Beyond the 50 Best Restaurants List

A Q&A with Philly Mag food editor (and overseer of this year’s 50 Best Restaurants list) Jason Sheehan, in which he discusses BYOs, the service culture, and what’s ahead on the food scene.

50-best-sheehan-jessica-webster-940x540
What’s the most underrated part of the Philadelphia food scene?
Service. Philly has this bad reputation for being a place where service just sucks, across the board. That it’s not that servers can’t keep their thumbs out of the soup—they can barely keep their fingers out of their noses. And that’s total bullshit. Go to a place like Vetri or Noord or Fork, or even a tiny little place like Pumpkin, and tell me this city doesn’t understand great service. People will always complain about service, but anyone who’s doing it in a serious way in Philly right now is just lazy and can’t think of anything better to complain about.

Then what would your biggest complaint be?
We have too many restaurants. More to the point, too many restaurants all doing the same things, in the same neighborhoods, all scrambling for the same dollars. It seems to me that our collective vision has begun to narrow a bit. I mean, seriously? Unless you know for a fact that you’re better at making pasta than Marc Vetri, Chris Painter, Joey Baldino, Joe Cicala, and Shane Solomon at Stella, don’t open an Italian restaurant. And don’t open some clever little exposed-brick New American place, either, because that pretty much puts you in competition with every other cook in town who’s not doing Italian.

Is there any part of the dining landscape here that people love and you can’t understand why?
The BYO thing. If it’s a restaurant, it should have a bar. End of story. I’m not from here, and I think it’s one of those things that maybe you have to grow up with to appreciate. I’ll just never understand why people love BYOs so much.

What’s healthier right now: the food scene or the bar scene?
The restaurant scene, by a mile. There are too many guys behind the bar right now more concerned with how their mustaches look than how my drink tastes, and too many stunt cocktails made with peanut butter or bee pollen that seem intellectually challenging but are no fun at all to drink. I love a clever hand and an active mind handling the cocktail list, but right now I think the biggest brains and the most daring hearts are on the line banging the pots and pans. Which, honestly, is the way I prefer it.

Looking ahead, what has you most excited about Philadelphia’s restaurants?
All the really original concepts from great chefs who’ve either just opened new restaurants or have projects on the books. V Street from the Vedge crew, Lo Spiedo from Vetri, Kensington Quarters in Fishtown, Joe Cicala’s Brigantessa— so many places opened while we were putting 50 Best together. Aldine from George Sabatino got off to a slow start but has so much potential. Kevin Sbraga is doing retro ’80s cuisine at Juniper Commons. Dim sum at Bing Bing. Italian from Townsend Wentz in Fairmount. As much as I worry about our overcrowded scene, there’s just so much life and energy right now, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Read Philadelphia Magazine’s 2015 List of the 50 Best Restaurants in Philadelphia »

Also, check out Philadelphia’s top suburban restaurants list »

Originally published in the January, 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.