The Biggest Sensations and News Controversies that Affected Philly’s Foodie Scene
From restaurant closings to law suits to stellar dishes, Philadelphia remained a hot city for food trends this past year.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania continues to be one of the hottest food and restaurant cities in the United States. 2010 saw the continued popularity of certain dining trends in the city’s restaurants as well as the embracement of new ones. Some long-beloved restaurants announced their closures while other new favorites emerged. Certain issues remained controversial and came to the forefront of how the restaurant and bar scene may change in the future. What follows are my picks for the Top 10 Restaurant Trends and News Stories in 2010 for Philadelphia.
1. Pizza, pizza, pizza!
In 2010, Philadelphia made a solid push to challenge New York City and Chicago for their status as the nation’s best pizza cities. With an emphasis on artisanal, authentically Italian ingredients and preparation, several Philadelphia restaurants attempted to elevate pizza to new highs of taste for the city. Zavino opened early in 2010 with an eye to challenging Marc Vetri’s Osteria and Stephen Starr’s Pizzaria Stella for the best authentic pie in the Philly. Many diners, however, still swear that no one matches Tacconelli’s, a pizzeria which requires you to call in advance to reserve your pizza “dough” for the evening. No doubt the pizza wars and debates will rage on through 2011.
2. Still waiting on Speck
Fans of Chef Shola Olunloyo were highly anticipating the opening of his restaurant Speck this past summer – and they are still waiting. Olunloyo, who built a reputation in the city for his incredible “StudioKitchen” dinners in his Philadelphia condo, at long last seemed ready this year to expand and offer his culinary talents to a wider market. But opening a restaurant is a long and complicated process, as Olunloyo has blogged about throughout the year. When precisely Philadelphia diners will be able to experience Speck remains to be seen, but the anticipation remains exceedingly high.
3. BYOB buzz unabated
BYOBs continue to be extremely hot in Philadelphia, with several restaurants new in 2009 and 2010 climbing to the top of nearly every foodie’s list of favorites. Bibou continues to receive almost unending praise for their approach to French cuisine, and Kanella is constantly recommended for their approach to Greek-Cypriot cuisine. Many older favorites continue to shine and some are only now beginning to receive the buzz and discussion they deserve, such as Blackfish in Conshohocken. No doubt BYOBs will be eternally popular in the City of Brotherly Love, unless long-overdue major reform ever comes to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
4. The PLCB and Jose Garces un-level the alcohol playing field
Speaking of Pennsylvania’s archaic liquor laws, the PLCB faced criticism and the filing of a lawsuit from the Coalition of Restaurant Owners for Liquor Control Fairness in 2010. This suit came after the PLCB opened a wine boutique inside the premises of “Iron Chef” Jose Garces’ new “BYOB,” the Garces Trading Company. The store/restaurant allowed patrons to buy bottles of wine to consume with their meals at the GTC at basic, retail cost and with no corkage or other fees. Other restauranteurs claimed this was unfair business practice as Garces had not needed to obtain a liquor license to serve wine as they had. In August, Garces made a preemptive move by applying for a liquor license for GTC, despite not being named in the lawsuit himself. Most diners and foodies in Philadelphia agree that the only way out of this mess is to abolish the PLCB completely, but such a dream still remains out of reach given the state-run board’s deep political and union ties.
5. The PLCB raids bars for unregistered beers
Another low point for the PLCB happened in March, when a bizarre raid took place of three gastro-pubs owned by Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida: Local 44, Memphis Taproom and Resurrection Ale House. The crime at each establishment? Allegedly serving beers which were not registered with the PLCB. State police armed with guns came in and confiscated the so-called contraband in a haphazard manner – leaving some beers in one location that they took from the other, and seizing beers which were in fact on the registered list for the state. Common word is that a competitor “ratted out” Hartranft and Maida, unhappy with their success. The real losers in this are the patrons in Philadelphia, a city which otherwise has been making a name for itself at the forefront of the craft beer scene.
6. Small plates still big business
The “tapas” trend continued to be huge in Philadelphia in 2010, as more restaurants opened with a focus on “small plates” of all international flavors and styles. Italian food lovers had the Venetian-themed Cichetteria 19 or Marc Vetri’s Roman Amis to savor. For fans of Mediterranean food, Barbuzzo was the critics’ darling of the year, and Zahav remained a hot table. Sampan brought pan-Asian small plates to the city, and Square 1682 served tapas with an international flair to Rittenhouse Square diners.
7. Georges Perrier to close Le Bec-Fin
To many the news came as no great surprise, as it was only considered a matter of time. In July 2010, Georges Perrier announced that he would be looking to close landmark restaurant Le Bec-Fic at some undetermined date in 2011, after 40 years of operation. Classic fine dining has fallen out of fashion in Philadelphia, and the former “Restaurant Row” of Walnut Street had suffered many losses with the closure of Susanna Foo and Brasserie Perrier in 2008. Few diners these days apparently want to put the effort into dressing up in suits and evening-wear for a meal, let alone pay $200+ per person for the full experience. Even after trying numerous budget options such as a 4-course, $40 weeknight special and BYOB evenings, Perrier seems ready at last to call it quits. Philadelphians who want to savor a classic French-themed meal one last time should make their reservations soon.
8. The hamburger continues to reign supreme
Burgers are still one of the top food trends in Philadelphia, with nearly every establishment from small gastropubs to trendy BYOBs having to offer their own unique take on the beef-centric sandwich. 500 Degrees opened, run by the ownership of Rogue on Rittenhouse Square, long known for their trademark hamburger. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay opened a branch of his Bobby’s Burger Palace in West Philadelphia which became a fast hit with the university crowd, if not with food critics. And while many cried when Pub & Kitchen announced they would be retiring their famous “Windsor Burger,” those tears turned to cheers when they replaced it with the incredible, special blend Churchill Burger. But despite all of the fuss elsewhere, Village Whiskey still gets my vote for the best burger in the city, followed closely by Resurrection Ale House‘s unique lamb burger.
9. Pumpple Cake
Foodies either swooned or ran in terror when Flying Monkey Bakery announced their latest creation, a true exercise in excess: The Pumpple Cake. The dessert equivalent of the Turducken, the Pumpple Cake featured apple and pumpkin pies baked inside layers of vanilla and chocolate cake. The entire tower of calories is held together by generous amounts of buttercream icing. Reviews of the actual taste of the cake have been mixed, but its mere existence was enough to cause a sensation, right before the beginning of the holiday season.
10. Gordon Ramsay can’t save the Hot Potato Cafe
Philadelphia finally got its chance to be spotlighted (if you can call it that) on Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” in 2010. Ramsay tried to save Fishtown’s Hot Potato Cafe in an episode which aired in January – but sadly, his efforts just weren’t enough. In August, the owners announced that the restaurant had ceased operations and owners of the premises were looking for new tenants. While perhaps their closing was no great culinary loss to the city, it did go to show that not even a celebrity chef intervention can save a bad spud in the fickle restaurant industry.
* “‘Unregistered Beers’ Get Local Bars Raided” – Foobooz – March 5, 2010.
* Klein, Michael. “Le Bec-Fin to close.” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23, 2010.
* “Tale of the Tape: Pub & Kitchen’s Churchill.” Foobooz, October 8, 2010.
* “Pumpple Cake.” Foodaphilia, October 7, 2010.
* “Hot Potato Cafe: Dropped.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 2010.
* Personal experience.