Ten years ago, who'd have thought there'd be a $26 burger and a steak house on every (other) block? But here we are, as mixed-message as ever - packs of food bloggers sniffing out the terroir of the cheese, and open-air farm markets turning the city into a locavore's paradise. And, yo! Whose idea was it to put foie gras in the scrapple?
Few trends redefined Philly's dining landscape as powerfully as the proliferation of BYOBs, a phenomenon unique to this region that saw tiny bistros like Django, Melograno, and Bibou transform low-frills spaces into dining destinations with serious culinary ambition, added value, and a dash of throwback "mom-and-pop" warmth. BYOs cut across all genres, brought new life to emerging neighborhoods, and have given traditional full-service restaurants, with their triple-markup wine lists, formidable competition.
While the local wine world has struggled, Philly's enthusiastic beer scene has built itself into a tipsy froth. There's been a craft revival in a region with historic ties to brewing, and the rollicking Philly Beer Week has in just two years become one of the largest such events in the nation, celebrating both local offerings and the region's uncommon embrace of international ales (especially from Belgium), and a dynamic beer bar scene that's pouring real brew from South Philly to suburban Wayne.
The great beer explosion has been coupled with a kindred food movement in bar kitchens, too, as pioneers like the Standard Tap, N. 3rd, the Good Dog Bar, and now Pub & Kitchen take taproom dining to another level with wit, value, and sophisticated flavors. Along with BYOBs, gastropubs have reenergized neighborhoods across the region with quality dining in character-filled, casual settings.
Farm market revival
It wasn't just the Reading Terminal Market that got a second wind. Small-scale, outdoor, weekly farm markets popped up all over town - West Philly's Clark Park, Fitler Square, Rittenhouse Square, and in an awesome special edition, under the colonial-brick arcades at Society Hill's historic Head House Square. For locavores, the grass got a lot greener without leaving the city limits.
A decade ago, you were as likely to encounter a food blogger as a wild morel in midwinter. Now they're a burgeoning genre. Philadelphia's pack alone numbers upward of 75. Some stick to the hottest Indian dish du jour. But more and more, they explore the origin of the artisanal cheese on their burger, and the provenance of the organic beet in their salad. "We're a lot more closely knit, too," says potluck-host Albert Yee of www.messyandpicky.com, six years old and one of the old-timers.
New dining destinations
An emerging neighborhood isn't legit these days until it snags a hot new restaurant, but this decade saw numerous longtime wannabe enclaves finally land on the culinary map. In the city, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Deep South Philly, Graduate Hospital, and University City found their groove. In the suburbs, meanwhile, Collingswood, West Chester, and Phoenixville became the strongest magnets for dining worth the drive.
While more-casual neighborhood eats grew stronger than ever, Philadelphians followed a national trend in abandoning classic white-tablecloth destinations (at least those that aren't steak houses). In particular, Walnut Street's Restaurant Row, long the city's go-to boulevard for high-end dining glitz, has begun to dissolve as Susanna Foo, Striped Bass, and Brasserie Perrier closed in the face of rising rents and changing tastes.
Juicy profits at Capital Grill and Barclay Prime a few years ago touched off a Center City steak-house stampede that - even in the teeth of the recession - has yet to end. Old-guard chains (Palm, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's) have been overshadowed by showy newcomers - Union Trust (which spent upward of $12 million to rehab its space), Butcher & Singer, and Del Frisco's. But wait, there's more - including a red-meat emporium teed up for Oceanaire, the sprawling, now-shuttered seafoodery. A popular parlor game: Which biggie will tumble first.
While young lions like Jose Garces, Marc Vetri, Terence Feury, Daniel Stern, and Stephen Starr (of course) took the reins, the stars of decades past inevitably began to fade. Striped Bass' Neil Stein did time in prison for tax fraud. French masters Jean-Marie Lacroix and Fritz Blank retired. Nuevo Latino ceviche sensation Guillermo Pernot all but disappeared with the sudden closing of ¡Pasion! And longtime greats Georges Perrier and Susanna Foo have both struggled to remain relevant.
His instincts haven't been unerring (he closed his glittering French bistro Blue Angel and had to reflag Striped Bass II). But Starr has proved to be the city's most durable empire- builder since abandoning the nightclub and music scene to put his stamp firmly on the city's food culture. In 1995, he transformed Old City's workaday Continental Diner into a hip martini bar. He hasn't looked back, luring big-name chefs (to Morimoto and Alma de Cuba), pioneering splashy venues (Buddhakan and the late Tangerine), and reenergizing dark spaces: Parc, his homage to a French brasserie, has been a beacon at the edge of Rittenhouse Square. All that, and the man does burgers (Square Burger) and pizza (Stella), too. Current total: A dozen properties in Center City, with others in New York and Florida.
If Starr is the 800-pound gorilla, chefs Jose Garces and Marc Vetri have added a special gloss to the city's dining scene, Iron Chef Garces exploring the Latin flavors of his South American heritage (at Spanish Amada, Peruvian-Asian Chifa, Basque Tinto, and Distrito, the campy take on Mexican street food). For his part, Vetri has parlayed the sterling reputation of his eponymous townhouse dining room west of Broad to add Osteria, a polished pizza parlor on North Broad Street, and is finishing work on a new trattoria, Amis, set to debut at 13th and Waverly next month.
Just when you thought you couldn't handle another multimillion-dollar theme park of a restaurant (or a check edging toward $300 for two), comfort food made a break for the big time. Even Silk City Diner has foie-gras scrapple on the brunch menu. Gussied-up meatballs are on a roll. And no more having to hunt for fish and chips, house-made hot dogs, fried chicken (with PBR), pot pies, and mac and cheese. Hard times put a halo over the hamburger, even though a fancy one can set you back $26, the price of an old-fashioned entree. Even Le Bec-Fin couldn't beat the trend. So it joined it with a $15 Express Lunch - a burger (albeit a tasty one) and fried - French, of course.