Gastronaut: Best of the Best (of the Best)

These days, how good does a Philly restaurant have to be in order to do business? And what does it mean when a very good restaurant just isn’t good enough?

I have absolutely no reason to eat at Dandelion anymore.

I mean, I have plenty of reasons: I like it there, there’s always a seat at the bar, generally a table is available. It’s close to my office. Its new chef is doing an admirable job. I like the beers on its list, and the menu is just deep enough that there’s always something on it I want to eat right then. As far as neighborhood restaurants go, Dandelion has everything I want, which is why I find myself there a lot. Yet I really have no reason to go there anymore.

Philadelphia is in a weird place right now in terms of its restaurant scene. Far from seeing a shortage of interesting, exciting, challenging, amazing or just plain new restaurants to try, we actually have too many. Every afternoon that I spend whiling away my workday at Dandelion’s long oak is an afternoon I’m not spending somewhere else. It means I’m not at the Fat Ham or High Street on Market or Rosa Blanca or Pizzeria Vetri or Tela’s or the counter at Cheu Noodle Bar.

At dinner, it’s even worse. As I write this, we have 11 restaurants on our Foobooz list of just-opened places so new that they’re still dripping. Ten more are scheduled to debut in the next 30 days (including Volver, Petruce et al., and Alex Capasso’s new place, Crow & the Pitcher), and an unbelievable 64 projects have been announced but have yet to nail down opening dates.

Assuming you’re a normal sort of person who eats out a couple times a week, and who cares at least a little about the Philadelphia restaurant scene, this covers you for the next year. We could put a universal freeze on all restaurant-opening announcements, effective today, and you could still eat out twice a week at nothing but new spots until February 2015.

And that doesn’t account for the top-drawer places that are already open. When you’re in a city that hosts Marigold Kitchen, Vedge, Le Virtù, Sbraga, Vernick, Will, Fork, Fond, Jerry’s Bar, Bufad, Tria Taproom, Serpico, Avance, Laurel, Le Chéri, Noord and Zahav, it’s almost impossible to make a case for going to dinner at a place like Russet (which is very good) or Tinto (where they have cheap Spanish beers and awesome little tapas) or even somewhere as wonderful and dependable and loved as Barbuzzo.

As is the case for me at Dandelion, being a regular still counts for something; name recognition, brand loyalty, all that stuff matters. But we’re in a position now in Philly where merely being a very good restaurant isn’t enough. It’s awesome-or-better to open, and the ability to maintain that awesomeness in the face of dozens of new openings stacked up behind you that makes or breaks restaurants in this new environment of sublime culinary excellence.

Which is terrific. Because, really, who doesn’t want excellence? But I wonder how long the scene at large can thrive under this kind of pressure. We all can only eat so much, in a restaurant world where there may soon prove to be too much of a good thing.

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.