had mentor Georges Perrier to lend a hand in tutoring relatively inexperienced Gregory Headen. The focus on French-centric basics (rillettes, roast chicken, Provencale fish, plus a big burger) is a smart strategy to secure neighborhood faithful with a still fairly limited menu meant to bolster the gorgeous silver Christofle cheese cart and fine cocktails. (Love the Crow & Tonic made with house-infused tonic.)
"Alex Capasso isn't Crow & the Pitcher," insists Franco. "We are." Revisited and updated with no rating change Sept. 3.
4211 Chestnut St., 215-387-5250
The setting doesn't get any more humble than this little dining room with community tables curtained off at the back of an Indian market in West Philadelphia, where international students and cab drivers come for a counter-service menu served in plastic take-out tubs.
But the lack of frills is worth the trade-off for some of the most vividly flavored and authentic Punjabi food within Philly's city limits, from earthy stuffed paratha flatbreads to Punjabi kadhi and other northern Indian classics simply prepared with a home-cooked touch by the Singh family at ultra-value prices. Reviewed May 31.
126 S. 16th St., 215-800-1165; dandanrestaurant.com
Rittenhouse Square gets a double dose of authentic Chinese flavors with the Sichuan heat and Taiwanese sweetness being served at this newcomer from husband-wife duo Kevin and Catherina "Cat" Huang - Han Chiang's big sister.
The Han Dynasty comparisons are inevitable (and little bro's dandan noodles are still the best), but this ambitious newcomer still has plenty of bold and worthy flavors in its own right to offer Center City West, from dry pot fish to golden Bunapi mushrooms and a Taiwanese "burger." With outgoing service and a modern bilevel space, it has become an asset to the neighborhood. Reviewed Nov. 1.
8201 Germantown Ave., 267-766-5372; elpoquito.com
If there's a feeling of Distrito-lite at this lively Mexican cantina in Chestnut Hill, it's because owner George Atterbury and chef Andrew Sabin are both key Garces Group alums.
The menu is familiar, with straightforward tacos, enchiladas, and ceviches that can sometimes feel a bit too tamed for gringo taste buds. But there are enough fresh, honestly hand-crafted flavors to accompany the excellent tequila list, friendly (if not always sharp) service, and a stylish reclaimed-chic rehab of the old Chestnut 7 space and its big outdoor patio to become a worthy neighborhood asset to Germantown Avenue's restaurant row. Reviewed April 5.
1320 Chancellor St., 215-735-0735; frankybradleys.com
The element of surprise is Mark Bee's secret advantage in this unlikely revival of the old Frankie Bradley's (the original was spelled differently), tucked away on a seedy back street corner in Midtown Village.
The windowless restaurant-bar and upstairs nightclub (previously Sisters) is a dimly lit watering hole for taking in Bee's quirky Americana collection of velvet paintings, 3D knights, and antlers.
But it's the surprisingly ambitious menu by chef David Kane, from lobster pierogies and house-smoked meats to seasonal gnocchi and lamb chops, that is the payoff for those willing to venture off the path for this in-the-know hidden gem. Reviewed May 24.
738 S. 11th St., 215-627-3012; hawthornecafe.com
Nearly a year after a devastating fire, Hawthornes rose like a phoenix fueled by brunch and beer to reclaim its place as one of Bella Vista's favorite hangouts, a unique Philly mash-up of retail bottle shop (with 800-plus choices in the fridge) and neighborhood restaurant focused on affordable comfort twists.
Though the kitchen can lack finesse (brunch is still its best moment), the scratch cooking has heart, the service is outgoing, and the cheery corner space with a cozy fireplace nook has recaptured the magnetic appeal that made it a hit to begin with. Reviewed April 19.
914 N. Second St., 215-627-7500; heritage.life
Food and live music come together with tuneful rustic-modern style in this ambitious Northern Liberties venue, a cedar-clad hall with roll-up garage-door walls, great whiskeys and draft beers, and a serious kitchen that strives for seasonality, scratch-cooking, and local flavors.
This is a fine showcase for a rising talent in chef Sean Magee (formerly of Time), who just needs more consistency and focus to realize the full potential of his appealing, produce-forward plates. Reviewed July 26.
1601 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-1222; izumiphilly.com
This sleek little sushi counter from Paradiso owners Corey Baver and Lynn Rinaldi serves superb raw fish and a small menu of stylish Japanese plates across from the Singing Fountain.
After six years, it's still one of the avenue's few worthy Asian options, with high-quality fish, including velvety sea eel, creamy uni, and gorgeous tuna. Some composed sashimi leans too much toward distracting sweetness. But the yellowtail canopy is one roll that gets every spicy-crunchy note right, and Baver's braised pork belly over congee, buta kakuni, is a cold-weather comfort I crave. Revisited with no rating change April 23.
1310 Frankford Ave., 267-314-5086; kensingtonquarters.com
Fishtown puts its best hooves forward with a unique hybrid concept pairing a whole-animal sustainable-meat butcher shop with a restaurant kitchen, meat-cutting classroom, and bar in a stylishly converted industrial space.
The upscale menu from chef Damon Menapace (ex-Alla Spina) bolsters grass-fed meats and charcuterie with a spontaneous locavore approach. A recent meal showed some moderately priced overtures that should have stronger appeal to the neighborhood crowd, including a new contender for the best burger in the city.
But the ceiling for more refinement is higher still, as this project from the crew behind Cafe Lift/Bufad represents a major leap in ambition for an eating district on the rise. Reviewed Jan. 25.
1739 W. Ritner St., 267-991-2636; on Facebook
It's hard to find a more modest operation than this little Indonesian cafe in Girard Estates.
But the friendly husband-wife duo of Ferry and chef Debby Takili, despite their inexperience as restaurateurs, delivers a sambal-spiced array of East Javanese-style home cooking that satisfies with tremendous value and soulful flavors.
Try the exotic soups, aromatic beef rendang, peanut-sauced salads, and handmade dumplings for one of the tastiest new adventure meals in town. Reviewed Oct. 4.
LLOYD WHISKEY BAR
529 E. Girard Ave., 215-425-4600; lloydwhiskeybar.com
This funky neighborhood bar at Fishtown's eastern edge has evolved into one of the best cocktail havens in town, with one of the most fairly priced whiskey lists.
The kitchen, likewise, has become increasingly ambitious over the last two years, with house-charcuterie and creative uses of fatty favorites (fried duck skins, pork belly sliders) to complement the booze, plus whimsical brunches themed to the bar's eclectic music playlist. Reviewed Nov. 8.
4503 S. Broad St. (at the Navy Yard), 215-282-3184; lo-spiedo.com
Transformation of the Navy Yard from isolated corporate campus to a neighborhood that Philadelphians actually know exists began in earnest with the arrival of this casual Vetri & Co. restaurant-bar with food off a wood-fired spit.
The handsomely rehabbed Navy guardhouse feels like a smart fit for the community, with a lively downstairs bar, upstairs private rooms, and an appealing selection of grill-centric á la carte nibbles, from wings to whole octopus arms and tender hunks of brisket.
The menu's wide reach, plus odd Southern touches alongside expected Italian flavors, can sometimes feel off-kilter. With less polished service than other Vetri projects, Lo Spiedo feels more like a neighborhood anchor than a must-visit citywide draw. Reviewed Feb. 1.
500 S. 20th St. CLOSED.
After nine years at 20th and Lombard, co-owners Michele DiPietro and Irene Landy made one last chef change to try to keep Meritage afloat.
They got a good one in Steve Forte, who turned out one of the year's best burgers, among other delights. It wasn't enough. Meritage closed in late September. Re-reviewed Sept. 3.
622 S. 2d St., 215-627-0833; mustardgreensphilly.com
Chef-owner Bon Siu's elegantly simple contemporary take on Chinese cuisine has remained a Queen Village favorite for 23 years, and for good reason. His affordable menu is targeted toward a faithful, largely non-Asian, audience, but toes a delicate line between mainstream appeal and an authentic touch that lends superbly fresh ingredients, from plump shrimp to lamb chops and wonderfully crispy softshell crabs, a light-handed simplicity true to his Southern Chinese roots.
Consistency is key here, but with more Chinese competition than ever, a resistance to subtle evolution (both on the menu and limited drink list) risks stifling its ability to cultivate a sustainable new audience. Reviewed March 1.
THE OLDE BAR
125 Walnut St., 215-253-3777; www.theoldebar.com
The iconic bones of Old Original Bookbinder's - or at least one small essential slice of it: the bar - have been revived and reimagined by Jose Garces as a retro cocktail-centric homage to Philadelphia oyster saloons of yore. A small menu of fish-house classics, from snapper soup to rich lobster Newburg and fish and chips, has been updated with mixed (and pricey) success.
But with a stellar raw bar, sharp service, and a distinctive drink program, it just feels right to see even a limited version of this mahogany-clad institution thriving once again. Reviewed April 26.
1627-29 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-2066; paradisophilly.com
The new wave of East Passyunk dining began here a decade ago, when Avenue native Lynn Rinaldi revamped an old furniture store into a modern Italian restaurant with thoughtful updates of classic local flavors, from rabbit cacciatore to stand-out tripe. The restaurant has continued to grow, adding housemade pastas and salumis, and building a big roof garden (with bees!).
We loved the sweetbread ravioli, cavatappi with duck sausage, and big pork chop Milanese. Some inconsistencies (a tiny entree of bass, less-than-perfect charcuterie) still held it back from the next level. But not nearly as much as the uneven service that, on a busy weekend, can become frazzled. Revisited with no rating change April 23.
943 S. Ninth St., 215-309-5847; neufphilly.com
Chef-owner Joncarl Lachman, known for his northern Euro cooking at Noord, has ventured to the warmer flavors of France and North Africa for this charming new Ninth Street bistro. The food is rustic and satisfying, even if Lachman's feel for exotic Maghreb flavors is not quite as vividly focused as his mastery of Dutch cuisine.
But with its sophisticated vibe, excellent bar, and welcoming service, this newcomer is, nonetheless, still a welcome breath of grown-up dining life for the heart of the Italian Market. Reviewed Dec. 13.
614 N. Second St., 215-625-4575; samesamephilly.com
Philly has plenty of traditional Vietnamese cooking, but there is definitely something different about Same Same, the affordable Northern Liberties ode to Saigon street food from Bucks County-born Chad Kubanoff, who spent nearly six years cooking in Vietnam.
The casual counter-service space (in the former KooZeeDoo) is focused on Vietnamese classics (despite the chef's haute-cuisine training at Daniel and Alinea). But attention to detail, quality, and sharp execution elevate the meticulous bánh mì and herb-blasted goi salad into contention among the city's best - well worth the extra couple of dollars over cheaper versions. Reviewed Aug. 9.
TIRED HANDS FERMENTARIA
35 Cricket Terrace, Ardmore, 484-413-2983; tiredhands.com
The second project from Tired Hands' mad genius, Jean Broillet IV, is the most exciting and expansive example of the region's creative new generation of brewpubs.
Set inside the noisy industrial shell of a former trolley works, world-class beers are the Fermentaria's prime attraction, with a changing list of experimental IPAs and funky saisons aging to an elegant sour inside big oak barrels.
The young kitchen needs more consistency, but the menu of unconventional tacos topped with curried cauliflower, fried oysters or carnitas, plus crudo plates and a good burger already hits the right creative spirit to keep the beer geeks fed and pint glasses flowing. Aside from stellar house standards HopHands and SaisonHands, past favorites include Cat Statue, Alien Church, Trendler Pils and Shambolic. Reviewed Aug. 2.
TRIA FITLER SQUARE
2227 Pine St., 215-309-2245; triafitlersquare.com
Fitler Square lost a neighborhood hangout in Dmitri's but landed a fine consolation in what is essentially Tria 3.0.
This sleek wine bar cafe with a minimalist wood decor and lovely parkside view has the same sophisticated drink- and cheese-focused menu as its sibling locations, but with the bonus of a full kitchen cooking affordable entrees to build an actual meal around.
Chef Karen Nicolas has a nice touch with seafood, but Tria's proven strength remains the draw: great cheeses paired with some of the best curated wine and beer lists in town. Also a nice brunch spot.
Big noise and uneven service remain a challenge. Reviewed June 14.
1338 S. 10th St. (at Reed and Passyunk), 215-800-1992; triangletavernphilly.com
The Triangle is cooking again as the owners of Khyber Pass and Cantina Los Caballitos revive this classic South Philly Italian tavern with a fresh update that doesn't compromise its genuine neighborhood character.
Among the new highlights: surprising vegan-Italian options, spiked water ice, and bitters-forward cocktails. Throwback keepers: mussels "red," calamari, the lively casual vibe, and warm hospitality.
The "red gravy" still needs fine-tuning, though, proving simple food is sometimes hardest to master. Reviewed Sept. 27.
700 S. Fifth St.; 267-239-0906; whetstonetavern.com
The team behind Brauhaus Schmitz has turned to Americana - and, in particular, co-owner chef Jeremy Nolen's Reading roots - to inspire the updated comforts on the menu at this friendly neighborhood tavern in Queen Village.
The corner space has been brightened with appealing rustic touches. And there are more than enough approachable good flavors here (despite some kitchen slips) that Whetstone has a shot to break the string of short-lived tenants in this seemingly prime real estate and become a solid neighborhood destination. Reviewed Oct. 11.
THE WHIP TAVERN
1383 N. Chatham Rd., West Marlborough (Springdell), Coatesville 19320, 610-383-0600; thewhiptavern.com
Talented chef Anne Coll has taken a surprising detour from her long history as an Asian-fusion master with this popular British-theme tavern amid the rolling hills of Chester County horse country. Her contributions are already evident with increased seasonality and finessed improvements to some classics.
Some of the menu still clearly needs revamping. But this charmer is already better than ever and likely to continue its rise under Coll's watch. Reviewed Oct. 25.
150 Wyebrook Rd., Honey Brook, 19344 610-942-7481; wyebrookfarm.com
The table-to-farm movement takes a picturesque step forward as Russet chef Andrew Wood joins the effort to create a more ambitious indoor-outdoor restaurant experience at Dean Carlson's idyllic grass-fed animal farm.
The sweeping Chester County views from the courtyard are among the most inspiring anywhere, and the kitchen's Italian-accented approach offers a seasonal showcase for the naturally raised meats.
There's still room for growth, though, before this project reaches its considerable potential as a truly special dining destination. Reviewed July 12.
1020 Cherry St., 267-639-6686; bonchon.com
The South Korean chain that stoked the worldwide craze for super-crunchy Korean fried chicken landed in Philly to serious hype.
The sleek bilevel bar wrapped in TVs blaring K-pop draws Chinatown's hip new youth culture. Unfortunately, the local franchise's lackluster birds and amateur service only proved Philly already had better versions of this "KFC."
The rest of the menu was also among the worst Korean food I'd ever eaten - resulting in the initial No Bells review. A return showed enough tangible improvement to earn a bell (they figured out how to cook non-mushy rice!) even if the frenetic room is still among the more unnerving places in town to eat. Reviewed May 17.
GIRARD BRASSERIE & BRUNCHERIE *
300 E. Girard Ave., 267-457-2486; www.girardongirard.com
The mission to eliminate required tips in favor of higher menu prices (and employee benefits) has dominated the storyline of this unusual Fishtown corner BYOB from Cristian Mora and chef Brian Oliveira, as has the bold striped design.
But what ultimately dampened my Girard meals was inconsistent service and a French-inspired menu dimmed by spotty execution, revealing an inexperienced staff over its head serving entrees that crested $30.
The owners have smartly since limited the format to a less-expensive brunch concept, but my revisit brought food that still seemed so off-kilter - a quiche with virtually no fillings, chicken that seemed precooked, an underwhelming burger for $18 - it's hard to see this incarnation as sustainable, either. Reviewed Feb. 22. Revisited with no rating change in December.
GRAN CAFFE L'AQUILA *
1716 Chestnut St., 215-568-5600; grancaffelaquila.com
This sprawling bilevel complex has become an Italian paradise to many fans, drawn by an extensive wine bar and authentic Abruzzese gelateria-caffè on the ground floor, and elaborate second-floor dining rooms meant to feel like a library.
The house-made gelati and espresso are excellent, and the caffè works fine for a simple panini lunch.
For a more involved dinner, though, the rambling menu stumbled over lack of execution, an overly ambitious attempt to reflect too many regions, goofy fusions (sweet salami sushi?!), and an obsession with odd savory gelato-topped pastas.
A return visit brought more of the same: a half-hour delay for a confirmed reservation, tone-deaf service overwhelmed by office parties and rushing our small group out the door, and a bean-flavored gelato over buckwheat pasta rife with half-raw garlic that was memorably bad. Reviewed April 12. Revisited with no rating change in December.
IMLI INDIAN KITCHEN
769 East Passyunk Ave., 267-858-4277; imliindiankitchen.com
Queen Village has acquired a pleasant Indian BYOB with modern aspirations, but the menu, indicated early on as having an intriguing Southern bent, has instead taken the more common broad approach to touch multiple regions of Indian cuisine.
Unfortunately, the kitchen doesn't really carry it off, as the urge to please the widest audience is apparent in cooking that at times is so restrained it lacks both authenticity and a memorable identity. Reviewed Aug. 16.
521 S. Broad St. CLOSED.
Kevin Sbraga tried channeling his inner Hall & Oates to conjure the simpler prime-rib comforts of his youth for a 1980s throwback concept at Broad and South.
It didn't work. Juniper Commons closed after less than six months. Reviewed March 15.
1801 Lombard St., 215-560-8443; southgatephilly.com
The neighborhood pub meets the Korean food trend at this stylish corner tavern, which replaced grungy old (yet beloved) Tangier with sleekly tiled walls, Korean fried chicken, Asian-theme cocktails, and a friendly staff.
SouthGate's menu is intriguing, but also still trying to find the right tone of edgy ideas, authentic Korean flavors, and mainstream accessibility.
A new chef since the review, slated to arrive soon with a Vernick pedigree, gives hope that SouthGate is in for some positive evolution in the New Year. Reviewed Oct. 18.
1536 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-2500; statesidephilly.com
This trend-setting whiskey-and-small-plate venue perches like a cocktail bar-cockpit next to the Singing Fountain, but it has slipped in the years since its opening chef earned three bells.
That was clear at two revisits, which brought lobster agnolotti with little lobster, too-salty mushrooms in the lettuce roll-ups, deep-fried pork rillettes (our server: "Like a high-end taquito from, you know, 7-Eleven"), less-than-prime raw oysters, miserly slices of cheese, and a whiskey sour perfectly stenciled with "SS" on its frothy top that was too bitter to drink.
Revisited and downgraded from 3 bells April 23.
WILLIAM STREET COMMON
3900 Chestnut St., 215-397-4693; williamstreetcommon.com
The bottomless-doughnut brunch, big communal tables, and casual indoor beer garden vibe are fun draws for the college crowd at this moody, light-strung hall of a historic space in University City.
Some of the elevated bar food is fine, but the bar program is weak, and the latest noble stab at a "no-tipping" concept, with an automatic 20 percent surcharge in lieu of gratuities, falls flat considering diners serve themselves at the counter. Reviewed July 19