Is Center City Over?
Editor’s Note: From this month’s Philadelphia magazine, a discussion about the future of Center City and a question: Does Center City even have a future? We’ve seen a significant fall-off in the number of openings in Center City this year, and even though we’ve had a couple of new openings announced since this piece was written, it’s nothing like in years past (as you can see in the above Taste Illustrated infographic). All of which makes us wonder what’s going on in Center City, and whether we’re now seeing the beginning of Philly’s outlying neighborhoods as the true drivers of cuisine.
Tracking the End of the Downtown Restaurant Boom
“So there’s Jane G’s on Chestnut.”
“IndeBlue. And that Pennsylvania 6 thing.”
“Yeah. And then … ”
“And then nothing.”
Nothing. Not in planning. Not even in rumors. My colleague Art and I, we do this for a living. We track restaurants the way guys do their fantasy football rosters. We’ve got active lists and disabled lists; when we’re good at our jobs (which we mostly are), we know three or four months out when a place is looking to open. Even when we’re lazy, we usually have weeks of warning. And yet we’re looking at our lists of restaurants set to open in Center City, and we see … nothing.
Okay, not nothing nothing. There are a couple of small or indistinct places planned. Some big chain-type projects are moving into gaping spaces: There’s the Cheesecake Factory on 15th and Walnut. Something going into the Hotel Monaco. Federal Donuts is expanding to Sansom Street, but that’s tiny.
What we don’t have—what we don’t have at all—are independent restaurants set to open in Center City in raw spaces. Jane G’s, the high-end Asian fusion concept that opened in July at 20th and Chestnut, was the last of those, and it had been in the works forever. Pennsylvania 6 is going into the space formerly occupied by Tweed; IndeBlue is coming out of Jersey and setting up shop in the old Pastoral Korean location on 13th. We actually have more news on canceled deals than on active ones, as chefs and owners (Jen Carroll with Concrete Blonde, Ben Puchowitz with Cheu Noodle, Jose Garces with Frohman’s Wursthaus) have simply lost momentum, turned their backs on Center City and fled.
This is a drought like nothing we’ve seen before—at least in Center City. There are plenty of openings happening (or planned, or rumored, or totally-ready-but-just-not-quite) outside the charmed blocks that are (or have been) the heart of Philly’s second restaurant renaissance. East Passyunk is the boom that just keeps on giving. South Street might—might—be getting a lift from Stephen Starr. Fishtown certainly is, thanks to his partnership with Fette Sau out of Brooklyn. Chinatown, Old City, South Philly, University City—they’re all doing fine. We’ve got more seats coming than butts to put in them.
And maybe that’s one of the problems in Center City. Not only that rents have climbed out of the range of the theoretically doable (which I’ve heard), or that the cost of outfitting a raw space has become prohibitive in this unstable dining economy. But that Center City has, for the moment, simply reached its carrying capacity—the point at which any more restaurants would push it out of alignment and cause a die-off.
For a long time now, Center City has been the engine driving Philly’s restaurant economy. The sudden retreat of all the heat and light and action to the surrounding neighborhoods has left us with an unaccustomed quiet—spooky, and with no end in sight.