Great Restaurants in Philadelphia
Outsider chains don’t do well in Philadelphia, where the biggest restaurant empires are homegrown. Stephen Starr, for example, is as much urban-renewalist as restaurateur, with 18 eateries in wildly diverse locations, many of them spurring the emergence of new neighborhoods. Iron Chef Jose Garces, who got his start at Starr’s Alma de Cuba, clocks in with seven restaurants and a taco truck; Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran preside over three—Barbuzzo, Lolita, and Jamonera, not to mention a small grocery and two shops selling gifts, housewares, and accessories—all on the same half-block of 13th Street.
These colonizers expand because they can: a deep reserve of commercial property in an erstwhile industrial capital hell-bent on redevelopment makes Philadelphia a deal maker’s paradise. Kingpins aren’t the only ones taking advantage. Independent chef-owners can afford to step away from big-scene cuisine and showcase their talent in smaller spaces, often rehabbing shop-fronted houses with an inviting, lived-in look. The state-controlled monopoly on wine and liquor has created a strong BYOB culture that makes it easier for chefs to forgo a liquor license altogether and focus on the plate. Menus aren’t designed to please a committee of investors; they are personal statements.
Here’s a short list of spots where chefs are creating new flavors of American cooking.
Farm & Fisherman
Philadelphia natives Josh and Colleen Lawler fast-tracked their restaurant dreams when they returned home. When separate cooking careers (at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Picholine, respectively)—plus a set of twins—turned life in New York into an obstacle course, they replanted their roots on a corner of a historic alley on Antique Row. The Farm & Fisherman is a simple but polished 30-seat storefront where cinnamon-colored walls and tawny ambient lighting evoke a feeling of eternal autumn. The pair’s devotion to modern American farm fare shows up in dishes like the witty “bloody beet steak,” a slab of roasted beet seared like meat and served with pan drippings and a slick of tangy house-made yogurt to pierce the richness.
1120 Pine St.; thefarmandfisherman.com.
Koo Zee Doo
Entering homey, candlelit Koo Zee Doo, in the arty Northern Liberties neighborhood, is also like stepping into old-world Europe. Husband-and-wife team David Gilberg and Carla Gonçalves work side by side in a small open kitchen framed by hanging copper pots and fronted by a slate chef’s counter that seats four. Inspired by her Portuguese roots, the duo turns out Iberian classics like carne de porco à alentenjano, made new with Berkshire pork, tiny cockles, and Virginia littlenecks and served family style from a semicylindrical canoe of glazed earthenware replicating a Portuguese roof tile.
614 N. Second St.; koozeedoo.com.
Ethnic identity is an important part of Philadelphia’s restaurant world, and it’s particularly apparent when chefs introduce flavors from their own family tables. Konstantinos Pitsillides re-created Cyprus by transforming an 1893 Greek luncheonette into Kanella, a sun-kissed, whitewashed taverna with creamy Mediterranean travertine floors. His straight-to-the-point cooking is a powerful link to the land and sea of his childhood. For example: a dish of braised rabbit called kouneli. It’s flavored with basturma, Armenian dried beef cured with garlic, fenugreek, and red pepper, which slowly leaks flavor into the sauce like a time-release capsule.
1001 Spruce St.; kanellarestaurant.com.
Bistrot La Minette
The traditional Bistrot La Minette is another labor of love. Cordon Bleu–trained chef Peter Woolsey came home from Paris determined to replicate the city’s romantic bistros. Faux nicotine-stained walls are hung with his wife’s nostalgic black-and-white photographs, in homage to her native country; French films are shown in the bricked garden courtyard, canopied by strings of lights. Grab a seat at the marble-topped bar and order a velvety Kir Royale and the oeuf du pêcheur, a poached egg served on a toasted house-made boule with plump mussels in an aromatic tarragon-and-cream sauce.
623 S. Sixth St.; bistrotlaminette.com.
Although he worked in several acclaimed local kitchens, it wasn’t until Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov did it his way at Zahav that he achieved national regard, winning the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic. At this citadel of worn wood and limestone in the shadow of I. M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers, Solomonov’s Middle Eastern combinations include mellow, musky, twice-cooked eggplant salad served next to nutty hummus with blistered flatbread, still warm from the wood-burning oven.
Paesano’s Philly Style
It’s been decades since Philadelphia’s heyday as “the workshop of the world,” but this city never forgets its blue-collar heritage or its love of the two-fisted, 20-napkin sandwich. Chef Peter McAndrews runs buzzing BYOB’s on opposite ends of the city—Sicilian-style Monsù and landmark Modo Mio—yet still manages to find time to create inventive upgrades to the classic hoagie at Paesano’s Philly Style, his storefront in the Italian Market. The Bolognese, which layers crisp fried lasagna with red sauce, smoked mozzarella, roasted peppers, sharp provolone, and a sunny-side-up egg, will make you forget all about those touristy cheesesteaks.
1017 S. Ninth St.; paesanosphillystyle.com.
Garces Trading Company
Community markets are a big part of food life in Philadelphia, from the clusters of farm stands set up around the city in summer to year-round Reading Terminal, one of the oldest public markets in the country. Now Jose Garces, having parlayed his signature Nuevo Latino style into multiple locations across town, adds Garces Trading Company, a thriving specialty market/dining room in the 1922 Western Union Building. The space also houses the first on-premises Pennsylvania State wine boutique, making it a convenient one-stop shop. Queue up at the counter for Garces’s contribution to the city’s sandwich legacy: the “cubano clásico,” succulent roast pork and house-cured tasso ham with Gruyère, mustard, and pickles, plancha-pressed to give the cheese just the right ooze.
1111 Locust St.; garcestradingcompany.com.
Repurposing materials and rethinking spaces is a common thread here, whether the makeover is DIY or a high-toned production. Kennett is an eco-aware revamp of a circa-1924 café, with reclaimed wainscoting, soy-based paint, upholstery made from recycled plastic bottles, and a pizza oven built with bricks found on the old property. In a town known for great neighborhood hangouts, it stands out for a tight craft beer list, imaginative cocktails, and chef Brian Ricci’s innovative country cooking using local sources. He marinates free-range Lancaster County chicken thighs in ginger and Indian-spiced yogurt, roasts them over glowing wood coals until they’re dark and luscious, and tops them with a peppery heirloom watercress salad.
848 S. Second St.; kennettrestaurant.com.
A sophisticated use of complementary finishes elevates Barbuzzo from rustic to refined: oyster-shell-painted brick and pewter-hued marble counters are set off by walls made from white-cedar barn siding and weathered floor planks that were once part of a pier in Baltimore Harbor. (The same craftsmen also worked on the reclaimed-wood floor at the new Barnes Foundation building.) The luminescent space is the perfect backdrop for chef Marcie Turney’s Mediterranean countryside cooking, such as hand-twisted trecce pasta layered with meaty, wood-oven-roasted maitake mushrooms and arugula, shot through with preserved lemon and walnut pesto under a dollop of soft sheep-milk ricotta.
110 S. 13th St.; barbuzzo.com.
Closely following the original floor plans of two adjoining 1890’s town houses, Stephen Starr made his gastropub, the Dandelion, a nesting doll of design, its impeccably outfitted rooms incorporating smaller spaces known in traditional pub parlance as “snugs.” For its Brit chef Robert Aikens (twin brother of Tom, whose namesake London restaurant has a Michelin star), pub fare is more than a fad. The proof is in his fish-and-chips, which achieves the pinnacle of moistness and flavor when its crust puffs up to totally encase the cod, letting the internal steam work its magic.
124 S. 18th St.; thedandelionpub.com.