Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of Oct. 25, 2016:
Craig LaBan: Well, I promised something big, and it has landed. We produced our very first Ultimate Dining guide magazine Monday, 52 glossy pages of gorgeous pictures and reviews dedicated to the best restaurants in the Philly region.
For those of you who haven't seen it yet, here's a summary: I make picks for my Top 25 restaurants across the region, including four new entries into the four-bell club - Vernick Food & Drink, Laurel, Vedge, and Fork. Three existing four-bellers - Vetri, Bibou, and Zahav - maintained their ratings. (Talula's Table still holds four bells, but changed chefs too recently to be reevaluated and included.)
In addition, there are a number of other smaller lists with about 100 other recommended restaurants ranging from best BYOBs (Italian and New American), best of the PA and NJ 'burbs, top global flavors, gastropubs, best values, my Chinatown picks, and my favorite iconic Philly classics. Almost all of the content is new. That explains why I was "off" from the chats and Sunday reviews for a few weeks. It was particularly interesting to have an opportunity get back to a number of the older places and see how they've progressed. A handful earned their first three-bells (i.e. South Philly Barbacoa, Charcoal BYOB, Sagami). Congrats to all for their hard work and for making Philadelphia such a rich place to dine!
For now, the guide exists only in print. If you're not a home subscriber, you can buy a copy online for $5.95 at philly.com/store. You can also pick up a copy (cash only) at the Inquirer's office, 801 Market St., 3rd Floor, in the Reprint Department.
Reader: Did I miss it or are there no downloads in digital format?
C.L.: Good question. If you're a paying digital subscriber, the guide was available in yesterday's "Replica Edition" of the Inquirer, which a lot of people enjoy reading on their iPads. So yes, it does exist digitally already.
Reader: What kept Serpico from the fourth bell? Your list only shows how strong Philadelphia restaurants are in that places like Fond and Sbraga are not on it. An interesting list would be the restaurants that were "bubbling under" your top 25.
C.L.: Picking 25 was incredibly difficult because our region's dining scene is really stronger than ever. Behind the scenes, I'd initially thought of doing a Top 15, then found it impossible. So I tried a Top 20. That didn't work. So, with 25, I think I was finally able to reflect the perfect balance of quality and diversity in our dining scene. But many places came close, including Fond and Sbraga. But as I tried to decide which places made my secondary lists, I decided Sbraga's Fat Ham still spoke to me personally more than his original place, even though Sbraga has really improved since my initial review. As for Serpico, I think Peter Serpico is our most talented modernist chef, and the restaurant as a whole is beautiful and unique and extremely well-run. But getting to four bells is elusive, and it just didn't quite have the consistency I look for from plate to plate.
Reader: I ordered my copy already. Any recipes in there, like, perhaps that chicken on the cover?
C.L.: Great! But you'll have to ask Mr. Vernick for that chicken recipe. It's a cheffy process, though - brined, steamed, and then roasted in a blistering hot wood-fired hearth. If you've got all that at home, more power to you! In the meanwhile, no one does it better. Hope you enjoy the magazine.