What do people want from a local bar and restaurant? More and more, the answer seems to be a place that isn’t merely satisfied with catering to the locals. Whether it’s fried chicken that snags a shout-out in Bon Appetit, a burger custom-blended by Pat La Frieda, or taps that swing from Mikkeller to Pliny the Younger faster than you can ironically order a Bud Ice, Philly’s neighborhood haunts aren’t the corner tappies they used to be.
727 North 25th Street
Cuisine: Upscale bar food with a slight Southern accent.
Entrées: $12 to $23
So it is with Lemon Hill in Fairmount, which boasts the sort of pedigree that barflies of yore would have associated more closely with the Daily Racing Form. The sire of the place is Supper’s Mitch Prensky. The dam would be Mike Welsh of the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. (Sorry, Mike, but there can only be one stallion.) And their foal, with its coat of burnished wood and soft-lit brick, expresses its heritage unevenly.
Prensky’s menu—executed with a deft hand by Joel Mazigian, who came out of Jose Garces’s stable—is pitch-perfect upscale pub grub. The chicken wings are a direct descendant of Supper’s much-praised legs and thighs, their preparation a three-day affair beginning with a long cure in pastrami-spiced brine and ending with a crackling plunge of the teeth into very tender flesh. There are dirty rice fritters with crawfish mayo that make for good beer food, and the South rises again in the form of fluffy cathead biscuits strewn with garlicky escargots, accompanied by a fried egg whose oozing yolk begs for sopping.
Pair any of those starters with a hefty entrée of head-on shrimp and Anson Mills grits, and you might start wondering if you can pay with Confederate dollars. The only superior grits I’ve had in Philadelphia were at JG Domestic, where it turns out Mazigian worked.
But for every down-home snack like molasses-glazed pecans with bacon and peppadews, there’s something like crab dip with nori-speckled rice crackers to lend some global eclecticism, and Lemon Hill’s daily flatbreads are vivid with offbeat inspirations like pickled apples, roasted fennel and frisée.
Except for a brisket that was on the dry and stringy side, I liked eating at Lemon Hill. Drinking, however, wasn’t much fun. The cocktails were fine—if unadventurous by comparison with the Franklin, and longer on citrus than I favor. But the bartenders were more interested in making off-menu drinks for their visiting compeers (wait—you’ve got dandelion bitters?), who in turn were more interested in kvetching about Yelp reviews and industry discounts than in fostering actual sociability at the bar.
Surely that’s not too much to expect of any establishment, even one that aims to be more than neighborly.