West Philadelphia Restaurant Preview

From food-friendly bars to high-quality quick-service spots and even top-shelf chains, they're growing restaurants on the streets of Penn — and beyond

With all the restaurants planning to open in the next few months, it doesn’t seem like the economy hasn’t had quite the jarring effect on Philly’s restaurant industry that it’s had in other cities. Maybe it’s because so many of these projects were planned pre-economic Armageddon, or maybe it’s because — I’d like to believe — that the one thing Philadelphians won’t sacrifice is good eats.

Regardless, while planning out my next few months of eating, a trend appeared: Lots of these new places are slotted to open (or have already opened) in West Philly. Now, it’s true that the majority of them fall into two very college-campus-like categories — bar or quick-service spots — but it’s really the quality that’s impressive.

In terms of bars, the people behind Public House will open Tap House in the modern apartment complex The Radian; The Blockley will have 36 tapped beers, bar food and live music, and is set to open soon on 38th and Ludlow; and Local 44 is a bar at 44th and Spruce that’s been open for a few months from two of the co-owners of Memphis Taproom.

But it doesn’t end at the suds. Already established Philly quick-service spots are expanding their empires across the river: Capogiro is planning a fourth location in The Radian, and Naked Chocolate opened in February on Walnut at 34th Street. More sit-down-type eateries are following suit. A third location of the Japanese spot Tampopo is set to open this spring at 44th and Spruce, Benny Lai is opening another Vietnam at 47th and Baltimore (in the former Abbrachio), Avram Hornik (who owns Drinker’s and Lucy’s) is planning a pizza place called Duo at 39th and Chestnut.

While we might not always love chain restaurants, they are undeniably an indicator of a neighborhood’s vitality. Bobby’s Burger Palace — a spot from Bobby Flay — is said to be expanding his fledgling chain to Penn’s campus, and the Philadelphia Business Journal reported last spring that Wagamama, a rapidly expanding international noodle bar, is looking for a UCity location. DP Dough, a stays-open-till-2-a.m. calzone restaurant, is coming to 40th between Chestnut and Market, and Chipotle made its Philadelphia foray in January.

When I spoke to Lori Klein Brennan, director of marketing and communications for the UCity District, she pointed out that a bunch of independent coffee shops — like Lovers and Madmen, Cafe Clave, Madrid Cafe, and Cream and Sugar — have also opened up in the past year. So how did this area become such a culinary hotbed? Lori has some theories.

First, Penn and Drexel have made a push to make University City a year-round market by brining students to campus (and keeping them there) in the summer and offering incentives for faculty to live in the area. Retailers and restaurants have taken notice, and it’s not just the quantity, but also the quality, of the new places that are opening. Lastly, the Penn-partnered successful Penn Alexander Public School has brought a lot of families to the area, making it a desirable neighborhood. The University City District works hard to promote the diversity within their dining scene and runs promotions like Dining Days to make people think of the area as a viable food neighborhood. But Lori pointed out, it may even be a whole lot simpler than that: It just feels and is safer. And that is priceless.