In the past couple of years, Philadelphia has become a good restaurant city. But what is it going to take to make us great?
It was one hell of a summer.
In terms of restaurant developments—openings, radical changes and arrivals both large and small—it was huge. The reopening of Le Bec Fin alone might’ve been enough to satisfy in a slower season. The debut of Shake Shack on Sansom hit the city like a cheeseburger-flavored Second Coming. Our penchant for hot-weather trend-humping brought jumped-up poutine from Alla Spina (putting a fresh twist on a fad that’s been dangerously close to being played out at least twice in recent years), haute scrapple at Rittenhouse Tavern, tiki pop-ups, high-end South Philly hot doggery, and an end to our city’s shameful ramen shortage.
Summer polished our image as a solid restaurant town by filling in embarrassing holes in our culinary landscape. And we did good. But because I am a man perpetually dissatisfied with what I have, I can’t help but look and see what’s still missing. Philly is on its way to being a great restaurant city once again, but now that we’ve got the cheeseburgers, the ramen and the fancy-pants French food covered, here’s what needs to happen next:
• Late-night hours. Or at the very least, later night hours. Because seriously, nothing deflates the ego of a scene like stepping onto one of its Restaurant Rows at, say 10 o’clock on a Friday night and hearing … crickets. Bar food after dark is great. But you know what’s better? Full menus—and full dining rooms to go with them.
• Edible infill. Fairmount. 13th Street. East Passyunk. All great areas for restaurants. But try to walk from one restaurant neighborhood to another and what you’ll find is a whole lot of empty space between oases of awesomeness. A few trailblazers need to start linking great restaurant neighborhoods together into one great restaurant city.
• Yakitori. We’ve got that whole food-truck thing handled, no doubt. The next phase of street-food evolution? Hawker carts—just a man, a grill, and a menu that’s one item long, done better than anywhere else. Think of it as an exponential (and international) upgrade to the hot-dog cart or tin-box lonchera. And here in Philly, yakitori would be the perfect (and least threatening) place to start.
• An end to the tyranny of neighborhood associations. More empty, overpriced yuppie lofts do not build neighborhoods. Restaurants (and cafes and BYOs and—gasp!—bars) build neighborhoods. We clear? Good, then just step out of the motherf#$@ing way.
• Cuban restaurants. Every wandering foodista has in his or her head that thing without which his or her city will never be complete. For me, that thing is Cuban restaurants. How can any city take itself seriously without pressed Cuban sandwiches, ham croquettes and big cups of café con leche available everywhere, at every hour of the day or night?