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Big doings on the dining scene

The mega-restaurant and the return of the French bistro were among the trends of 2008.

Some of the notable restaurants Craig LaBan reviewed in 2008 include (clockwise from top left): Dim Sum Garden, Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar, Cafe Estelle and Distrito, Jose Garces' latest.
Some of the notable restaurants Craig LaBan reviewed in 2008 include (clockwise from top left): Dim Sum Garden, Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar, Cafe Estelle and Distrito, Jose Garces' latest.Read more

This was the year of the mega-restaurant, the return of the French bistro, and the go-go days of the gastropub. The bacon was house-cured. The craft-beer lists became big. And women chefs, more than ever, made their mark on the city's kitchens.

Cozy Philadelphia, long one of the country's best small-restaurant towns, found more than a few restaurateurs willing to gamble big on massive, multimillion-dollar projects from Center City to the Main Line.

Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio presaged the still-growing luxury steak house boom with Table 31 in the new Comcast Center. Red-hot Jose Garces gave University City a boost with his multilevel Nuevo Mex funhouse, Distrito, the upscale taco and tequila palace that was the year's best overall new restaurant. Stephen Starr made a Parisian-style splash on Rittenhouse Square with Parc, the gargantuan French bistro that has been serving as many as 1,200 meals a day.

That's a lot of frites and fresh baguettes. But Parc was hardly the only Gallic game going. From Queen Village's Cochon and Bistrot La Minette to Eric Ripert's 10 Arts in the Ritz, Dream Cuisine in Cherry Hill, and Brian Held's surprising Rouget in Newtown, chefs turned to French comfort food as a favored theme.

There were plenty of other authentic ethnic highlights amid my dining adventures in this year's reviews: the Shanghai steamed buns (a.k.a. "soup dumplings") at Chinatown's bargain gem, Dim Sum Garden; the fiery grilled Korean meats (and karaoke) at North Philly's Everyday Good House; the soulful lamb plov and kabobs at Uzbekistan in the Russian Northeast.

There were also a number of exciting contemporary updates to traditional ethnic cuisines. Michael Solomonov put an upscale spin on Israeli street food at Zahav. Former Pod and Buddakan NYC chef Michael Schulson opened a high-style Japanese pub, Izakaya, at Atlantic City's Borgata.

And Indian food found its contemporary muse in Marcie Turney at Bindi, where she was among the largest class of women chefs I've ever reviewed in a year. Erin O'Shea's modern Southern cuisine at Marigold Kitchen, Luciana Spurio's authentic Abruzzese fare at Le Virtù, Ane Ormaechea's exquisite tapas at Cafe Apamate, and Jennifer Carroll's debut as Ripert's kitchen proxy at 10 Arts were also all well worth noting.

The BYO scene continued to blossom, with stellar additions like my favorite new funky brunch place, Cafe Estelle, where everything from the bread to the bacon is homemade. Small plates were still big, with sophisticated new Supper leading the way.

But it was really the growth in gastropubs that marked the city's craving for great food (and craft beer) in casual neighborhood settings. Graduate Hospital's Pub & Kitchen led the field, but Memphis Taproom in Kensington and cozy St. Stephen's Green in Fairmount also made a lasting impression. And great beer lists were at the heart of some more polished venues, like Le Virtù, which continued the revival of East Passyunk Avenue; Time (which also became the city's destination for newly legalized absinthe); and Cooper's, the Manayunk brick-oven pizza bistro that has given high-end Jake's a casual new sibling.

Casual will no doubt be the new watchword for restaurants in the coming year. With the financial crisis hitting the fine-dining world hard, some of the highest-profile new projects have already faltered. At Maia in Villanova, for example, one of seven restaurants I revisited at year's end to recheck ratings, the ambitious multi-concept culinary complex from the crew behind Nectar has already lost some steam (and a bell).

Meanwhile, a number of my top four-bell restaurants from years past (there were no new four-bellers in 2008) recently underwent major changes that will be assessed in the near future. There have been chef changes at the Fountain Restaurant, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, and Le Bec-Fin, which also went a la carte. And then there was the closure of Striped Bass, the Restaurant Row seafood icon that has reopened as - what else? - a luxury steak house from Stephen Starr called Butcher & Singer.

Who knows if there's enough money in this shaky economy to support all that pricey red meat? Who knows what the future of four-bell fine dining will look like once the dust of the recession settles?

That's a story the bells of 2009 will no doubt tell.



105 S. 13th St., 215-922-6061;

Indian cuisine gets a stellar (and long-awaited) contemporary update at this stylish BYO from the owners of Lolita and Grocery. The menu takes modern liberties with traditional ideas, but the compromises are few, as each dish is vividly rooted in authentic flavors, no-shortcut preparations, and top-quality ingredients for chef Marcie Turney's best work to date. Reviewed April 6.


3945 Chestnut St. (at 40th), 215-222-1657;

The high-end Mexican scene gets even spicier with this colorful modern ode to Mexico City from Jose Garces, who created the menu at El Vez before becoming the city's tapas king. The whimsical decor is tuned to the university locale, but the small-plate menu delivers serious Nuevo Mex flavors that are vibrant and complex, from stunning ceviches to huaraches that upgrade without compromising authenticity. Add a splash of deluxe tequila and a seat inside the converted vintage VW Beetle, and have a fiesta. Reviewed Nov. 16.


The Borgata, One Borgata Way, Atlantic City, 1-866-692-6742.

This sultry take on the Japanese pub is a sake-splashed coming-out for rising star Michael Schulson, an ex-Starr chef who opened Pod and Manhattan's Buddakan. The moodily dark room, a multimillion-dollar remake of the Borgata's Suilan, has a casual feel, but the kitchen delivers high-style takes on Japanese small plates, from miso-glazed lobster skewers roasted over the wood-fired robatayaki grill to stellar sushi, spicy tuna crackers, decadent Kobe steaks, and numerous sakes by the glass. Reviewed Nov. 2.

Marigold Kitchen

501 S. 45th St. (at Larchwood); 215-222-3699;

This intimate and ambitious West Philly rowhouse eatery has completely changed culinary personalities yet again, but remains among the city's most sophisticated BYOBs, with an impressive and unique contemporary Southern menu from new chef Erin O'Shea. A price drop reflects Marigold's push to become a neighborhood destination again. Reviewed May 18.


2 Swamp Rd., Newtown, 215-860-4480.

Chef Brian Held has transformed the Victorian dining rooms of a former Newtown teahouse into quite possibly the best restaurant in Bucks County. His elegant contemporary takes on classic French cooking come at amazingly fair prices, with polished service that isn't stuffy. This BYOB is even good enough to overlook the startling Pepto-pink walls. Reviewed June 8.


926 South St., 215-592-8180;

Caterers Mitch and Jennifer Prensky have opened one of the year's most ambitious new restaurants, a stylish bilevel space that features a sophisticated take on the small-plate movement. The little plates aren't cheap, but the contemporary cooking is satisfyingly inventive and impressively wrought. Plus, there's great house-baked bread to sate the big eaters. Reviewed Feb. 17.

Table 31

Comcast Center, 1701 John F. Kennedy Blvd., 215-567-7111;

The team behind Brasserie Perrier has put the red meat into Comcast's new skyscraper, drawing a serious power crowd to a multilevel modern steak house tailored for the corporate set. The less-expensive outdoor cafe has a wider, more casual appeal for a breezy lunch. Expect to spend big inside, though, where the wide-ranging menu excels with huge, prime-grade chops that rank among the city's best. Reviewed Sept. 14.


408 S. Second St., 215-238-7280. Dionicio Jimenez's exciting Nuevo Mexicano matured enough in its first year to earn a third bell. Stunning updates on traditional flavors, from duck mole to sublime ceviche and barbacoa, are consistently great. Sophisticated service, great tequilas and an evocative space make it one of the city's best Mexicans. Revisited January 2008.


237 St. James Place (overlooking Dock Street near Second and Walnut), 215-625-8800;

In a city experiencing a boom in Israeli street food, Zahav buffs up the genre. Perched above Society Hill's Ritz Five theater, it can look aloof. But its tables warm up with artful Middle Eastern "tapas," vegetarian dishes, wood-oven flatbreads, soulful bowls of Yemenite soup, and, for the adventurous, a pricier fine-dining option featuring chef Michael Solomonov's "modern Mediterranean" stylings, served in a back room heavy with pretension. Reviewed by Rick Nichols Aug. 17.

Very Good

Bistrot la Minette

623 S. Sixth St., Phila., 215-925-8000;

This new Queen Village French bistro has a neighborhood charm and handcrafted warmth, from the cheery red velvet banquettes and quirky Burgundian knickknack decor to the homemade bread. Chef-owner Peter Woolsey (ex-Striped Bass, Lucas Carton) indulges some intriguingly authentic bistro classics, many tasty, but inconsistent execution, especially with entrees, holds the kitchen back from its full potential. Reviewed Dec. 7.

Blue Pear Bistro

275 Brintons Bridge Rd.,

West Chester, 610-399-9812;

The Dilworthtown Inn has opened a neighboring bistro inside a historic former general store, a pubby, bilevel space that hums with a local crowd seeking a casual ambience and affordable, contemporized comforts (almost all less than $20 an entree). The menu is limited, but a talented young chef, David Fogleman, makes the most of his unusual kitchen comeback. Reviewed Jan. 6.

Cafe Apamate

1620 South St., 215-790-1620;

This intriguing BYO brings a taste of Spain to its paprika-colored South Street room, which has evolved into one of the best tapas kitchens in town. The vivid combinations range from modern scallops under apple foam to zesty tortilla omelets at brunch and addictive dark chocolate with churros. Spotty service has been a weakness. Reviewed March 2.

Cafe Estelle

444 N. Fourth St., 215-925-5080;

The city's best new breakfast-lunch kitchen resides in an obscure loft building between Old City and Northern Liberties, where chef Marshall Green (Django, Ansill) and Kristin Mulvenna serve ambitiously homemade flavors with warm service and affordable prices in a laid-back, kid-friendly cafe. Almost everything is crafted on site, from the breads to the bacon, making this hidden gem worth finding. Reviewed Sept. 28.

Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar

4367 Main St., Manayunk, 215-483-2750;

Bruce Cooper turns to wood-fired gourmet pizzas, small plates, and a wine bar in this bustling annex to his contemporary standby, Jake's, and it's the ideal casual concept to keep both the high-end dining room and flagging Manayunk relevant. It can be too noisy, and weekend waits are long, but a deft blend of style and quality New American cooking remind why Cooper has been one of Philly's best for decades. Reviewed Dec. 14.

Dim Sum Garden

59 N. 11th St., 215-627-0218

Don't let the grim bus stop-tunnel locale deter you from discovering this hidden Chinatown gem. The obscure, neon-lit box of a room is a bargain destination for an array of rare, handmade Shanghai specialties, from steamed buns ("soup dumplings") to cleaver-cut noodles, sticky rice sui mai, and stellar scallion pancakes. The perfect nourishment before boarding the bargain bus to N.Y.C. Reviewed April 20.

Dream Cuisine

Village Walk, 1990 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill, 856-751-2800;

The South of France in a South of Jersey strip mall? When chef Vincent Fanari is in the groove of his open kitchen, and the weather is good for patio dining, the answer is oui! The easily overlooked little space is spare yet comfortable, but it's Fanari's menu of rustic Provençal cooking - simple dishes, zesty olive-tomato sauces, and homemade pastas - that satisfies, especially the bargain prix-fixe menu. Reviewed June 1.

Everyday Good House

5501 N. Front St. (at Olney), 215-276-7942

The out-of-the-way industrial building is deceiving. Upstairs, you'll find a surprisingly well-appointed dining room with some of the area's best Korean barbecue on the charcoal-fired table grills - plus many other well-wrought classics. Downstairs is a warren of private karaoke rooms to sing off the beef and spice. Reviewed March 30.


78 W. Lancaster Ave., Downingtown, 610-269-7776;

Chef Nick DiFonzo brings an ambitious New American menu to a converted Victorian home in downtown Downingtown. The space needs decorating work, and the service is green, but the kitchen delivers a satisfying menu rooted in French techniques, good ingredients and clever combinations, from watermelon with goat cheese salad to fennel-crusted lamb. DiFonzo, who closed the restaurant briefly after suffering a brain aneurysm, is back healthy in the kitchen. Reviewed May 11.

Kaffa Crossing

4423 Chestnut St., 215-386-0504;

This cheery cafe is a bright spot for one West Philly block on the rebound, doubling as a mellow fair-trade coffee shop and one of the area's better Ethiopian kitchens. Don't expect savvy service, but the traditional menu of spicy lentil stews and quick-fried meats served over crepelike injera is cooked with care and skill. Reviewed June 29.

Las Bugambilias

148 South St., 215-922-3190

Former Tequila's chef Carlos Molina and his wife, Michelle Zimmerman, have opened a charming storefront eatery dedicated to traditional Mexican cooking. The cozy, bright-yellow space is a personal ode to vintage Mexi-cinema. The menu uses good ingredients in dishes that reflect refined authenticity, rather than creativity. Reviewed Feb. 10.


2 Powell Lane (at Haddon Avenue), Collingswood, 856-854-4500;

Nick and Stephanie LoBianco have transplanted their longtime Margate eatery to a pleasant storefront bistro in downtown Collingswood, where the New American menu adds a welcome note of variety to a scene with mostly Italian on the menu. The service is warm and personal, the ambience is neighborhood casual, and while the food may not be overly inventive, the flavors are well-wrought with good ingredients and solid cooking. Reviewed Nov. 30.

Max & David's

8120 Old York Rd., 150 Yorktown Plaza, Elkins Park, 215-885-2400;

Elkins Park has landed the area's first gastro-glatt eatery, where owners Robin and Steven Katz (with consultant Aliza Green) show that kosher cooking can go creatively upscale. This promising pioneer still has rough spots to polish, but the lively space and ambitious meat menu are a boon to the strictly kashrut crowd, and also has crossover potential for mainstream diners with too few good options nearby. Reviewed Jan. 27.

Memphis Taproom

2331 E. Cumberland St., 215-425-4460;

An aging corner taproom has been transformed into a hip gastropub and craft-beer bar that could become a magnet for Kensington's gentrification. The updated regional pub fare (fried pickles, rarebit, Polish platter) balances ambition and fresh ingredients with moderate prices. The serious beer list is destination-worthy. Reviewed Aug. 3.


1326 Spruce St., 215-546-2355

Former Sushikazu owner Bruce Kim has brought his crunchy-spicy sushi rolls and classic, deftly cooked Japanese fare to a comfy room just steps from the Avenue of the Arts. The space is somewhat obscure, but worth seeking out for a flavorful and reasonably priced theater-district meal. This is easily one of the most solid of Center City's myriad sushi newcomers. Reviewed May 4.


2015 E. Moyamensing Ave., 215-271-7177;

Two guys named Nick have brought a fresh taste of New American cooking to Italian-rich South Philly in this lively little Pennsport BYOB. The chefs are both alums of Striped Bass and Morimoto, but opt for considerably simpler dishes here (sometimes too simple), with a focus on seasonal ingredients and affordable prices targeted more to a neighborhood crowd than destination diners. Desserts still need lots of work. Reviewed Oct. 12.

Northbrook Marketplace

1805 Unionville-Wawaset Rd.,

West Chester, 610-793-1210;

This classic Chester County barn-market for doughnuts and pumpkins has morphed into a more ambitious gastro-destination under new ownership, with house-smoked barbecue at the casual market by day and elaborate tasting menus for private parties at a 22-seat chef's table by night. There's still room for polish from chef-owners Guillermo Tellez and Rob Boone, both alums of Charlie Trotter's and Striped Bass, but they've shown flashes of promise at the tastings, which make for an intimate fine-dining event. Reviewed Nov. 2.


227 S. 18th St., 215-545-2262;

Stephen Starr has created a stunning vision of Paris on Rittenhouse Square in this vast re-creation of a vintage brasserie that feels French down to the smoked mirrors. It's one of the biggest restaurant spectacles of the last decade, but also a victim of its runaway success, with an ear-splitting noise problem (at night) and a kitchen that sometimes struggles to consistently serve its polished bistro fare hot to more than 1,000 diners a day. There has been a change of chef since the review. Reviewed Oct. 26.


1904 Chestnut St., 215-564-9090;

This sleek bilevel nightspot transplants a slice of Old City to Rittenhouse Square, from the shifting ambient lights and exclusive upstairs lounge to a familiar Asian fusion menu in the downstairs dining room. Talented opening chef Ari Weiswasser did a far better job with the food than one might expect from a club, but has left since the review. Former sous Greg Grabacz has taken over, with a more affordable new menu and a name change for the dining room, Akoya, expected to debut in January. Reviewed June 15.

Pub & Kitchen

1946 Lombard St., 215-545-0350

The gastropub craze takes a "pabbit" leap forward with this lively rehab of the former Chaucer's, where Rittenhousers, Penn students and scenesters alike brave the noise and wait for rising star Jonathan McDonald's fresh take on pub fare. Inspired by rustic British cookery instead of his previous affinity for molecular gastronomy, McDonald's menu has unique highlights, but needs focus and consistency to reach its considerable promise. The beer program should also be a notch better. Reviewed Dec. 21.

St. Stephen's Green

1701 Green St., 215-769-5000

A handsome, wood-paneled pub with a Dublin look has been installed in the long-vacant Cuvee Notredame space by owners of the Dark Horse and Bishop's Collar. It's become a great neighborhood eatery since the arrival of veteran chef Ben McNamara (ex-New Wave), whose reservoir of gastropub fare has resolved the kitchen's early troubles. Reviewed Jan. 20.

Ted's on Main

20 S. Main St., Medford, 609-654-7011;

Chef Ted Iwachiw's sophisticated BYO bistro brings some of the region's best New Orleans-inspired cooking to Medford's historic downtown strip. The chef, who helped open Striped Bass in the mid-'90s, draws on subsequent stints in Louisiana and the Bahamas for an upscale menu that presents local ingredients in contemporary dishes that evoke Southern flavors without the cliches. Reviewed Feb. 3.

10 Arts

The Ritz-Carlton, 10 Avenue of the Arts, 215-523-8000;

The Ritz has brought new color to its staid lobby, with modern pinks and prism glass in the classic marble dome, and star-chef power to the kitchen, with haute bistro cuisine by Eric Ripert from New York's Le Bernardin. There are many fine flavors to be had, but service is still awkward, prices are high, and the menu often feels a bit unambitious given the grandeur of this space. Reviewed Aug. 31.

The Ugly American

1100 S. Front St., 215-336-1100;

The old La Vigna has been transformed into a friendly New American bistro and pub. In-house baking, from biscuits to caraway-seeded "weck" buns, add ambition to an affordable menu of updated bar foods with an Upstate New York twist. Despite some inconsistency, it's a fine "real food" option when visiting the nearby movie complex. Reviewed April 27.


1315 Sansom St., 215-985-4800;

The absinthe fountains are flowing at this multiheaded replacement for Ludwig's Garden from the owners of nearby Vintage. The concept is a bit incoherent, but with parts like these - great beer and whiskeys, live jazz, some modestly tasty chop-house updates, and, yes, real absinthe - there are good reasons to visit. There has been a chef change since the review. Reviewed July 20.


12012 Bustleton Ave., 215-671-1990

Bring a big group of adventure diners to this authentic Uzbek eatery in the Russian Northeast, where lamb is the dominant theme - in fragrant rice pilafs, homemade noodles, dumplings and soups, and skewered for the charcoal grill. It's a more intimate sit-down restaurant than the typical Russian nightclub, but still a fun destination for celebratory large tables laden with BYO vodka and cognac. The tandoor-baked round bread alone is worth a visit. Reviewed Nov. 23.


Astral Plane Millenium

1708 Lombard St., 215-735-0815

This star-crossed revival by new owners of the funky Restaurant Renaissance classic didn't stick - even after they changed the name following the review. "ChriStevens" recently closed. Reviewed Feb. 24.


217-19 W. State St., Media, 610-566-4750;

The owners of Teikoku have opened a sleek contemporary Japanese sibling in Media, a stunningly modern bilevel space with real destination potential. Unfortunately, the kitchen delivered a weak Morimoto knockoff menu with heavy-handed sauces, careless maki, and some unexpectedly jarring non-Asian notes. Reviewed March 9.


8609 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia 215-242-4422

This ambitious new Cuban BYO brings a romantic slice of old Havana to Chestnut Hill, with handsomely distressed walls, good art, and a savory Latin soundtrack. The upscale menu, though, was a disappointing blend of weakly rendered classics, small portions, and stabs at innovation that lacked the substance to merit the relatively high prices. Reviewed Oct. 5.

Da Vinci Ristorante

1533 S. 11th St., 215-336-3636;

This new Italian BYO comes with an oddly retro sense of bustle-curtained formality, and an upscale menu that ranges over familiar territory for East Passyunk. It's most interesting for specials, in which chef-owner Francesco Parmisciano, a longtime Lamberti cook, nods to the more authentic flavors of his Southern Italian home. But too many inconsistencies, and serious service goofs, made it hard to separate this newcomer from the pack. Reviewed Oct. 19.

Devil's Den

1148 S. 11th St. (at Ellsworth), 215-339-0855;

Another gastropub grows in place of a former South Philly Italian, as the old Felicia's makes way for a handsome bar with serious beers and some culinary ambitions. The big international brew list is worth driving for. The appealing beer-cuisine menu, meanwhile, struggled too much to hit its mark. Reviewed Aug. 24.


223 South St.


Reviewed May 25.

» READ MORE: Swallow

1030 N. American St., 215-238-1399

Husband-and-wife chefs Jason and Cindy Caminos transplanted from Washington open a BYO with a French flair (and bare-bones purple decor) in Northern Liberties. After a shaky start, they've reconcepted the restaurant into an all "mac & cheese" bistro.

It would be a bold move - if the macaroni was worth driving for. A recent meal, though, did not offer much promise, as the kitchen put forth bowls of inexpensive precooked noodles blended with mix-and-match toppings that were ordinary at best.



Revisited Restaurants

"The Year in Bells" is a record of the year's reviews and ratings. Inevitably, however, the restaurants continue to evolve. With this in mind, I annually make year-end visits to several places that I suspect underperformed during their initial review, or that underwent a major change. This year, I revisited seven, two of which changed ratings: Chima climbed up, and Maia slipped a rung.