As a longtime food critic for Esquire, John Mariani sits down at the best tables in America for a living. Given Philadelphia’s current food-crazed state, this seemed a good time to check in with the venerable gastronome to see what the city’s done for his stomach lately.
Philadelphia Magazine: So how do you think Philadelphia rates among restaurant cities?
John Mariani: It’s probably a good seven or eight years ago that I wrote a story, for Philadelphia Magazine about where Philadelphia fit in the firmament of restaurant cities in the United States. As I recall it was then in the top 10, which is significant, and I think at the time maybe seven or eight years ago there was a big wave of new and innovative restaurants that came online and new and innovative chefs, many of whom had worked with George Perrier, such as Susanna Foo, who graduated from his kitchen. There were restaurants such as the Fountain, Four Seasons, Lacroix, Striped Bass … the city for the first time had a real regional clout that went beyond the clichés of Bookbinders and pretzels and cheesesteaks.
PM: And today?
Mariani: I think there was a slight sloughing off for several years but I recently visited, in June, and things are really bubbling again now. I went to 707, Rae and the new Susanna Foo’s Gourmet Kitchen, among other establishments, and they were all terrific restaurants and in distinctly different ways, which is in itself significant. There is oftentimes a sense of people copying each other within a region, but these places are all forging their own styles.
PM: Is Philadelphia a place where a chef can enjoy a whole career and earn appropriate recognition without going to New York?
Mariani: That’s a good question. I think it can be done. You look at a chef like Jose Garces [of Amada], for instance. When guys like that put their personality on the line as much as their style, he’s certainly taken on national significance. Or Marc Vetri [of Vetri and Osteria]. They are an antidote to what Stephen Starr has been doing for the last seven years, in that they are chef-driven restaurants. All due credit should go to Starr for picking up ideas from other cities and putting them in Philadelphia. In the case of Starr, they start around a concept and they are not chef-oriented. More often than not the end result is quite a good restaurant. But the problem with Stephen Starr’s restaurants it that they are huge, and any time you go beyond 100 seats the food tends to suffer. Because the individuality that a chef and brigade of talented cooks tends to wane after that.
PM: So I don’t think you’ve given me a number yet. Where would Philadelphia rate today?
Mariani: I’d say in about the same place, around eighth or ninth — and you’re talking about places like New York, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, cities with remarkable gastronomic resources, so just to finish in the Top 10 is no small peas.