Fork in the Road

If Philadelphia really wants to be a player on the national food scene, we have a choice to make.

There's a secret in the city's kitchens — something that is only whispered tentatively down the line, when what we need is a chorus standing on the communal table at Buddakan, yelling it out over the constant din of cocktails and clumsy chopsticks: Philadelphia's dining scene is in a rut!

No, no, most diners would say, shaking their heads, reaching for more Angry Lobster or another Dip Sum Doughnut, the same dishes they've been lining up for since Buddakan opened eight years ago. And the city's cooks might agree as they fire another order of seared scallops or prepare more gooey-centered chocolate cakes. Their response is understandable; their denial is delicious. Philadelphia's dining scene is suffering through a delectable rut, a local, seasonal, signature-cocktail, short-ribs, baby-greens rut.

Oh, we're not in danger of going hungry. There are an estimated 4,000 restaurants in Philadelphia, and more opening each week. But we are getting fat around the middle. Instead of growing up, with new concepts and creative kitchens, we're growing out, expanding with more of the same. Tell me you're opening a restaurant in Philadelphia, and I'll tell you what it will be. It's a BYOB, a husband-and-wife-owned storefront with a sentimental name. He's in the miniature kitchen; she's in the dining room with the decor straight out of the Pottery Barn catalog. The food is fresh, local; the farmers who grew the baby bok choy and raised the free-ranged chickens are listed right there at the bottom of the menu. Or it's a Stephen Starr restaurant, whether or not Philly restaurant mogul Starr owns it. (Though he probably does.) Big and sweeping, more theater than dinner, with a name chef you never see and a valet guy you do. He's looking for his $18, plus tip.

This wasn't always true of Philadelphia, of course, and it won't always be true. The city's dining scene is constantly in flux, as old restaurants close and new ones open. A guarantee: Some of those new restaurants will be very good. But that may not be enough to revive the city's food future. “You need a radical among you,” Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin says, surveying Philadelphia's place in the national food scene. “A risk-taker, to start the conversation again, to keep people moving in a forward direction.” The question is whether we have one.

WHEN BYOBS AND STARR restaurants emerged in the 1990s, they were radical. Food-focused BYOBs, thanks to the state's unusual liquor laws and the city's abundance of storefront space, were uniquely Philadelphian. And Starr's restaurants, though the concepts often mirrored successful shops in other cities, gave Philly — whose food reputation had for decades sat safely but sedately in the hands of Le Bec-Fin's Georges Perrier and White Dog Cafe's Judy Wicks, masters of the city's first Restaurant Renaissance in the 1970s — a sheen of trendiness. Those two movements put Philly at the starting line with national-food-media darlings Portland and San Francisco when the Food Network/eGullet/foodie's-not-a-dirty-word movement emerged. (We're not even going to talk about New York City.) And as the race began, the Philly restaurant scene's new energy fed other ventures: chef-driven restaurants like Jack McDavid's upscale low-country cuisine at Jack's Firehouse, which opened in 1989; Guillermo Pernot's fanciful, delicate ceviche at Pasión, which opened in 1998; Marc Vetri's innovative Italian at Vetri, which dates to 1998 as well. That era also produced scenes like Neil Stein's irrepressible Rittenhouse café Rouge, yet another 1998 debut. Then we stopped, seemingly sated by our kitchens' accomplishments. Instead of more innovation, the two reigning trends of the Philly food scene — the small BYOB, epitomized by Django, which opened in 2001, and the theatrical Starr approach — became so successful that nothing else seemed to be a sensible business model.

Unsatisfied Philadelphia foodies blame the chefs for this stall-out. The city's chefs are predictable, they say, and there is truth in that. Philadelphia is a proudly parochial town, and its restaurants are no different. There's a strong family tree in the city's kitchens; nearly every chef has roots reaching back to Perrier or Wicks or fellow Renaissance man Steven Poses; seemingly, everyone else has worked in Stephen Starr's organization. It's a much more insular environment than in other cities, and so it makes sense that diners see a similarity in style among chefs who trained together.

Of course, chefs blame the undemanding Philadelphia diner. The customers are predictable, they say, and there's truth in that, too. Ask any chef — perhaps the survivors of the short-lived Salt — who has tried to take filet mignon off the menu or has been condemned as “adventurous.” It's nothing more than a chicken-or-egg argument, but in Portland and San Francisco and Atlanta and Chicago — “The Best Restaurant City in America,” GQ magazine announced last summer — they're eating the chicken and the egg.

Eighty-two percent of Philadelphians think the region's restaurant scene is as good as or better than any other American city's, which would seem to make such complaints a foodie's tempest in a properly brewed pot of tea — except that the city has in recent years hinged its fate on the strength of its service sector and the money tourism brings to town. Those tourists aren't just coming to see the Liberty Bell anymore. They're also coming to sit at the sushi bar at Morimoto. But the sushi bar at Morimoto only has 15 seats. And Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, the reason for those pilgrimages, has decamped to New York. (But we agreed not to talk about New York.) Philly sees only a small portion of the tourist tabs that total an estimated $12 billion a year nationally.

While the country raises a toast to the vibrant, varied dining scenes of other similarly sized cities, Philadelphia is at a fork in the road. Our skyline is changing with the current building boom, and the face of the Philadelphia diner is changing, too. Center City restaurants will soon find themselves feeding a different clientele: 20-somethings and empty nesters with disposable income and increasingly educated palates. At the same time, the forces that have driven the dining scene for a decade now are losing momentum. Last year was the first since 1997 that Starr didn't open a restaurant in Philadelphia proper, concentrating as he was on New York, Atlantic City and, well, the Cherry Hill Mall. And this is the first time in recent memory that the city has seen even the slightest trend away from the BYOB, as former bring-your-owns like Graduate Hospital's Divan Turkish Kitchen and seafood-focused La Bohème reached for liquor licenses, and small storefronts like Queen Village's Gayle opened with wine lists. In the absence of these overwhelming forces, what will shape the restaurant scene?

An alarmist answer: 2006 was the year that the feared chain invasion of Center City was realized. Oceanaire, Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday and the Melting Pot opened within a single square mile of prime real estate, and the influx isn't over. These chains, with their time-tested business formulas, aren't a death knell for the city's independent restaurant scene, but they are strong proof of one thing: We're still hungry. Our restaurant scene has gaps that homegrown restaurants haven't filled, and there's money to be made in filling those holes. If the city's chefs and restaurateurs don't do it, someone else will.

But there's also a more optimistic answer to the question of where we're headed — one that says Philly has the potential to become a talked-about restaurant town, if the city's chefs and diners are willing to reach for it.

ASK ALMOST ANYONE WHO spends his or her time eating — food critic John Mariani of Esquire, cookbook author Aliza Green, chef Shola Olunloyo, former restaurateur David Fields, moderator Katie Loeb of eGullet — what Philadelphia's restaurant scene needs, and you'll get an unexpected answer: more Italian restaurants. Before you start ranting about red gravy, they'll qualify that response. “Philadelphia needs more good Italian restaurants,” Mariani says, by which he means more mid-priced joints that fit somewhere between upscale Vetri and South Philly monument Ralph's — the consistent and ambitious everyday trattorias that New York has by the dozen. (But we're not talking about New York.) The wish list is longer, of course: more middle-range ethnic restaurants, more accessible than Chinatown, more authentic than the city's swath of Asian fusion options; more gastro-pubs like Standard Tap; more dessert restaurants; more ingredient-focused cocktail bars; more price points. Not more talent, just more variety. “You know your city has arrived when it's well-rounded — when you're taking everything seriously from the beginning to the end, from the cocktails to the desserts,” Food & Wine editor Cowin says.

There's a place in a well-rounded Philadelphia restaurant scene for the BYOB — what city would give up on a Matyson or Pumpkin? — and there's a place for the Starr-studded restaurant, especially spots with Starr scope and a chef's attention to food, like booming Amada. But the same factors that gave rise to these archetypes and made the 1990s restaurant renaissance a success are now holding us back. We can't accomplish “more” without reconsidering precisely what has defined the scene for over a decade: the city's excitement about Center City; its devotion to fresh and local cuisine; its loyalty to hometown chefs.

This winter, the People Who Eat will get one — one — of their wishes when Osteria opens. Osteria could be that everyday trattoria. It shouldn't be a risk. It's Italian, in a city that reveres its Roman roots, and it's helmed by Philadelphia native Marc Vetri, whose first spot, Vetri, was the subject of Bon Appétit writer Alan Richman's essay “Is This the Best Italian Restaurant in America?” But Osteria is breaking three important Philadelphia restaurant rules: Location, location, location. It anchors newly constructed loft space near Broad and Fairmount. While it's no further from City Hall than Starr's original Continental, it's not in Center City. That's a tough mental obstacle for Philadelphians to overcome. Expanding our geographical boundaries, though, is as essential to the restaurant scene's survival as expanding Philadelphia diners' culinary boundaries. As rents rise in Center City, start-up restaurants will be pushed toward the fringes (see Marigold Kitchen, at a West Philly intersection you've never heard of), where there's more room for culinary experimentation — and more risk of failure.

For diners devoted to the critical mass of restaurants in Center City, even former Le Bec-Fin chef Daniel Stern's new Rae, which opened last month in the Cira Centre, is off the beaten path. His menu is also a departure from the Philadelphia norm. Stern, both at Gayle and at Rae, doesn't set forth a strictly fresh, local-food philosophy. Which isn't to say that his creative American food isn't fresh. And when local is best, that's what you'll find on your plate. “'Fresh and local' is only a beginning,” says Aliza Green, the Philly-based author of the cookbook Starting with Ingredients. “Philadelphia chefs need to combine fresh and local with creative or ethnic. 'Fresh and local' is not enough anymore.” No one is advocating that Philly chefs forsake the White Dog Cafe's “buy fresh, buy local” model, especially with the city's proximity to the abundant produce and meats of Lancaster County (an area some chefs compare to Napa or the Hudson Valley). But Stern's veal stew — a deconstructed “stew” of veal cuts with collard greens — tastes as good without a farmer pedigree. In fact, it was just named one of Food & Wine's best restaurant dishes of the year, on a list with entrées from San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Y—.

Okay, let's talk about New York. The country's culinary capital has become a dirty word on the local food scene. Blame Douglas Rodriguez, Masaharu Morimoto, Marcus Samuelsson, Alfred Portale and, most painfully, Christopher Lee. The celebrated chefs all came to Philadelphia to head Starr Restaurant Organization restaurants, but the gravitational pull of New York's kitchens reclaimed them, many before their influence on the Philadelphia scene could be felt. The most recent loss was Lee, who earned a 2006 Food & Wine Best New Chef nod while he was at Striped Bass. When Starr announced that he was hiring another “New York chef” to replace Lee in the Bass kitchen, an audible groan went up from restaurant-watchers. The last thing the city needs is another “commuter chef,” they wailed. But “New York chefs” disagree. New York chef Bobby Flay, who recently opened an Atlantic City Bobby Flay Steak, says the easy exchange of talent between New York and Philadelphia — when Lee left Philadelphia for New York's Gilt, avant-garde former Gilt chef Paul Liebrandt arrived to consult at Striped Bass — has put us on the culinary capital's food radar. Starr's foray into the NY dining scene, with redos of Buddakan and Morimoto, was another boost to our smaller city's rep. “Philadelphia is suddenly attractive to chefs,” Flay says. And for a restaurant scene, that can be more important than being attractive to diners. Even one successful chef creates a buzz in other cities' kitchens that this is the place to be, now.

TELL ME YOU ARE OPENING a restaurant in Philadelphia, and I can't tell you what it should be. The types of restaurants that will move Philly's scene forward simply don't exist yet. We can look to other cities for inspiration, of course. Who wouldn't want to see an Alinea? Chicago's chemist-chef Grant Achatz has entranced the country with his thoughtful gimmicks — his PB&J is grapes wrapped in peanut butter — and, more important, inspired a host of chefs similarly dedicated to understanding taste at the most basic, molecular level. There's room, too, for a Milk and Honey, NYC's vanguard of the chef-bartender; and a Tartine, San Francisco's attention-to-every-detail bread and pastry bakery. But ultimately, the restaurants that will rescue this city must be uniquely Philadelphian.

Destinations like New Orleans and Miami have always had food identities as strong as their colorful cultures, and the country's of-the-moment dining scenes are similarly, if more subtly, reflective of their cities' stories. Portland's most interesting restaurants are highly personal projects, fitting the ethos of that individualistic West Coast city. Chicago's triumphs are edgier, with a painterly flair that mirrors the city's prominent arts scene. San Francisco's restaurants are as open-minded as its diners. While the thought is scrumptious, simply copying other cities' successes won't be enough.

Philly's future is already in its kitchens. It's in big, chef-driven restaurants like Osteria and Rae, and in little storefront spots with notable wine lists. It's in the cuisines of lesser-known food neighborhoods, like the burgeoning Mexican, Israeli and Brazilian communities stretching along Roosevelt Boulevard through the Northeast, and in culinary innovations we haven't even seen yet. The choice lies with us: Will we — the city's chefs and diners — embrace these new flavors, or will we order the usual, again?