The Great Philly Restaurant Die-Off of 2015

Illustration by James Boyle

Illustration by James Boyle

I remember doing the numbers for an essay a while back and counting something in the neighborhood of 80 notable restaurant openings during 2014. This was just places we knew about, opened by known chefs or talented newcomers, expansions of successful enterprises, or big-money additions to the scene. Eighty of them, give or take a few.

That’s a lot of restaurants, I recall thinking. Probably too many.

The city’s restaurant scene was expanding at a rate that was unsustainable. It had been for months, maybe years. And all of us out there who keep track of such things knew the bubble had to burst soon, because the Philly restaurant biome was all out of whack. Every city has a carrying capacity for restaurants — a kind of ideal balance between available tables and people willing to fill them — and our scene had suddenly become far too rich. There were more seats than there were butts to fill them. Read more »

Gastronaut: Down on the Shore

gastronaut-0715-400The Shore is what it is—a region with its own peculiar DNA made up primarily of watery sangria, sand fleas, cotton candy and flip-flop sweat. It’s been the Northeast’s playground for decades and has evolved into a highly advanced organism for separating city folk from their disposable income.

And for the most part, it all works just fine. But when it comes to Shore restaurants, I’ve always been a little bit mystified. I mean, here we are, just a couple hours’ drive from such a concentration of wealth and poor judgment, and yet most Philadelphia restaurateurs appear to have no interest in opening down the Shore.

Read more »

Gastronaut: The Case for Crawling

MO-gastronaut-0615-kagan-mcleod-400

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

When we were young cooks, none of us could ever stand still.

Work — 12 or 14 or 16 hours. White jackets and checked pants; prep and then more prep and then the first hit, the dinner rush, the long, slow glide toward wipe-down. Crews rolled out the back doors of restaurants, converged on the nearest bars for first drinks, then moved on — looking for salty things and fried things and sushi and pho and flat, floppy slices and weed. We were perpetually unsatisfied, a whole knot of us growing antsy and weird if we spent more than 45 minutes in any one place, because no matter where we were, there was always the chance of something better waiting right next door.

Read more »

Gastronaut: Summer in the City

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods? Whatever. People have been spouting that trite crap since the notion of the neighborhood was invented, about any municipal area with a population larger than three. And while arguments can be made for the neighborhood-iness of Philly during the lethargic heat of the dog days (when no one wants to go farther than the corner bar for a cold beer and some company) or the depths of snow-day winters (when having a good restaurant within walking distance can make the difference between sane survival and going all Jack-Nicholson-at-the-Overlook), what Philly really is is a city of festivals. Read more »

The Gastronaut: I Love the ’80s

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

I am, for better or for worse, a child of the 1980s.

Born in 1973, I spent my youth in a haze of Transformers (the original ones), Atari and Members Only jackets. I owned an actual pair of parachute pants, though I only wore them to school once, was mocked, and acquired, briefly, the nickname “Parachute.”

More important, I started cooking in the ’80s. I cut my teeth in the industry through the late ’80s and early ’90s (seeing as this was upstate New York during the pre-Food Network American food scene, the ’80s lasted until about 1996), and I can tell you one thing: The food was terrible. Read more »

The Gastronaut: It Gets Better

MO-gastronaut-032015-400-kagan-mcleodI was at Aldine for dinner on opening night, and it was awful.

Of all the dishes set before me, I only found two of them appetizing enough to finish, and with another one, I had to pull the old Oh look, some of it fell on the floor trick just to make it appear as though I’d taken more than one bite.

But it’s okay. Don’t worry. Aldine got better.

I ate at Sbraga years ago, shortly after it opened. It was one of the most talked-about restaurants in the city, but not all the talk was good. And, frankly, neither was dinner. It was gimmicky, too clever, muddled in a way that I think was supposed to feel casual and fun but didn’t.

But Sbraga got better, too. Read more »

The Gastronaut: Hey Santa …

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Dear Santa,

First things first, I have to thank you for being so good to Philadelphia since the last time I wrote you. I asked for a lot of things on behalf of the city last year — outdoor drinking and BYOs and soup and more delivery options — and you came through in spades.

This year, my requests for Philly are a little bit darker. Rather than asking for things we need, I’m asking for things to go away. This is mostly because we’ve had such a good year already, and because our neighborhoods are so full of amazing restaurants and chefs doing the best work of their careers. Hard as it might be to say, what Philly is due for is a cull. To keep the scene healthy. And Santa, sometimes hard choices need to be made.

Read more »

The Gastronaut: Notes of Honey, Pine Needles and Regret

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Sure, sure. The holidays are a time for togetherness. For family. For stuffing yourself full of food and then passing out on the couch. But they’re also a time for drinking — both the joyous, let’s-give-a-toast-to-the-season kind, and the more common (and occasionally much more satisfying) let’s-just-have-another-drink-and-see-if-we-can-get-through-this kind.

Which is why I’ve assembled this list of ideal pairings for a variety of holiday-specific foods and scenarios you might be faced with in the coming weeks. So here’s what to pair with …

Read more »

Gastronaut: We Like to Watch

gastronaut-september-kagan-mcleodWhen Serpico first opened on South Street, one of the main draws was the big, open kitchen and the man himself — Peter Serpico, late of the famous Momofuku empire, standing right there making dinner for you. The most popular seats in the house were the ones snugged right up against the counter behind which Serpico did his work.

Zahav has never wanted for trade, but when Michael Solomonov started running his Kitchen Counter dinners, people went bonkers. Fork’s cooks work right out in the open, filling the dining room with excitement that goes far beyond the drama of plates being walked across the floor. Petruce et al., Vernick, Cheu — they all let you sit within poking distance of the cooks. At Volvér, the kitchen isn’t just open to view; it’s integral to the layout of the dining room. Customers are told (repeatedly) to go up to the pass and watch the chefs working. To ask questions.

Read more »

Gastronaut: Arts and Crafts

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

I saw this coming years ago. Not because I’m clever or prescient or some kind of unappreciated soothsayer of cuisine, but simply because I was on the front lines. I was a restaurant critic in Denver, Colorado, back during the second boom of New American cuisine.

I saw this coming years ago, but it had no name — not until GQ’s Alan Richman gave it one a few months back. He wrote about young chefs, exclusively male, working “with like-minded discipline, hardly ever haunted by doubts, seemingly in possession of absolute confidence.” He called it “Egotarian Cuisine” — food that is “intellectual, yet at the same time often thoughtless … straddling the line between the creative and the self-indulgent.” More to the point, food that is created solely, and with arrogant singularity of vision, to please the chef. Not the owners. Certainly not the customers. It’s food as memoir and manifesto. And often, it’s terrible.

Read more »

« Older Posts