Is Center City Over?

Editor’s Note: From this month’s Philadelphia magazine, a discussion about the future of Center City and a question: Does Center City even have a future? We’ve seen a significant fall-off in the number of openings in Center City this year, and even though we’ve had a couple of new openings announced since this piece was written, it’s nothing like in years past (as you can see in the above Taste Illustrated infographic). All of which makes us wonder what’s going on in Center City, and whether we’re now seeing the beginning of Philly’s outlying neighborhoods as the true drivers of cuisine.

Tracking the End of the Downtown Restaurant Boom

“So there’s Jane G’s on Chestnut.”

“Right.”

“IndeBlue. And that Pennsylvania 6 thing.”

“On 12th?”

“Yeah. And then … ”

“And then nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Nothing. Not in planning. Not even in rumors. My colleague Art and I, we do this for a living. We track restaurants the way guys do their fantasy football rosters. We’ve got active lists and disabled lists; when we’re good at our jobs (which we mostly are), we know three or four months out when a place is looking to open. Even when we’re lazy, we usually have weeks of warning. And yet we’re looking at our lists of restaurants set to open in Center City, and we see … nothing.

Okay, not nothing nothing. There are a couple of small or indistinct places planned. Some big chain-type projects are moving into gaping spaces: There’s the Cheesecake Factory on 15th and Walnut. Something going into the Hotel Monaco. Federal Donuts is expanding to Sansom Street, but that’s tiny.

What we don’t have—what we don’t have at all—are independent restaurants set to open in Center City in raw spaces. Jane G’s, the high-end Asian fusion concept that opened in July at 20th and Chestnut, was the last of those, and it had been in the works forever. Pennsylvania 6 is going into the space formerly occupied by Tweed; IndeBlue is coming out of Jersey and setting up shop in the old Pastoral Korean location on 13th. We actually have more news on canceled deals than on active ones, as chefs and owners (Jen Carroll with Concrete Blonde, Ben Puchowitz with Cheu Noodle, Jose Garces with Frohman’s Wursthaus) have simply lost momentum, turned their backs on Center City and fled.

This is a drought like nothing we’ve seen before—at least in  Center City. There are plenty of openings happening (or planned, or rumored, or totally-ready-but-just-not-quite) outside the charmed blocks that are (or have been) the heart of Philly’s second restaurant renaissance. East Passyunk is the boom that just keeps on giving. South Street might—might—be getting a lift from Stephen Starr. Fishtown certainly is, thanks to his partnership with Fette Sau out of Brooklyn. Chinatown, Old City, South Philly, University City—they’re all doing fine. We’ve got more seats coming than butts to put in them.

And maybe that’s one of the problems in Center City. Not only that rents have climbed out of the range of the theoretically doable (which I’ve heard), or that the cost of outfitting a raw space has become prohibitive in this unstable dining economy. But that Center City has, for the moment, simply reached its carrying capacity—the point at which any more restaurants would push it out of alignment and cause a die-off.

For a long time now, Center City has been the engine driving Philly’s restaurant economy. The sudden retreat of all the heat and light and action to the surrounding neighborhoods has left us with an unaccustomed quiet—spooky, and with no end in sight.

  • http://www.mellodybrewing.com Sean Mellody

    Is this a bad thing? I think this is because, unlike in the recent past, we have a demanding community outside of Center City looking for “local” restaurants. It used to be people came to the city to eat and those that lived in the city went to Center City. Now, those that live here eat hyper-local, and those coming in to done head to the hot spots.

    This is all very obvious, but what I am wondering is, what does it mean for tourists? Are they doomed to eat chain food? Does this exodus stop other types of development? Does it hurt retail? I think this is a very intereting turn of events in a city that has a very vibrant dining scene now, more than ever some argue.

  • Some girl

    I also don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing (although I’m not sure I see it as a good thing, either). Although there are fewer openings, there are still plenty of thriving restaurants serving interesting, attention-grabbing cuisine. Maybe Center City is simply saturated, at least for the time being, and maybe a little break from openings will give us those of us who don’t do this for a living a chance to “catch up” on all the headline-making restaurants that have opened recently (I still haven’t made it to Vernick). There’s also something to be said for willingness to travel outside the beloved CC rectangle. If only SEPTA would catch up…

  • John Dory

    Cheu will be in Center City in the Gayborhood. The new spot from P and K is borderline CC, and try telling any true South Philadelphian that South St and Serpico is in South Philly, Bella or Queen whatever and they’ll laugh at you.

  • Tonyjlive

    Good point, SomeGirl. I concur.

  • Har

    Other neighborhoods are expanding the boundries. I know of a Southern cooking restaurant opening on 52nd near Spruce St, in early Nov. it will seat 120. Check out the neighborhoods around center city and you’ll see tremendous growth.

  • Get over it

    Problem is the greed of landlords and have made it so no one can afford to open a business in center city and if they do they have to over charge to to attempt to cover the rent and then because of the cost of the goods of the location people stop coming and the business owner losses everything.
    If the landlords didn’t want number like $75 per square ft more places wount not just open but stay open

  • Frank

    I’ll echo some of the above sentiments and say that the high rents downtown have been great for the outlying neighborhoods. Fairmount’s experiencing a great restaurant boom these days. 10 years ago, I never thought we’d have anything other than 4 almost identical pizza shops.

  • Chicken Little

    A more informative statistic to track “the end of the downtown restaurant boom” would be the total number of restaurants in Center City, not just openings, but that story probably doesn’t generate as many clicks.

    In any event, Center City population will continue to increase, with at least two large new apartment buildings under construction and others planned.

  • bjb304

    Center City, depending on how you define it is becoming more retail focused (intermix, anne klein, betty paige) with restaurants expanding all over. This is not a bad thing, but good for the city, like NYC in 1990′s vs. nyc today. Chelsea was unliveable then.

    I think center city is still the best place, but it’s expensive and people are finding other locations. We have always been a city of neighborhoods, it’s just those neighborhoods weren’t always the safest or best, now with more educated younger demographics that is changing and placement of restaurants is following. I also argue that south street west is center city and it is thriving, and Serpico is part of that. I also believe the Cheu noodle has found a spot in the gayborhood. I hear your point but I think you are jumping too quickly to a conclusion

    Real List:
    Vernick, Dauphin, Russet, pennsylvania6, new Garces in the kimmel center, Vedge, spice 28, new chicken place from Spice 28, new Michigan hot dog place on 11th. new beer garden restaurant on 12th and chestnut. Two new hotels on chestnut most likely with dining, green eggs, spiga, Yolo, shake shack, new P&K spot, Rex 1516, Jet wine bar, magpie, the corner foodery, federal donuts, crumbs, Rittenhouse tavern, i mean if i had more time i could keep writing.

    Seems like CC is doing okay to me and a lot has recently opened.

  • Nightman

    Last I checked Old City and South Street were part of center city. River to river, vine to south were the once established CC borders

  • Grad Hos Resident

    Graduate Hospital is also considered Southwest Center City, and with the Naval Square development as well as the influx of young professionals to the neighborhood, G-Ho would definitely benefit from some non-gastropub establishments — and chef/owners will appreciate slightly cheaper rents than in Center City proper. Follow the people — we are here and hungry for something new. We want out with the Chinese food-behind-bulletproof-glass, but CVS on the corner of 22nd and South isn’t necessarily what us foodies had hoped for.

  • barryg

    @Grad Hos, the neighborhood has made it very clear that restaurateurs are not welcomed south of South Street.

  • Jacques

    Perhaps there are not enough New Yorkers, er, New Philadelphians, coming here to save us and tell us what is hip and where to open up restaurants.

    http://www.phillymag.com/articles/ex-new-yorkers-start-again-philly/

    Or maybe we shouldn’t be paying any attention to anything printed in Philadelphia Ragazine.

  • Bob

    The article states that there is an unstable dining economy, but perhaps the reason there are fewer openings is that the Center City dining market has stabilized. Are there numerous empty spots in Center City available for a restaurant to take over? Are the number of closings exceeding the openings (I honestly don’t know)? I’d think if it were really that unstable, the turnover for these spaces would be higher, a natural selection of sorts.

  • barryg

    This article is just link bait but it is true that there is a “midtownization” of Center Happening to a degree. Lots of places that are just pretty good with too high prices.

  • SWCC Resident

    @Barryg – A very small group of G-Ho/SWCC residents, decided they didn’t want a restaurant on their corner (1 corner, 20th & Kater). This does not speak for the entire South of South Street area, nor the majority of residents living in this neighborhood.

    Based on the state that the building is currently in (at 20th & Kater – purchased by an opposing neighbor), this small majority does not have the best interests of the neighborhood, their neighbors, or city in mind.

  • Anon

    Har, are you talking about George’s Stop N Dine on 52nd? Because it’s been like that for years and no way is it opening up again in November.

  • Debbs

    Maybe it’s just me, but if I have to add $25+ to park to go to a restaurant in CC, I go someplace where I can park for free. There are wonderful restaurants all over the map, including the strip in Collingswood, and yes, Passyunk and S. Broad Street that are great meals at a fair price.

  • Natalie

    I wonder how the longer number of restaurant opening compares with the number of closings. I feel like a lot of restaurants have opened over the past few years and been successful so they are still open and there are not restaurants being open in their spaces. I think comparing the income of the restaurants as well as the overall number of restaurants vs. number of closings is more telling than the number of new restaurants. a new restaurant open for less than a year is less impressive that restaurants creating a following and continuing to make money long term. I also wonder how many open properties there are for new restaurants to open at in center city.

    also, i agree that there are plenty of openings in other neighborhoods so the restaurant boom is still happening, just a little more, north, south and west of center city.