See that little dancing picture up there? That’s how the list of Philadelphia’s 50 Best Restaurants came to be. That’s one wall of Foobooz World HQ, covered completely with 170-odd Post-It Notes, representing every single restaurant that was in contention for a spot in the 2012 rankings. That’s what we lived with for roughly three months–a constantly shifting and evolving representation of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene to be stared at, debated, argued over, torn down, rebuilt and obsessed over until me and Art and the rest of this year’s 50 Best Restaurants crew had gone all A Beautiful Mind and saw the thing in our sleep.
How did Stateside end up at #1? Why didn’t Fette Sau or Rittenhouse Tavern make the list at all? And what were we thinking with Marigold Kitchen? There are answers to all of those questions, and it all began back in August with a deceptively complicated question:
What are your favorite restaurants in Philadelphia?
That was the question that I put to the staff of Philadelphia magazine at the start of this. That was the question that I asked friends and neighbors, cooks and bartenders, relatives, foodie scenesters and strangers in the elevator. Not “What are the best restaurants in Philadelphia,” but what are your favorites–where do you go to celebrate, to hang out, to seek comfort or to show off?
To ask people about the “best” restaurants in any city is to get back answers freighted with too much noise: They give you the answers that they think will make them sound sophisticated and well-schooled, that will show the city in the best light, that represent a cross-section of perceived knowledge and historical fantasy. For Philadelphia, it also means getting back a list which I think anyone reading this blog could probably rattle off in a single breath. “Well of course it would be VetriLeBecFinFountainLacroixBlackfishZahav.” Doesn’t matter that they haven’t been to Le Bec since the changeover, or that they’ve only ever heard about dinners at Fountain. Doesn’t matter that chef changes and concept changes and overhauls of rooms and menus have occurred that have fundamentally altered their approach to the changing tastes of the fickle public. There are white tablecloths and white truffles and gold cards and epic wine lists and folks in the dining room who look like they’re auditioning for the part of Mr. Monopoly, and that’s all that matters. When you ask people about the best, they almost always go high. It’s a gut reflex, and not always wrong (all of those places are great restaurants, every one of them is on the list), but it isn’t always totally right either.
But ask about favorite restaurants, and you get a very different list. A crazy list. A wildly divergent list that speaks of need and desire as much as it does the cutting edge of newness, and also a long list. In 2012, it was a list of 171 different restaurants, covering everything from the Austrian Village and Penang to Le Bec and Vetri. That was where we started five months ago. In August, anything was possible. Nothing was out of bounds.
The list came down slowly as The Wall became a named thing and a permanent feature in our office. We knocked out restaurants that had closed (in some cases years ago) and restaurants that were quirky, one-off faves for reasons that had nothing to do with any reasonable expression of Best-ness (I love Penang, for example, because I fell in love at Penang and because it serves the best roti canai in America, but I don’t honestly believe it is one of the 50 best restaurants in the city). We made a special section called “The Dead Zone” for places that we knew were never going to make the cut (places like Serafina, Naan, Geno’s, Nan Zhou, Tapestry and Square Peg), then began winnowing the list down to 150, 120, 110…
When we got to 101, we hit a kind of wall. 101 was the point where we could no longer simply dismiss restaurants out of hand, and knew that we had to start eating.
And eating. And eating more. 101 of Philadelphia’s best restaurants got anywhere between 1 and 7 visits between the beginning of September and the end of November, and this is the first point at which I get to laugh a little at all the furious readers lighting up the comments section and accusing us of everything from rank idiocy to payola. To the most apoplectic among them, I have a simple retort: We ate more than you. We ate A LOT more than you. And while that doesn’t make us automatically right, it makes us quite a bit more right than you who eat merely recreationally. Are you upset that your favorite restaurant didn’t make the list? Don’t worry. We ate there. And we had our reasons. Pissed that some place was ranked higher than you think it ought to be? I promise you that there was good cause.
Take Marigold Kitchen, for example. When we began, Marigold was among the 170. It survived all the way to 101, but was really lingering on the cusp of the Dead Zone because, like you, we all thought, “Really? But no one has talked about that place in forever…”
But then I got an email from a trusted eater saying that we had to send someone back there immediately. That the kitchen, which had always been good, had suddenly become remarkable. After that, I was stopped in the hall by someone else who said that they’d just had the best meal of their year and had to tell me about it immediately. They, too, had just come back from Marigold.
I sent a scout. She had a phenomenal meal and Marigold rose into an early version of the Top 50, topping out somewhere around the 20’s. We looked over Trey Popp’s most recent revisit, and adjusted it into the high teens. In October, I sent Trey back in again for another meal and he came back singing the praises of chef Robert Halpern, saying that he, too, had had one of the best meals of his year there. I had forms that all of our commando eaters were supposed to fill out for every meal they ate, and when Trey’s came back to be, Marigold Kitchen outranked both Le Bec and Vetri. Marigold moved to number 7 or 8 and hung there for a very long time while the list took shape around it.
Hundreds of dinners, dozens of eaters, thousands of dollars, hours of arguing… Rittenhouse Tavern was an early surprise victim of the process–not one bad meal there, but three, balanced against one pretty good one that I had personally. And then one of the staff came back furious because she’d had not just a bad meal, but the worst meal while under the care of the Tavern’s staff. So bad that she couldn’t stop listing the things that had gone wrong. It became too much of a trend to ignore. Ela was inconsistent at best. At worst, there was a sense that a plateau of talent had been reached, and that the plateau just wasn’t that high. Compare that to Will or Vernick or Fork which scored as highly as they did not solely because successive meals there were all excellent, but because there was a consistent sense that each of them was only getting better.
Speaking of Will… It was decided fairly early on that the opening of Will would be our cut-off for eligible restaurants. Anyone who opened after Will would have to wait for the next time we do one of these projects. Curious as to why Fette Sau didn’t make the 2012 list? That’s the reason. The only reason. And those were tough guns to stick to.
Back to Marigold. By November, the list had begun to take shape, but the top 15 or so were still very much up in the air. A hardcore few of us were still eating, making 2nd or 3rd or 5th visits to places that were giving us trouble. At this point, though, it was mostly about talking. And talking. And talking and talking and talking and talking. We had meetings. We discussed positions over morning coffee and afternoon whiskey and argued about the failings of the pure math approach–at which point did basing the list on numbers alone give a false result, and how much weight ought to be given to the impassioned defense of those who had actually eaten there.
Marigold climbed the notches. Vetri ended up a slot below Amis. Zama clawed its way onto the list on the strength of two absolutely phenomenal meals and Morimoto got ditched on the blandness of two wholly mediocre ones. Stateside bounced from #10 to #1 over the course of two weeks but, really, just one afternoon when I, myself, had to face down the question of where I would rather eat, Stateside or Sbraga, Stateside or Vetri? I love Stateside because I believe it represents the new vanguard of American cuisine. More than that, it seems to be pointing the direction. I love it because I have never had a bad meal there, or even a bad plate. I love it because the underlying notion of the place–that this is Pennsylvania’s cuisine–is not narrow, but rather so inclusive of everything one might eat in Pennsylvania, from Korean comfort food to some of the best charcuterie anywhere.
The list was still changing right up until the very last possible moment. Then it continued changing even as we were assembling the issue for publication. There was never a moment when we were sure that we had everything right because anyone who says that their list of the best anything anywhere is the absolute ultimate last word forever and ever is just an idiot and a fool, but I am confident that this list, as it stands, says something important about this moment in the history of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene.
It says that things are changing. That the future is unclear, but potentially awesome. It says that the old guard–the white tablecloths, the wine lists, the jacket-and-tie temples of culturally staid Gastronomy-with-a-capital-G–are waning in influence, but struggling mightily to gain it back and, in some cases (Fountain) succeeding. And it says that, in the meantime, there has never been a better time in Philadelphia to be looking for a place to eat.
Philadelphia’s 50 Best Restaurants [Official]