Stove & Tap | Photo by Craig Slotkin
On a Sunday night, Stove & Tap is busy. Not full, but I’m not really sure there would ever be enough people dining out in Lansdale on any given night to fill the place completely, what with two floors, outdoor tables, multiple bars and an upstairs patio. It’s big, loud, hot, polished, beautiful, and there’s a bear—a taxidermied brown bear in the front window, standing on its hind legs with a sign asking people not to feed it.
I wanted to buy a stuffed bear once. I found it at a pawnshop in Royersford, standing amid the hocked stereos and stationary bikes. It was a nice bear—huge and fierce—and my wife, seeing the wild look in my eyes, offered what was not exactly a rare connubial ultimatum and said I had a choice to make: her or the bear. Piece of advice? Don’t ever hesitate when offered those options. I did. For perhaps half a second too long. Now, years later, she still won’t let me forget it—the day I considered, however briefly, trading my wife for a pawnshop bear.
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Fig Dakos at Opa | Photo via Opa
When Opa first opened, it was loud, brash, crowded and dull. The kitchen seemed incapable of dependably executing the most basic dishes. The cooks were occasionally flummoxed by the simple interaction of meat and fire and would season things like toddlers given a spice rack to play with. I’d seen dudes in the park fresh off the spike who moved with more purpose than the floor staff on a weeknight, and the crowds that mobbed the place were a weird collection of neighborhood regulars and knots of sports-coated business bros who’d cluster like wolves at the corners of the bar, laugh too loud, and order rounds of Heineken and Amstel Light like they were on the last night of their package tour to Ibiza.
Back in the day (August 2011, to be exact), Trey Popp, Philly Mag’s restaurant critic at the time, gave the joint one-and-a-half stars, which I thought was too many by three. I hated the place pretty much unreservedly, and in the augmented-reality Terminator vision I have while clocking restaurants in this city, I always saw Opa with a big red X through it and the words AVOID AT ALL COSTS.
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In the basement of Double Knot | Photo via Double Knot
Breakfast, 9:30 a.m. // Like Garfield and 10,000 novelty t-shirts, I don’t do mornings. Particularly not ones that haven’t snuck up on me accidentally—the sun rising while I’m still out doing whatever it is that insomniac food editors do—and caught me still in last night’s clothes.
One of the reasons I became a writer was so I’d never have to get up before noon. Sadly, somewhere in my youth I missed an important distinction. Some writers get to sleep the mornings away, sure. They’re generally the ones who own more than zero berets and have strong opinions about pencils. And then there are the ones who actually have to make a living.
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Photo via Sate Kampar
This is what you do. You go to Sate Kampar on a first date. You save it for someone special—for when Tinder, the phone psychic, your matching Deadpool tattoos or shared fear of dying alone and being eaten by raccoons tells you this is the one. That it’s going to go the distance.
You go to Sate Kampar and you drift down into the hard-backed wooden chairs, under the soft yellow glow of the lights. You order off the sate menu (satay is how you spelled it, always, until seeing it done this other way in a place that probably knows), because meat on sticks? That’s easy. That’s just a little bit foreign but still approachable, good for a first date.
You go for the kambing (the goat) because it’s that kind of night and you’re willing to take chances, and then the ayam (the chicken) for safety.
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The Scallion Pancakes at Tom’s Dim Sum | Photo by Claudia Gavin
There are a lot of restaurants in this town that I go to because it’s my job. There are some I find myself in because life is strange and sometimes the lesser of many evils is a plate of greasy mozzarella sticks and a hip flask of Jim Beam and Coke at 3 a.m. Others I go to because I get caught up in the excitement just like everyone else—the frenzy of the new—and want to be there to see what all the fuss is about. To weigh this particular fuss against the fuss of last week and whatever fuss might be coming along next.
And then there are places I go to because I simply can’t not go. Because something in them draws me like gravity—a comfort beyond simple sustenance, strong drinks or good company. The bar at Bud & Marilyn’s is like that. Ting Wong in Chinatown. El Rincon Criollo. This little sushi place in Suburban Station that I love just because all the sushi is made by robots and I love robots. Stargazy, which I sometimes dream about because the banoffee tart blew my mind once and I can’t ever get there often enough.
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Dumplings and Scallion Pancakes at SuGa | Photo by Emily Teel
I love the smell of SuGa. The dim warmth of it. The banquette tables that run along the wall opposite the bar, in the front of the narrow, shotgun space in the middle of Center City. I love the weird, blobby lights that hang down, casting spotlights onto those tables. There’s a drama there that I can appreciate. A sense of controlling the environment.
There’s a sheen to everything at SuGa of newness and polish and efficiency. It’s a new restaurant (not even quite three months old yet) that operates like there are 20-year grooves cut into the floor. Everything is on rails, running with a precision that would make German train engineers jealous. This place represents the culmination of decades of experience—of Susanna Foo’s return to Center City (where she got famous, where she made her name) after closing her namesake Walnut Street restaurant in 2009 and its Radnor offshoot last summer. A veteran returning to the trenches, Foo is backed up by her son Gabriel on the floor (he grew up in the restaurant industry, went to medical school, but then found his way back to restaurants again) and sous chefs Clara Park (who opened SuGa with Foo, then left) and Chris Dougherty (who stepped up when Park left) in the kitchen. There are no amateur mistakes at SuGa. Nothing happens without a reason.
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The breakfast sandwich at Hungry Pigeon KOs the Egg McMuffin | Photo by Neal Santos
The first time I went to Scott Schroeder’s new restaurant, Hungry Pigeon, I showed up for breakfast and liked it so much, I stayed for lunch. There was just something so … welcoming about the place. Comfortable. It felt cool without even trying (which, I suppose, is the essence of cool), and as though it had been living there forever, in its little corner on Fabric Row, rather than for just a few weeks: the pale wood, the tarnished and mismatched silver wrapped in a side towel on the counter, the birdcages everywhere. It just worked in a lo-fi, garage-sale kind of way that rich restaurateurs pay tens of thousands of dollars to try to mimic.
It didn’t hurt that I am, by nature, a lazy man and relished the excuse to just hang out there for a couple hours, scrunched up in a corner banquette seat, sipping tea and eating Schroeder’s one-punch takedown of the Egg McMuffins of our collective youth. His version is assembled from a house-made English muffin toasted on the flat grill, an egg done just tight enough to hold together as part of a sandwich, local jack cheese and, variously, bacon, ham, or chicken sausage—the latter being the perfect accompaniment unless you’re into scrapple, in which case the scrapple is even better.
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A Mano | Photo by Emily Teel
In the back, chef Michael Millon is dancing.
Not dancing-dancing (because that would be weird), but that’s what it looks like. He and his crew, the other white jackets working the line at Townsend Wentz’s new BYO, A Mano, turn and weave around each other, reaching and ducking as the floor staff crowds up against the short pass, waiting on plate after plate after plate. It’s formal, this ballet. It only looks like a disaster happening and then re-happening every second, a series of near-misses and almost-collisions. It’s a culinary galliard—chaotic but measured. Practiced. Natural. In reality, it’s just another day at the office.
And at A Mano, it’s loud in the dining room. I’m seated about halfway down the banquette that runs the length of the far wall, so there’s no way I would’ve heard them if they were talking anyway, but I’m watching pretty closely (staring, really), and I don’t even see them speak. Don’t see lips moving or heads turning except in the simplest, most terse nods and single syllables.
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Photo courtesy Peggy Baud-Woolsey
When the server told me the special for the night was a plate of snails packed with herb butter, I didn’t get them, because snails wouldn’t really have gone with everything else we were ordering. Wouldn’t pair with the fried cheese curds. Wouldn’t sit right against the oysters Rockefeller or feel right sharing a table with the chicken potpie.
Further, the snails? They were just kind of sad. They’d been a star of chef Peter Woolsey’s menu during La Peg’s first iteration, as a funky, modernized and geographically unhinged French brasserie—the kind of place where you could get bone marrow with sauce gribiche served alongside scrambled eggs and toast as a snack at the bar on a Friday night, or authentically French onion soup, potato rosti, pho consommé, and coconut milk-laced mango and passion fruit sorbet for dessert. A place where the fat Burgundy snails sat proudly among the entrées and couldn’t have been more French if Woolsey’s crew had served them with tiny little Tricolour flags flying from their shells.
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Photo by Emily Teel
The thing that matters most about Clarkville is where it lives. It’s a pizza restaurant with good beer, a single solid pasta, and a short, tight menu of things that aren’t pizza—things that aren’t always great, but feel like pleasant surprises anyway when you stumble across them on the menu. But that’s just what it does. In some places, the restaurants make the neighborhood—Manayunk, Fishtown, Walnut Street during Le Bec Fin’s first youth. In others, the neighborhood shapes the restaurants. Clarkville? Absolutely the latter.
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