Please Ignore This List – Our Insatiable Obsession with Philadelphia’s Restaurant Scene

What’s the worst thing that’s happened to Philadelphia’s restaurant scene? Our insatiable obsession with Philadelphia’s restaurant scene 

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I went from zealot to naysayer. I was out to dinner in the city with a group of friends, and the talk at the table—as it inevitably does these days—turned to restaurants. You know … have you been here, who just left there to open that, and so on. The conversation lasted for 30 minutes, right through our just-muddled cocktails, past the warm house-baked bread, beyond the first round of seasonal small plates. No one paused, not even for a second, to comment on the food we were eating or the restaurant we were in. And that’s when I became a culinary curmudgeon. I realized that all of the excitement surrounding our food scene suddenly seems to have very little to do with the actual food. Talking about restaurants—whether you’ve actually been there or not—is now our city’s favorite topic du jour.

Backlash is an integral part of the trend curve. Things become cool, then popular, then saturated, then overwrought, and then over (cupcakes being the quintessential—and still  inexplicable—exception). I’ve been writing about food in Philadelphia since interning at this magazine in 2004—I eventually became food editor—and was fortunate enough to be on the upslope of that curve. When I began covering food, Marc Vetri had one restaurant, and Jose Garces had none. But the hits kept coming, and fast. My food friends and I would rehash the progressions of courses and get giddy over perfected techniques, smart interpretations of classics, novel presentations, increasingly creative concepts. We were participating in a food scene that was getting richer, denser and more exciting by the minute.

But lately, the offerings, and the chatter surrounding them, feel vapid. True, eight years of food writing (and a brief stint in the restaurant industry) might have done me in. Still, I’m definitely not alone in my disillusionment. I’ve recently had conversations with fellow disenchanted eaters, and they all wind up in the same place: Has our food scene lost its soul?

There’s plenty to feed the frenzy. The amount of online coverage in this city dedicated solely to restaurants (not food, but restaurants) is staggering. Some sites are local branches of national outlets, such as Eater and Grub Street; others, like this magazine’s food blog, Foobooz, are homegrown. Like cable news, they have to fill their feeds.

I might even blame the editor in chief of this magazine, who recently told the guys behind Foobooz to “cover the city’s food scene like ESPN covers sports”—in other words, via hours of hypothetical commentary about games that have yet to be played. And so we are bombarded with slideshows of restaurant openings, chef movements and rumormongering, and updated winter menus. In other arenas, blogs and websites become popular because of their slant on the news. But most Philly restaurant websites are opinion-less. Readers don’t want think-y pieces, thoughtful commentary or opinions on the food or development of the scene; they want cocktail-party talking points.

Possibly the best example of this vacuous fever can be found in the tale of Fe­deral Donuts. (I won’t waste space expla­ining what it is. Even my health-conscious mo­ther-in-law, who lives in Florida, requested to eat there on a recent visit.) The concept is quirky, original, worthy of imitators, and fun. I’m a huge fan of things that come from the brain of chef Michael Solomonov—in fact, I named his restaurant Zahav the best in the city in this magazine in 2009. Some things at Federal Donuts are really good, but it’s not perfect. And yet, in coverage and conversation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a modicum of criticism. (It’s ranked 46th on this issue’s list of best restaurants.) People are downright evangelical about the place. I kept going back because I was sure there had to be something I was missing—or just didn’t get. When I started pressing my friends, really digging in, they all eventually copped to not liking something there. But they quickly brushed that aside. Flaws are irrelevant, because the place is just plain fun to talk about.

So if the food doesn’t matter, does that mean we’ve become New York or L.A. or London, where diners are notoriously fickle, always running to the newest thing? On one hand, Philadelphia has always proudly eschewed that bigger-city ethos—here, authenticity matters, and our best, favorite eateries, the ones that last, are built on it. It would be sad and out of character to lose that. On the other hand, New York and Los Angeles have culinary validation, no questions asked.

So I’ll allow that, possibly, this bubbling-over of empty chatter isn’t such a bad thing. If it has reached a tipping point, that means the food phenomenon here is big. No, huge. Huge enough to be an identifying, refreshingly modern cultural trait—one that will let us finally ban the word “Whiz.” National magazines can stop “discovering” us as a great food town. Visitors will plan sightseeing around their meals. It means the typical eatery has to be above average, and have a certain je ne sais quoi, in order to make it past a year.

That’s progress I’ll begrudgingly take. Even though I’d rather do a lot less talking about it and a lot more eating.

  • http://phillydesignblog.com danya

    Oh no, Philadelphia is getting popular. We must kill this trend right away and disparage those who promote it. Wouldn’t want economic success to force us to lose our grittiness.

    Why is talking about “food” good, but talking about “restaurants” bad? When I go out, the last thing I want to do is spend the whole meal discussing what we’re eating.

  • 75 South

    “… who recently told the guys behind Foobooz to ‘cover the city’s food scene like ESPN covers sports’”

    That is the scariest sentence I’ve read this month.

  • http://about.me/louperseghin Lou

    Well written Ashley. I think the list serves as a good benchmark of where the city is at this moment, but shouldn’t be taken as a literal and definitive reference of the top 50 restaurants in the city.

    I definitely feel what you mean when you say restaurant discussion gets old. There was a tipping point for me where I definitely stopped discussing that scene like the movements of the Phillies and just started enjoying the places that I wanted to. It’s been a lot more rewarding that way.

  • Alimentarian

    “Even though I’d rather do a lot less talking about it and a lot more eating.” I’d say you’ve clealry chosen the wrong profession, then.

  • bubbleguppie

    wow more fed nuts press keep it up

  • Silly Me

    I have to say, I agree what Ashley has pointed out here. It’s a valid thought that the dialogue around food has become misdirected and focused on gossip. BUT I do have to laugh at the placement of the piece.

    Foobooz just went through through WEEKS of hype for this 50 Best Restaurants list. Where will places rank? t]Tweeting each restaurant in order.

    It’s funny because you realize you can’t have it both ways, right? You can’t eschew the gossipy ‘foodie’ hype while simultaneously facilitating it. I get the sense from Ashley’s write up that is some sort of an existential struggle at Foobooz?

  • foodie

    I think by saying to ignore this list is a bad thing. Yes we are over saturated with the Marc Vetris and Steven Starrs of Philadelphia but you should not take away the hard work, dedication and love of food that places like the Marigold Kitchen put into their restaurants. Marigold Kitchen is a small, not that well known place in West Philly and has some of the best tasting most creative food I’ve ever come across. my advise be open and freaking try it!

  • Eathan Starr

    Well put “Silly”, I think you nailed it. The “List” certainly has a lot of us scratching our heads and this followup article doesn’t exactly help (I had to read it a few times to understand the point). We have Foobooz to thank for helping to catapult our restaurant culture into the mainstream, but also have Foobooz to curse for constantly turning it into a soap opera. Perhaps they’re less concerned with content and more concerned with “stirring the pot”, that’s the only logical reasoning I can find behind many of these listings. The story always used to go that these Philly Mag lists were fueled by advertising dollars and personal interests, I have to believe that that idealism still exists.

  • RWC

    I’m not sure why people who don’t agree with the ranking have got so fussy. I personally don’t agree with the ranking for the most part, but I won’t attack or insult anybody for this. At the end, false restaurant rankings, if any, doesn’t hurt anyone but Philly Mag themselves.

  • Some girl

    “It’s funny because you realize you can’t have it both ways, right? You can’t eschew the gossipy ‘foodie’ hype while simultaneously facilitating it.”

    Sure you can. In fact, I think a food blog is the best place to discuss the impact of gossipy foodie hype. Kudos on the genuine, thoughtful, thought-provoking post, Foobooz.

  • rory

    @ Some Girl: if you were the editor of a food website and bemoaned the state of food discussion on the web, shouldn’t you make sure your website isn’t exactly what you bemoan?

    philly mag is trying to have its foodie gossip and eat it too.

    @75 South: agreed. and just like espn, after building it’s brand value on the restaurants, it’s now gonna start screwing things up.

  • Steve

    Boo f’ing hoo. You get paid to write about food and drink for a living. Sorry, but you will find no sympathy from me.

  • anon

    @Rory You may be the only person who ever makes any sense on this blog.

    I think it is unfortunate that people conclude that philly mag food rankings are based on advertising. It is actually just based on poor taste. The people within the magazine who actually taste the food in these restaurants do not know a thing about food beyond their personal opinions.

    It is the only excuse for the skewed myopic conclusions they have reached.

  • denright

    I encourage philadelphia magazine to publish the full list of 170 restaurants that were considered and let your readers select a “peoples choice top 50″ using instant-runoff voting [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting]

  • barryg

    “cover the city’s food scene like ESPN covers sports”

    except that Klein and Flatt get all the scoops and exclusive interviews.

  • http://phickle.com Amanda

    I actually like all the conversations about restaurants (when not had with annoying competitive people) and I also believe that marketing is essential for smaller, local businesses to thrive and survive. I agree with you about the hype, but have you ever seen “When Harry Met Sally?” They discuss the problem in that film. It was made 1989. I think it’s good that Philly restaurants get so much love. Really. What other non-chain style business that provides, jobs, entertainment, pride and marketing for the city are so talked about?

    I also second you on Federal Donuts. Not really a new concept and the execution is good but not great (fancy donuts are not even good).