Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Restaurant Chat with Craig LaBan

This week, the Inquirer critic talks Italian, Korean, al fresco, gastropubs and more.

The outside dining area at the Water Works as it appeared in the fall. The Schuylkill is in the background.
The outside dining area at the Water Works as it appeared in the fall. The Schuylkill is in the background.Read moreCharles Fox / Inquirer

Craig LaBan:

Welcome back, folks, to my new and improved live chat! It’s still a regular Tuesday date, but a little earlier in the afternoon, so lunch should still be fresh in your memories. Also, we can now finally have a real conversation, thanks to the new technology, that won’t read backwards! It’s been a busy few weeks since we last spoke. I’ve been to Kentucky on a memorable bourbon quest (see this Sunday’s Travel and Image sections!) In the meanwhile, questions have been piling up in the old Q&A bank. I’ll do my best to answer some of the best of those as time goes on, but for the sake of a chat that’s really meant to be “live,” I’ll be taking the fresh submissions first. To get us started, I’m going to inaugurate the new chat room with a return to the weekly Crumb Tracker Quiz. Name the three places in order where I ate these dishes, and win a signed copy of my book: 1) the best slice of grilled beef in town; 2) bargain meatballs with a view; 3) pappardelle with duck ragu and chocolate.


What do you think of paying top dollar for a chefs tasting when the chef is not present? My Wife and I just spent big money at top Italian restaurant in CC and were quite disappointed with what fill-ins put together.


Well, that sounds like a big disappointment. Then again, the fact is that chefs occasionally aren't in their restaurants, and that doesn't mean everything should go to pot. The best places have kitchen staffs that can carry out a menu - tasting or otherwise - even when the head chef's gone. Tasting menus are meant to be more fluid and improvised, so there is is definitely more leeway for a sous-chef to go awry. But if tastings are a major feature here, a standard plan, with some basic parameters, should certainly be in place. I hope you told someone at the restaurant you were disappointed. Otherwise, nothing could have been done to set it right.


Hi Craig...I love your reviews. With the warm weather approaching can you give me your top five outside spots in the city? Thanks!


Marty - I was just outside and thinking the same thing! What a day! You better get out there quickly to dine al fresco before our Spring is up in five minutes, and it's time for summer. Philly has gotten a number of great outdoor spaces over the past few years. Rouge is, of course, the definitive perch on Rittenhouse Square to nibble a giant burger, pet your pug, and watch the 'beautiful' people stroll by. Restaurant M at the Morris House near Washington Square probably has the best city garden going on right now - it's as spacious as the old defunct Garden (but with much better food!). There are some nice cocktail nibble spaces to consider - the Bongo Bar atop the Moshulu (great views, and occasionally music), as well as the lounges at Washington Square and the rooftop bar at Continental Mid-Town. One other to consider would be the Waterworks. They have a new crew there in the kitchen, so it's definitely worth a re-try for me, but the view of boathouse row has always been stellar.


What cuisine would you like to see more of in Philadelphia?


What do you currently see as the greatest omission in the Philadelphia dining scene? Do you think that it will be cured in the not too distant future?


Perch and Chris - you've asked similar questions, I think, so I'll answer them together. My personal unrequited longing here is great Middle Eastern cooking. I grew up in Detroit, which is like Beirut on the Great Lakes, and I've yet to find some of the really fresh, inspired home-cooking I savored there (some restaurants, like La Shish, have the pita oven-equivalent of our brick pizza ovens). In addition, how about some better breakfast places in Center City? How about more than one good Jewish Deli (with Famous being that one)? I also think our pizza scene needs a jolt of life. Osteria is one ray of high-end hope, but what about great pizza for the masses?


My colleague Rick Nichols has just chimed in. Where did our great German tradition go? He's pining for a dose of old Bavarian spaetzles....and maybe some schnitzel!


Craig, Always look forward to your column. Maybe I missed it, but have you discussed ice cream in the Philly area? I don't mean the boutique priced gelato stuff or high butter fat emporiums like Cold Stone - I have to make major ATM runs to treat my three kids to those...but I mean the old fashioned ice cream places. I think Bassetts in Reading Terminal is as good as it gets here. Any thoughts? Personally I really like Thomas Sweets in Princeton and New Brunswick. Interesting flavors and very good basic ice cream. Their cinnamon oreo flavor is a fave. Also, Daddy-O's in Mt. Laurel is closer and pretty good. Thanks!


Perry - you've brought up an intriguing topic. So much attention has been paid to the very worthy new gelaterias, but what about the old time hand-scoopers? The Franklin Fountain in Old City is a fun place - Rick has chimed in, yet again, that their ice cream sandwiches made with hot-off-the-griddle waffles get him misty eyed. Those are some other great suggestions you have, Perry. Anyone else out there with a favorite?


Craig, first it was BYO's, then tapas, and most recently Gastro Pubs, so what next? What is the next trend in the philly dining 'scene'?


Leave it to the Swami to ask for my crystal ball. I don't think we're done with some of the trends you've already mentioned - especially gastropubs. Our beer culture continues to grow, with the addition of Zot, the new Belgian place on Head House Square, another Monk's in Fairmount (in the old Tavern on Green), and continued talk of another project from Eulogy. We've started to get a taste of the Brazilian churrasco craze, with Fogo and Picanha, but another one of those is in the works. Wine bars continue to pop up from Center City to Malvern (where Cosimo has an impressive list of some uncommonly high-end bottles hooked-up to an Oz system). We're beginning to master small plates, so expect more refinement there. But more than anything, our fine-dining options, no matter the flavor, are becoming more casual every year. I'll be curious to see how long many of our more starched fine-dining palaces can continue to thrive without making some concessions to that trend.


know any good korean joints?


You bet your bul-go-gi. Actually, we have a number of good, authentic Korean spots in the Northeast, near Olney. There are BBQ places that still cook with charcoal like Kim's (a classic) and Seo Ra Bol (the 2nd St. upstart nearby). I'm also partial to Jong Ka Jib, the soft-tofu hot pot parlor on 5th St. just before the Cheltenham line. There are also a number of good Korean spots in Cherry Hill, but I wish there was more in Center City. I think many Korean restaurateurs second guess themselves as to whether an American crowd can handle their funky spice. We can!! One exception I've been pleased with so far is Miran, the relatively new place at 2034 Chestnut St.

Stephen G.:

This question probably divides Philadelphians more than any other question except for where to find the best cheese steak: What is the best authentic Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia? (Atmosphere, of course, matters.)


Well, Stephen, the first task in your question is to define what you mean by "authentic." I've always divided South Philly Italians into two categories - the classic Southern-influenced 'red gravy" places, and the "post-red gravy" trattorias, places like L'Angolo, Pesto, Mezza Luna and Tre Scalini. In many ways, the post-red gravy places are more true to what's happening in Italy now. But if you're looking for S. Philly authentic, then you've got some choices - Ralph's, Dante and Luigi's, Villa di Roma, Criniti, etc. I'm personally partial to Villa, because this is still true family cooking (love the fried asparagus in scampi butter!) and the place has far fewer upscale airs than the others. It exudes Italian Market atty-tude (with sometimes a little bit TOO much tough love), and still tastes true to tradition.

NY Times Reader:

Have you had a chance to read Frank Bruni's recent comments regarding Amada (very good) and John's Pork Roast based on his recent visit to Philadelphia?


I had a chance to glance at those comments in Bruni's Diner's Journal - but I haven't dissected them yet (and probably won't) Still, I always find it intriguing to see what an outsider thinks of our local scene. His observations are certainly valid, though I don't agree with everything. He was pleased with his cheese course and wine at Amada, but made it sound a bit like he stumbled across an unknown and unexpected gem. It's probably only the toughest table to snag in town (at least during dinner hours) - hardly a secret to locals. Bruni's tough love (and tough steak) experience at John's, though, will probably ruffle some 2-street Mummer feathers. Rude grill-side behavior at a South PHilly steakery? That's not exactly a scoop. But I disagree strongly with the assertion that John's popularity is based on solely hype of attitude and the aura of its outta-the-way location. John's is as real as a smack of sharp provolone. Then again, the great steak/pork sandwich debate must go on.


1 - Barclay prime, 2 - ikea, and 3 -James.


Wow! Mike nailed this week's Crumb Tracker on the first try! Those are all correct. (Please email me with mailing info at so I can send you your book). I had that Barclay steak at someone's birthday party recently, and absolutely savored every complex, beefy bite. ACtually, it was like 20 oz. (with no bone) so I took it home, and my 8-year-old ate the other half. A real carnivore, she is. Glad you got the Ikea meal without a "swedish" hint. It's a great bargain for better than expected meatballs, and you can gaze upon the U.S.S. United States in all its peeling glory and ponder how great it must have been to ride transatlantic in its heyday. James' pappardelle? Yup. Stay tuned for a May 6 review of this ambitious South Philly newcomer.


Well, thanks to everybody for joining into today's chat! We had a great crowd and enough 'clean' questions to make the conversation hum, which is great considering the lay-off. Come back next week for more hot dish, straight from the LaBan grill. Until then, be well and eat something to brag about!