It’s awkward to start a restaurant review with a coroner’s report, especially about a place that’s still thronged with customers. But sometimes autopsy is the only path to understanding.
On the first weekend of June, four weeks after it came into being, the best dining value in Philadelphia was murdered at Morgan’s Pier. George Sabatino’s $30 three-course menu was bludgeoned with PBR cans by a mob of 25-year-old frat bros, stabbed in 16 places by five-inch stilettos, and finally trampled to death in a midnight stampede to the on-site hot-dog cart. The corpse was dumped into the Delaware River as the perpetrators and accomplices got busy grinding to a DJ beat.
Before it all went down, Sabatino—the former Stateside chef and Hop Chef champion hired to run the kitchen for the Pier’s second summer—had tried to turn Columbus Boulevard’s hottest picnic-pad-cum-nightclub into a bona fide dining destination. Thirty bucks could buy you a lowball glass of mussel ceviche whose sherry-vinegar leche de tigre was so good it should be offered as a cocktail; sous-vide eggplants touched with spicy kimchi and house-made tofu; and a whole branzino—head on, backbone out, fennel and orange permeating every last forkful of exquisitely steamed flesh.
It wasn’t the city’s most exalted dining—though on a sunny and sparsely populated Monday, it was its most exalted location. But nowhere else could $30 buy so much food, and such crafty attention to detail. Broccoli florets bore cashew crumbles and raisins that Sabatino smoked before plumping them up with diluted pickle brine. Eggplant trimmings became a swell of bacon-infused baba ganoush beneath St. Louis ribs—part of a “pig board” ample enough to sate any appetite.
Except for one restricted to burgers, beer, and french-fry baskets—which is what torpedoed Sabatino’s high hopes.
“I want to cook for people who realize it’s a great value and it’s awesome,” he reflected late on a Sunday night after service. But Morgan’s Pier was overrun by revelers who effectively besieged the dedicated dining area. “Doing 50 three-course menus didn’t mean anything,” Sabatino told me, “because we did 1,500 covers around it,” delivering so-so pulled-chicken sandwiches and solid wings to beer-fueled revelers for whom both were beside the point.
Sabatino is still trying to do right by both contingents: french fries from scratch, kale and aged cheddar croquettes, and some parts of the chef’s menu offered à la carte. But they were hit-and-miss on a crowded Sunday, even though service to the picnic tables was super-swift.
I’ll go back—but only on a Monday, when the kitchen has time to reach toward its original aspirations, and the crowd that quashed them is still hungover from the weekend.