The Great Philly Restaurant Die-Off of 2015

Philly’s restaurant scene has been overcrowded for years, and a cull was due. Now it’s finally come.

Illustration by James Boyle

Illustration by James Boyle

I remember doing the numbers for an essay a while back and counting something in the neighborhood of 80 notable restaurant openings during 2014. This was just places we knew about, opened by known chefs or talented newcomers, expansions of successful enterprises, or big-money additions to the scene. Eighty of them, give or take a few.

That’s a lot of restaurants, I recall thinking. Probably too many.

The city’s restaurant scene was expanding at a rate that was unsustainable. It had been for months, maybe years. And all of us out there who keep track of such things knew the bubble had to burst soon, because the Philly restaurant biome was all out of whack. Every city has a carrying capacity for restaurants — a kind of ideal balance between available tables and people willing to fill them — and our scene had suddenly become far too rich. There were more seats than there were butts to fill them.

Then came May of 2015. In a single weekend, we lost two of the more talked-about restaurants in town — Juniper Commons and Rosa Blanca. It was surprising enough to see two of the biggest chefs in the city (Kevin Sbraga and Jose Garces) make closing announcements back-to-back. Even more shocking was that Rosa Blanca lasted just a year and a half, and Juniper Commons closed in less than six months.

Privately, I cheered. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

It’s not that I wanted those places to close. It’s always sad to see a restaurant go down — to see a chef’s dreams break against the realities of commerce, and a crew turned out on the street. But the marketplace is necessarily cruel, and this kind of churn? Frankly, we need more of it — a more viciously Darwinian cycle that clears the underperformers out quickly and makes room for fresh blood. The end result will be a scene that continues to move forward, that doesn’t get mired in its own history or faddishness, and where the restaurants that survive will do so in an environment that can actually support them.

May was the start of the bloodiest season in recent memory. In a more or less consistent drumbeat of smaller closures, we also lost Susanna Foo in Radnor (after nine years), Chinatown’s Simply Shabu, Tuk Tuk Real (Alex Boonphaya’s unloved Thai-Mexican fusion spot), Chiarella’s on East Passyunk, Beast & Ale in Manayunk, and Matyson, which was a blow none of us saw coming.

As I sit here writing this, we’re at summer’s midpoint. Rumors abound (as rumors do) of more closures coming, and yet the pace of openings (crazy, as always, though rife with delays) won’t slacken. And while I might publicly cheer this (yay, Philly! Sure, we need another charming modern Italian restaurant on East Passyunk! Screw economics!), privately, I’m still hoping for more bad news. Because while seeing a beloved old restaurant close is sad, what’s worse is being the only person in the dining room at a good new one on a Thursday night, and knowing that without some more die-off to refresh the scene, the new guys don’t stand a chance.

Originally published as “The Gastronaut: One Bloody Season” in the September 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.