A Middle Eastern upswing

It's falafel-ooza out there. I refer to two significant Middle Eastern-inspired restaurants. I'll run 'em down. Also: Craig LaBan backs away from his brown spirits obsession to run down some summery cocktails. And if you want to snag an invitation to this year's sold-out Diner en Blanc, read on. If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this free newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it every week.

Old school, new kicks

Irwin’s, inside Bok Building, 1901 S. Ninth St.
Irwin’s, inside Bok Building, 1901 S. Ninth St.

South Philly's Bok Building (Ninth and Mifflin Streets), the onetime high school repurposed to accommodate myriad small businesses, now has a full-fledged restaurant on the eighth floor, across the way from Bok Bar, which arguably has the city's finest rooftop views.

This is new, kids. July 18 is opening night.

Irwin's, whose Middle Eastern-inspired menu from chef Paul Garberson (ex-Fitler Dining Room) includes a mezze selection (crispy castlevetrano olives and raw sunflower seed and carrot falafel with seeded crackers), a "salad-y" section with a stone fruit and cucumber salad with a savory vinaigrette, and a halloumi, apricot, and arugula salad with urfa biber dressing, plus larger plates such as mussels stuffed with an aromatic rice and lemon and beef manti in garlic yogurt and chili oil.

Talk about kicking it old school. Irwin's is named after long-ago school district architect Irwin Catherine.

Rohe Creative converted the school's former nursing classroom, adding bold Art Deco designs, found objects, and graff. The soapstone-topped bar itself comes from the old science room. There's also a roof terrace.

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. I'd call for a table in the early going. Phone: 215-693-6206.

Where we’re enjoying happy hour

Cilantro and scallion rice rolls at Nom Wah.
Cilantro and scallion rice rolls at Nom Wah.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
218 N. 13th St., 4-6 p.m. weekdays. 

Lopping $1 off the price of a beer as a "happy-hour special" ordinarily just doesn't cut it. But with $4 bottles of Tsingtao and Tiger and a dim-sum menu, Nom Wah on the Vine Street end of Chinatown is a true deal. Hits include cilantro and scallion rice rolls ($3.50), tofu skin rolls ($4.50), and those old-school thick-wrapper egg rolls ($7)

NOTE: The Misconduct Taverns (1511 Locust St. and 1801 JFK Blvd.)  will hold its fourth annual happy hour from 5-8 p.m. July 19 to benefit Doctors of the Americas. Courtney Ercole, wife of owner Chuck Ercole, sits on the DOTA Board and participates in annual medical missions to Central America.  This year's trip is to El Salvador.

Where we’re eating: Spice Finch, Pearl’s Oyster Bar, Harper’s Garden 

Vegetable escabeche at Spice Finch.
Vegetable escabeche at Spice Finch.

Chefs Jennifer Carroll and Billy Riddle riff on the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean canon with the Deco-sleek Spice Finch at the Warwick Hotel (220 S. 17th St.). Menu pops with flavor (and vegetables!), including vegetable escabeche; stuffed grape leaves; and salt-baked eggplant. Bar nails it with the Rest in Pete's  (vodka, preserved lemon, turmeric, sumac, saffron — an homage to the former Little Pete's across the street, now a hole in the ground) and a frozen Corpse Reviver #2 (gin, cointreau, cocchi americano, and lemon) served with a wee bottle of Underberg perched on the rim. Open for dinner only now.

Fried oysters and spicy egg scramble at Pearl’s Oyster Bar.
Fried oysters and spicy egg scramble at Pearl’s Oyster Bar.

Reading Terminal Market has a slew of breakfast options. Pearl's Oyster Bar, along the 12th Street side closest to Filbert Street, is the go-to for those seeking above-the-hotcakes-and-eggs grub. Dave Braunstein and crew are always good for a few seafood options, too, including this platter of four fried oysters served with a spicy egg scramble and fried potatoes. The fellow next to me made quick work of a special Southern breakfast bowl of corn bread, chipped tasso ham, two fried eggs, and two fried shrimp. Sure, sure. You can get a bowl of granola-topped yogurt, too. Open market hours.

Roasted carrots and hummus at Harper’s Garden.
Roasted carrots and hummus at Harper’s Garden.

Arguably Rittenhouse's hottest, most bustling newcomer, Harper's Garden (31 S. 18th St.) balances its indoor-outdoor setting with drinking/dining under the pergola festooned with greenery and vines as well as snug seating and a bar indoors. Chef Benjamin Moore, a Lacroix alum who had a brief, shining moment at 26 North in Northern Liberties, oversees a priced-to-move menu that works for those building a meal from small plates or going with app-main dish tradition. It's open from noon to 2 a.m. daily for lunch/brunch and dinner. (Harper's Garden bar manager Jesse Cornell is married to Lifestyle and Arts editor Molly Eichel, who didn't assign or edit this.)

Win admission to Diner en Blanc

At 5,500 people, it's on track to be the largest Diner en Blanc event in the country for the second year in a row.

And it's sold out again.

I can help get you in.

DEB organizers are offering a registration for two people, including dinner for two from Feast Your Eyes, plus the table, chairs, and linens.

This is a sweepstakes, with a short turnaround.

Email me at with Diner en Blanc in the subject line. I'll pick a random entry at 9 a.m. July 19. In your email, please include your name and your daytime and mobile phone numbers. I am many things, but not clairvoyant. I'm also not responsible for misdirected emails. One entry per person, and please do be available the evening of Aug. 16 with a friend or loved one.

Dining Notes

Collingswood restaurants mark Farm to Fork Restaurant Week from July 22-27.

SJ Hot Chefs are doing a similar promotion from July 22-29.

Ambler Restaurant Week is July 16-23.

Ardmore Restaurant Week is July 16-29.

Metropolitan Cafe (264 S. 19th St. in Rittenhouse) hands out comp wine Tuesday to Thursday to all dine-in pizza customers between 6-8 p.m.

Snap Custom Pizza locations (except for Newark, Del.) offers comp wine on Wednesdays.

This week’s openings

Helm Rittenhouse | Rittenhouse

New location for the bistro Helm opens July 30, as it slides into the second-floor space at 19th and Chestnut Streets formerly occupied by Aldine. Has a liquor license and a bar.

Irwin's | South Philadelphia

Spiffy Mediterranean bar-restaurant on the eighth floor of the Bok Building. See above.

Scoop DeVille | Washington Square West

Ice cream shop not only moves from 1315 Walnut St. to 1109 Walnut St. but starts making its own soft-serve.

This week’s closing

South Helm | South Philadelphia

July 21 is the finale at Front and Morris Streets for the American BYOB, as it's moving. See above.

Craig LaBan answers your dining questions

Question: What are you drinking this summer? Any favorite cocktails?

Craig LaBan: I'm normally a brown-spirit drinker, but take a break when it gets this hot. And it's allowed me to notice many of the creative things local mixologists have been making with lighter spirits that allow the fresh flavors of summer — citrus, herbs, produce — to really shine.

I've taken a surprising liking to the spicy-cocktail trend that's been popping up around town (like the 18th Street Heat at Harper's Garden, among others), which I'll elaborate on more in this weekend's Drink column. But I've also taken notice of many of the cocktails being made now with our growing wealth of locally distilled spirits. The new elderflower-infused gin from Philadelphia Distilling (25 E. Allen St.) is pure elegance, lending a delicate floral note to the crisp Vesper being served in frosty coupes at the distillery's impressive tasting room in Fishtown, which sits in the shadows of its copper pot stills.

At Hungry Pigeon (743 S. Fourth St.), the caraway savor of Rowhouse Spirit's "Akvavit" adds a Nordic twist to the Great White Negroni, which goes transparent with white vermouth and a Scandinavian-style herbal liquor called Besk to create a drink so refreshing, yet potent, it made the pile of ice in the tumbler almost luminous with an anise glow beneath the pinkish plume of its grapefruit twist. Get there soon, as Hungry Pigeon has the habit of frequently swapping out cocktails — especially if they get popular.

Speaking of Negronis, I don't think there's a better one in town than the classic being made at Palizzi Social Club (1408 S. 12th St.), though, since pictures aren't allowed at this members-only haunt (I got a lucky invite), you'll just have to take my word for it. It's punchy, but balanced. And this is Negroni weather.

There are some creative cocktails going on at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft in Ardmore (29 E. Lancaster Ave.). I wasn't a huge fan of the vegetable drinks that look like they came straight from a smoothie bar, blended with pureed carrot or creamy avocado. However, with news of George Clooney's motorcycle crash breaking during my visit (he walked away fine), we drank in support of the star by diving into the Ripplewood's "Jorge Clooney." And it turns out I loved the smoke and citrus of this revamp of a "Naked & Famous," which blends mezcal from Clooney's Casamigos with Aperol and yellow Chartreuse. With a daisy wheel of lime floating just beneath its yellow surface, it was refreshingly quaffable.

Summer is a time for herbs. And no drink takes that notion quite as seriously as the Poet, a gin sour variation at Suraya (1528 Frankford Ave.) that puckers up Bluecoat gin with Persian lime syrup, genepy liqueur, fresh cucumber puree, and a fragrant dusting of Lebanese za'atar and tart sumac atop a foamy head cleverly made from vegan aquafaba (the cooking water from chickpeas) in lieu of the usual egg yolk. It's a fragrant and refreshing break from the anise power of Suraya's distinctive arak cocktails that still speaks to the restaurant's Middle Eastern character.

Not far away in Kensington, meanwhile, you'll find all manner of refreshing cocktails made from great local spirits at Martha (2113 E. York St.), like the iced coffee Negroni made with Five Saints gin or the Red Ferrari made with Red Brick's single-malt whiskey and Cinzano. My most memorable sip at Martha, though, was the unusual house shot, a startlingly good blend of bourbon and Cynar, the artichoke-flavored Italian amaro, that tasted like a boozy gulp of garden medicine, at once cola-sweet and bitter and herbal in a satisfying way that makes you think: Thistles can make surprisingly good drinking. Or, just as likely, a shot of bourbon can play well with others, even in the heat of summer.

Email Craig here