Until recently, Philly had only one real option when it came to Hawaiian food: the Poi Dog truck run by partners Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca. But now there’s also … well, now there’s the Poi Dog brick-and-mortar location, also opened by Aranita and Vacca.
You know it’s open when the neon is on, glowing gently in the window of a rowhouse on 12th Street just off Passyunk Avenue. You know you’re in the right place when you see the door with no knob, the buzzer, the little window with the eyes behind it, and hear the voice asking if you’re a member.
This is the Filippo Palizzi Club, chef Joey Baldino’s experiment in a very intimate, very social, very (sorta) private kind of dining.
“So, how was dinner?”
I get this a lot. Obviously. Life that I live, things that I do, people I know, it’s the most common question I hear. Or second most, maybe, behind You want another drink? or What’s that stain on your shirt?
“So, how was dinner?” From friends, colleagues, editors, 10,000 servers, my mom. Always the same. And seeing as how it’s my actual job to answer precisely that question all the time, you’d think it would be easy. That I’d always have a fast and ready answer.
We forget sometimes that every night at a restaurant is the worst night ever.
Not for us, the diners. Not most of the time, anyway. But for the cooks, the chef, the servers, every night is a constantly evolving disaster. Every day starts out perfect—tabula rasa, a clean slate. The tables are all laid. The book is full, with reservations from open to close. In the kitchen, the mise en place is set. The cooks have backups waiting in the cooler, and then backups for their backups.
But when the doors open, everything becomes triage. Table full of vegans, a dropped steak, oven won’t heat past 250 degrees, the sous-chef sneezed in the soup—every minute, it’s something. A chef’s primary job during service is containment—managing the chaos, mitigating the hundred things that can (and will) go wrong and making goddamned sure that no one in the dining room suspects a thing. Dressing up a catastrophe to look like the best night ever.
On the floor at 24, the servers moved like they were on rails, following paths just a couple months old but already worn into the floor. They worked with pass-coverage eyes—heads up, eyes on their zones—and they were quick with the water-pour, the plate-clear, touching each of their tables, huddling on the kitchen’s open line and then rolling back out again, laden with plates.
On the tables, no cutesiness. The silverware all matched. The glassware was all polished, simple, plain. The plates were white. Each thing was designed for its purpose, including the (almost winking) old tomato cans used as rustic lifts for pizza pans. At 24, the Garces Group’s new all-day cafe (just downstairs from its also-new company headquarters), everything has been thought of in advance. Every possibility has been gamed, every solution tested, every problem solved before it occurs. This is the strength of being the 16th restaurant in a string of restaurants– designed for maximum efficiency, even if dressed for casual Friday. Though nothing remarkable is being attempted here (nothing approaching the level of a Volvér or Amada), 24 Wood Fired Grill is what happens when a restaurant group really knows what it’s doing.
I go to Cinder on a gray afternoon, looking for comfort and distraction, and find it at the bar—two giant TVs showing football on one side, talking heads silently shouting about sports on the other. It’s quiet because I’m there between services—too late for lunch and too early for a meal to reasonably be called dinner—but I’m not alone. A two-top in the corner is occupied, as are a couple tables on the floor. At the bar, some beer nerds are taking advantage of owner Teddy Sourias’s unapologetic ode to the newest retro-fad among drinkers: cider. Sourias already has BRU, which focuses on beer and sausages, U-Bahn (his Berlin-subway-theme bar) and Uptown Beer Garden (which, obviously, is a sushi bar). In other words, he’s got beer covered and has always put together good lists of interesting brews, generally braced by the things people like to eat while drinking.
Cinder falls solidly inside that bull’s-eye. Everything about it, from the highly polished bar and hi-top tables to the orange glow coming from the mouth of the big oven in the open kitchen, speaks to this moment in Philadelphia’s edible history. It’s an efficient and highly designed concept restaurant masquerading as a neighborhood bar and aiming for that sweet spot of two-notches-better-than-you-expect—the benchmark level of acceptable quality in Philly these days.
There are restaurants you go to because you’re hungry, and restaurants you go to because they’re cool. There are restaurant you go to because they’re close—the old soldiers of your particular block, with rooms as comfortable as faded blue jeans and a bartender who knows your name. And then there are restaurants you go to because they make you feel better about your neighborhood, your city or yourself. That’s what Royal Sushi and Izakaya is for me.
Along the arc of a graph reading “Why Is My Restaurant Not Good?,” two opposite mistakes hold down either end of the bell curve. On one side, you have a good concept crippled by poor execution. On the other are bad ideas masked by a talented, passionate crew trying like hell to fight its way out of a losing situation. Between these two points falls every other reason for a restaurant to go bad: terrible food, awful service, a coked-up owner snorting away the profits, rats, that weird smell, location, location, location. But existing with beautiful, snow-white purity are the alpha and omega of reasons: Either you had a good idea ruined by thumb-fingered losers who turn all gold to crap, or you had a bad concept that no amount of earnest polishing will ever make shine.
The first one? That’s unforgivable. And the second one is Scarpetta.
On a cold night in December, we threaded our way through the crowds on Sansom Street and found the unobtrusive door. We pushed through the heavy curtains hung to keep the drafts out and stepped into the front room hung with green and living things like a Charleston sunporch, then into the massive, vaulted main space of Harp & Crown, Michael Schulson’s newest experiment in feeding and watering Philadelphia.
Look, I’m not pissed off about my meals at Aqimero. To be pissed—for my experiences to rise to the level of actually making me angry beyond a kind of vacant, low-boil frustration—would presume that I was at all surprised by my experiences.
I’m sad, a little bit. It’s depressing to see what could have been a great restaurant space (what should have been a great restaurant space) so terribly misused, and the liveried staff lingering expectantly around the host’s station, waiting for customers who are never going to arrive. To look at those soaring ceilings and sky-reaching pillars, the marble, the vastness of it all, and to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that Aqimero will be (or, again, should be) experienced solely by visitors staying at the Ritz who are afraid to leave the shelter of its luxurious walls, incapable of walking a couple blocks, or just so careless about the price of things that $17 for a (small) plate of fried shrimp seems perfectly reasonable, is just dismal. I didn’t love 10 Arts, which lived here before big-time international restaurateur Richard Sandoval brought Aqimero to the Ritz-Carlton a few months back. I had great meals there, and ones that were merely so-so. A bit of its luster rubbed off after it lost Eric Ripert’s oversight and Jennifer Carroll in the kitchen. But 10 Arts still undeniably fit into the vaulted lobby of the Ritz. It belonged there in a way that Aqimero just … can’t.