The Gastronaut: What Philly Needs Now

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?

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  • Mike

    Also, more Thai and Indian places would be nice.

    And lets get some high end burger takeout outside of center city. Tired of going up to Walnut street for my fix.

  • Greg

    You had it right with “late night” hours…not later night hours. Why is there nothing open at 2 am? When you come out of a bar, there should be more options that Little Pete’s (although, that is quite good at 2 am!) Can we get please get some late night food options!!

  • O Diddy

    El Salvadorian pupusas and Mongolian barbeque like at Tony Cheng’s in DC.

  • barryg

    Puruvian

  • Amanda

    Agree with all above! A really solid burrito spot (Cali-Mex, please) would also be nice! Late night hours and good thai also needed!

  • http://www.twitter.com/phillygrub phillygrub

    No good Thai?? Acquaint yourselves with Circles. They do good Thai!

  • Tex

    Whatever remains of Philadelphia’s food woes would be solved if people just started going to Tashan.

  • Mike Durkin

    More restaurateurs throwing out the ordinary and taking risks.

  • tmasala

    Definitely need IndoChinese and better Thai options.

  • Tony

    We have a great restaurant scene, but if we really want to take it to the next level, we need more national-caliber destination restaurants. Other than Vetri and Talula’s Garden, we don’t have many restaurants that foodies would travel for or plan a visit around. Let’s aspire for a few more truly top notch, unique, exquisite places that will garner national reputations.

  • Jimmy

    @Tony – did you mean Talula’s Table? Even so, I’m not sure that is a place that “foodies would travel for or plan a visit around.”

  • http://www.marketresourcepartners.com stone bologna

    1. lower end vegan/vegetarian cafe/bars (something in between Vedge and Hip City Veg where i can have a beer)
    2. Better Indian
    3. Better Thai
    4. Caracas Arepa Bar
    5. Better Sushi (morimoto is weak)
    6. Original concepts (Lake Trout)
    7. A fun seafood spot along the water (crabs and beer off the Race street pier)
    8. better brunch spots (a cafe mogador because green eggs is just ok)

  • Diana Douglass

    All well and good, Jason; I agree with all your points, but the income base of Philly just won’t support what we want here. Until there are more and better jobs for folks, I’m amazed that the food scene is as good as it is. We’ve had to cut back drastically on eating out since I was laid off; it’s hard to afford even a BYOB once a month or so.

  • Steve

    Stone Bologna – Try Watkins Drinkery if you want vegan/veg options and a beer. I am a meat eater, but will often try their vegan dishes and they are delciious and inexpensive. The beer selection is great, too. (small draft list, but always quality selections on top of a good bottle list)

  • Dan

    Yea, we don’t have the BS NYC economy here. We really need finance here before we can get greater diversity (especially in higher end options) and later hours. There are only so many lawyers and doctors here to go around. Also, because the school system and services are deplorable by major city standards there are too many rich people in the main line. Perhaps the proposed bullet train from NYC to Market East will make us a NYC suburb?

  • barryg

    Royal Tavern and Cantina have great veg* options for great prices. +1000 on arepas.

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