Philly’s 51st-Best Restaurant

Picking the 50 best restaurants in a city shouldn’t be this tough. So what does it say about Philly that it was?

Rex 1516—the modern Southern restaurant on South Street whose kitchen entices diners with crawfish potpies and creamy low-country grits—is Philadelphia’s 51st-best restaurant.

This place, which is loved so dearly for lingering brunches of sweet-potato biscuits with chorizo gravy, for collard greens and cabbage salads with pork fat vinaigrette, never really made it onto the Big List. Oh, it had a brief rise into the high 40s during one pissed-off afternoon in which we scrapped almost everything from number 26 on and rebuilt the entire low end of the list from scratch. But almost since the start of our research, Rex has held tenaciously to its spot at number 51, fending off better-known challengers (Ela, Distrito, Rittenhouse Tavern) and scrappy upstarts (Hot Diggity, Russet, Bar Ferdinand under the command of David Ansill) alike.

Rex 1516 is a good restaurant. It does nothing fundamentally wrong. Made no crippling mistakes. It has a talented kitchen crew and a lovely, comfortable dining room. The service is reasonable for the space—neither shockingly good nor as bad as some—and the gestalt idea behind its creation (that, culinarily speaking, the New South is a thing now, and worthy of our attention) is wholly valid and a happy addition to Philly’s scene.

So what does it say about a city when its 51st-best restaurant is a house that likely could’ve cracked the top 10 in some other area codes? That might’ve even broken 20 here in other, less spectacular years?

It says that our bench is deep. That we have power for days. It says that Philadelphia as a food city is absolutely deserving of the attention it’s been getting lately and is only growing stronger, since nearly half our list is made up of restaurants that have opened since the last time we picked our 50 best.

Let me say that again: Almost half of the restaurants on our list of the best in the city have opened since January of 2011. If Rex 1516 had been the only new restaurant of note to open in the past 24 months, it would’ve hit the list at number 31.

Though the owners of Rex 1516 might not be feeling it right now, being number 51 in Philly in 2013 is no kind of insult at all. It is, if anything, a challenge. Because the race for the 2015 list begins today.