Laser Wolf is the restaurant scene’s way of writing science fiction — our boldest vision of the future of dining out. Before the pandemic, it was a place that existed entirely outside the customary definitions of casual/fine dining, one to which crowds flocked to smear kale baba ganoush on the best pita anywhere and devour merguez sausage and chicken shishlik off the kitchen’s blazing grills. It tasted fancy but felt like a nonstop party — complete with shots of arak and ice-cream sundaes for dessert. And after everything changed? Laser Wolf shifted gears and became the go-to spot for procuring the best backyard grilling kits for the summer. 1301 North Howard Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122
She’s the chef Philly needed before we even knew we needed someone like her. In the Before Times, she opened Kalaya, a heartfelt Thai BYOB where the kitchen scratch-made everything on an unapologetically authentic menu. In the dining room, she was an undeniable presence, seeming to know everyone who’d ever eaten a meal there and exactly what they needed most. And then, when the plague came, rather than retreating or folding, she kept Kalaya open to serve local industry workers for free. In a moment that sometimes seems woefully short on heroes, she is ours.
Every decade or so, a chef tries to showcase our historic Pennsylvania culinary traditions in a modern light. And almost every single time, those chefs fail. This time around, though, chef Adam Diltz took a big swing — presenting his vision of Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, locally sourced and scratch-made — and hit the long ball. His homemade scrapple, served spiked on a deer antler, was perfect for the Instagram age. The whole ducks and rabbits presented tableside were shocking in just the right way. Granted, dining at Elwood could sometimes feel like an edible history lesson in a museum reconstruction of Great-Grandma’s kitchen. But there were honestly revelatory moments to be had, which made Diltz’s walk back through time a lesson worth paying attention to. 1007 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19125
We absolutely did not need any more “New American” restaurants in this town. Mostly because that description means, essentially, nothing these days — it’s a semantically null phrase most often used for restaurants that don’t really know what they are. But Texas chef Randy Rucker knew exactly what he was doing when he brought River Twice to East Passyunk — opening a deeply personal spot that features modernist impulses, house-made pickles, butter beans escabeche, and his mom’s recipe for bread dumplings. In its moment, it was as idiosyncratic as it was startling, as welcoming as it was delicious, and while it pivoted to takeout during the unpleasantness, we’re hoping hard to see it open again one day soon. 1601 East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19148
David Cabello, founder of Black and Mobile, is both incredibly ballsy and a little bit crazy. In a delivery economy dominated by behemoths like Caviar and Uber Eats, his idea was to launch a small, local delivery service that focused exclusively on Black-owned restaurants. He tried a Kickstarter campaign (which failed). He got hit by a car. He launched an app (that he designed himself) in Philly in October, with the goal of keeping jobs and money inside the Black community, and it worked. In March, he expanded to Detroit — right before coronavirus hit. And now he’s looking at Atlanta, too, with his biggest challenge being managing the speed at which his business is growing. All of this in under a year. Oh, and also? Cabello is 25 years old, so he’s just getting started.
Hoagies are made for this particular moment. They’re entire meals in one package. They’re satisfying, comforting and craveable all at the same time — occupying the perfect center of that particular Venn diagram. Most importantly, who eats hoagies inside a restaurant? No, they’re a born to-go food, and if you’re looking for the best one in the city right now, check out Liberty Kitchen’s big, soft, Salumeria hoagies with local, seasonal accoutrements. And don’t sleep on the Della Casa, with hand-stretched mozz, gabagool from 1732 Meats, sun-dried peppers, and Calabrian chili oil. 1244 North Front Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122
Twenty thousand retweets. Sixty thousand likes. It was one simple, unassuming tweet from Daniela Morales about her family’s brand-new South Philly taqueria that started it all, but after that? It was all about the service, the welcoming vibe, the bright, comfortable dining room, and, of course, the food: hand-pressed tortillas, killer tacos al pastor, rolled tacos stuffed with potatoes, enchiladas Suizas that you’ll dream about long after they’re gone. True, the gods of social media are fickle and often bestow the boon of virality on the shallow and undeserving. But this time? This time, they got it absolutely right. 1429 Jackson Street, Philadelphia, PA 19145
When you’re in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, the ideal restaurant experience is one that involves the least amount of actual human contact. Which is why Porcos — a literal hole in a wall out of which come some of the city’s best porchetta sandwiches — is the perfect vision of our restaurant scene’s current moment. This takeaway window on Washington Avenue (which shares space and a menu with Small Oven Pastry Shop) was up and running before the virus hit, but present circumstances have made it invaluable. 2204 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19146
Sometimes, a new chef will arrive in Philly and bring an unmistakable energy — a sort of hyper-focused intentionality, a sense of I’ve got big plans for this city. Omar Tate was born and raised in Philly, and he worked in some of the city’s most ambitious kitchens before leaving for NYC to hone his culinary career. As he wove his way through kitchens, following the well-trodden career path of the modern professional chef, he began to explore and amplify Black American foodways — their tragic history, their uncertain future, their cultural complexities, and their constant erasure from the culinary pantheon. Honeysuckle — his NYC pop-up restaurant-turned-takeout operation — was the physical manifestation of his particular brand of culinary activism. Meals began with a glass of “Honeysuckle Red Drink” (his take on Kool-Aid, a staple of his childhood), and the to-go bags included samples of his own poetry. The coronavirus crisis brought him (and Honeysuckle) back to Philly, and he has big plans for this city — particularly in West Philly, where he’s envisioning a community center for which food will, of course, be the anchor. Follow @honeysuckle_projects on Instagram for information on future dinners and pop-ups.
Pre-coronavirus, Ana Caballero was the chef at Lost Bread Co. But when disaster struck, she lost her job and turned her talents to protecting those being failed by our all-too-fragile social safety nets. This is how Proyecto Tamal was born. In partnership with Lost Bread and in collaboration with two families each week, Caballero does a weekly tamale sale, with recipes defined by the partner families and supplies covered by Venmo donations (@proyecto-tamal). All money raised goes to the families she works with. An average run of 400 tamales can mean $1,500 for a family in need. To Philly’s credit, the tamales have been selling out fast every week.
Chris Kearse kicks a whole lot of ass for a whole lot of reasons, but one of the best things about him is the deep iconoclastic streak that made him close his dream restaurant — Will BYOB — and follow his muse, opening a perfectly realized modern French bistro at a time in Philly’s food history when fine dining, French influences and modernism were all on the wrong side of the curve. What’s more, he nailed it, serving things as simple as a perfect crab omelet, roasted duck with Bing cherries, and ham hock beignet with honey mustard — and making them all unforgettable showstoppers. Not every restaurant in Philly is going to survive 2020, but we’re lighting a candle for Forsythia. 233 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
They’ve kept our grocery stores stocked, they’ve delivered our takeout, and they’ve helped us hold it all together. Read the full write up here.
There are times when we resent how obsessed this city can get with pizza. How in 2020 — an era in dining when we ought to be fawning over Sri Lankan curries and Nigerian jollof rice — pizza still consistently gets top billing.
And there are other times — like … now, when the world feels so unsteady — that we’re very happy seeking solace in the basics. Finding comfort in pizza. Letting Philly’s pizzaiolos, you know, take care of us in our time of need. Because if nothing else, pizza is as comforting as comfort foods get.
When we were still in the red phase, some shops, like Pizzeria Stella(420 South 2nd Street) in Society Hill, Barbuzzo (110 South 13th Street) in Midtown Village, and Wood Street Pizza (325 North 12th Street) in Callowhill (which, not for nothing, is one of the city’s best classic pizza shops), provided us with DIY pizza kits that kept us occupied and well-fed during the quarantine. Wood Street’s Dean Kitagawa even commissioned his wife, Sarah D’Ambrosio, to create artwork on some of the pizza boxes. “It was a small thing we did to establish a connection with our guests — a connection we lost when we pivoted to just doing takeout,” he says.
Philly found comfort in pizza even when the style of pizza was completely new to us. Much as it did in almost every other major food city in the U.S., Detroit-style pizza took over Philly. Of course, it got the aged-dough/high-quality-ingredients treatment we’ve become so used to seeing; witness Dan Gutter’s focaccia-like frico-crusted pies from Circles + Squares (2513 Tulip Street) in Kensington, or even his less Detroit-y pan pizzas — à la Pizza Hut — at Pizza Plus (1846 South 12th Street) in East Passyunk, or the fat, deeply caramelized squares at Sidecar Bar & Grille (2201 Christian Street) in Grad Hospital. The ranch-drizzled, banana-peppered monstrosity at Emmy Squared (632 South 5th Street) was a delicious addition to Queen Village.
Neapolitan pizza, a food trend that came as quickly as it left this city, found new life at Gigi Pizza (504 Bainbridge Street), across the street from Emmy Squared. They do a sort of hybrid NYC-meets-Napoli pie baked in a wood-burning oven, with a crust that’s somehow both airy and stiff — essentially, a big middle finger to the chewy, soupy pies favored by the Neapolitan pizza gods.
We saw our fair share of illegal pizza activity, too, which has become something of the norm in this city after @pizza_gutt paved the way back in 2017. Instagram “pizza shops” like @pizza_jawn and @freelancepizza_ began delivering pies (baked who knows where) to their thousands of eager followers.
And in maybe the longest slog of quarantine, Joe and Angela Cicala, the chef-owners of Cicala at the Divine Lorraine and former owners of Brigantessa in East Passyunk, launched an illicit pizza “speakeasy” out of their backyard in South Philly, with proceeds to help pay their laid-off staff. On its first day, the Cicalas sold 200 pizzas in 40 minutes. They sold out again on the second day. And on the third day, seven cops and two city health inspectors shut the operation down. Pizza-obsessed, indeed.
While COVID-19 decimated the city’s restaurant scene, it also helped push Philly’s antiquated liquor laws just a bit into the 21st century. Here’s how.
The Lawsuit | The PLCB always acted as the middleman between wine dealers who sold specialty bottles (you know, the natural, biodynamic wine made by small producers) and places where you’d normally buy those bottles (restaurants and bottle shops). So when COVID-19 shut down all Pennsylvania state stores back in March, dealers in Philly were no longer able to sell their product, and independent wine retailers couldn’t restock their shelves. Two dealers, MFW Wine Co. LLC and A6 Wine Co., said “Enough!” and sued the motherfriggin’ PLCB.
While the suit is still moving slowly through the system — the PLCB appealed the ruling of the Commonwealth Court — the implications of PLCB-free wine commerce in the Philly restaurant industry are huge. Because even right now, in 2020, wine delivery is still nonexistent for retailers and restaurants. Right now, there’s still essentially no wholesale discount. Right now, retailers are paying gratuitous fees (and passing the cost on to us). And a lawsuit like this — which, mind you, has a good chance of succeeding — might very well change all of that.
To-Go Cocktails | The problems inherent in working within the PLCB’s convoluted systems were only exacerbated when coronavirus came along and shut down our nightlife scene entirely. Something had to give.
On May 21st, Governor Tom Wolf signed into law a piece of legislation that allowed restaurants and bars that had lost at least 25 percent of their average monthly sales due to the pandemic to sell cocktails to-go. Which means that for the first time since Prohibition, you can walk up to a bar in Philadelphia and order some martinis for the road, and nobody — not even a PLCB officer — can stop you from living your life. The to-go-martini kind of life.
Wine Shops! Finally! | When the PLCB temporarily closed all its stores, these shops stayed open and kept us drinking and drunk during the apocalypse. And they deserve all the attention in the world.
• Vernick Wine, 2029 Walnut Street, Rittenhouse
• Tinys Bottle Shop, 3124 Richmond Street, Port Richmond
• Di Bruno Bros., 9th Street Bottle Shop, 920 South 9th Street, Bella Vista
• Fancy Wine Club at Bloomsday, 414 South 2nd Street, Society Hill
• Le Caveau, 614 South 7th Street, Bella Vista
• Fishtown Social, 1525 Frankford Avenue, Fishtown
• Wine Dive, 1506 South Street, Grad Hospital
• Jet Wine Bar, 1525 South Street, Grad Hospital