Center City East Restaurants: The 2009 Philly Mag 50

Old City | Spanish | Entrée: Under $13–$21
Ranking: 8 • Last Year’s Ranking: 4
Nearly four years after its debut, Jose ­Garces’s flagship is still one of our restaurant scene’s crown jewels. While other eating places have lost relevance, Amada continues to set the bar high for stylish but fun fine dining. The place is somehow equally perfect for a peaceful early-evening albarino paired with the city’s best charcuterie (still sliced to order) or a rowdy night out with a gaggle of pals. Its dim light, gauzy fabrics and dark wood make it simultaneously sexy and serene. Amada has always been a restaurant that knows what it is: authentic Spanish tapas. And in a city where new restaurants can lose their luster fast, it remains one of the best—and most reliable—spots in town. Order: Tortilla Espanola. 217 Chestnut Street, 215-625-2450. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Center City | Indian | Entrée: $18—$24
Ranking: 11 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
When chef Marcie Turney and partner Valerie Safran opened their chic no-reservations bistro a year ago, they weren’t trying to reproduce Tiffin or Café Spice or any type of buffet. For their fourth business on the block, the pair planned a 54-seat Indian bistro in the same vein (charming, nouveau, authentic) as Mexican BYOB Lolita, gourmet market Grocery, and shelter boutique Open House. They’ve succeeded. Bindi is indeed charming, with modern pearlescent chandeliers. It’s also nouveau: Green cardamom, lime juice and mango puree make up the rum mixer. And it’s authentic, transforming traditional spice blends, street food and classic vindaloo, curry, masala, paneer and roti into fare that’s refined yet comforting, exotic yet accessible—and easily some of the best Indian in town. Order: Bengali-spiced roast duck pani puri. 105 South 13th Street, 215-922-6061. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee Menu

Bistro 7
Old City | Contemporary | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 31 • Last Year’s Ranking: 23
Chef/owner Michael O’Halloran is poised to expand his culinary reach in Philadelphia—an Asian-focused restaurant is in the works—but his Old City oasis (we love the tonal faux-bois art) isn’t scaling back. In fact, more than ever, items are being made from scratch in the restaurant’s pint-size kitchen. And while we’ve always loved the freshly baked breads, the charcuterie course—with items like braised-rabbit-and-truffle terrines and wild boar rillettes smoked, cured and prepared on the premises—caught our attention. But of course, this kitchen has time to experiment, since so many stalwart items—like the billowy potato gnocchi—have been perfected. Order: The seasonal salad—it’s always well-sized, well-dressed, and way beyond a house-salad standard. 7 North 3rd Street, 215-931-1560. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Old City | Latin-Chinese | Entrée: $21—$30
Ranking: 16 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
Jose Garces’s latest restaurant filters his popular small-plates approach through the multifaceted lens of the melting-pot cuisine of Peru, where Asian/Latin-American fusion restaurants have proliferated. But don’t expect Chifa to stray too far from the proven Garces formula, starting with the sort of sultry atmosphere we’ve come to expect. With its low light, painted tiles, and semi-private corner booths wrapped in beads, it doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the food, in which Asian touches and masterful preparation are intriguing enough to keep us coming back. Don’t be intimidated by the hard-to-decipher menu—servers here can explain everything. And the cultures that have influenced these dishes (Japanese, Chinese, French) make even the strangest-sounding dishes taste deliciously familiar. Order: Pork belly buns. 707 Chestnut Street, 215-925-5555. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

El Vez
Center City | Mexican | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking 47 • Last Year’s Ranking: 35
El Vez always catches us by surprise: The funhouse and drinkery can turn out complex and polished food. We just wish it would be more consistent, so that the creamy open-face shrimp quesadilla, the many gaucamole options, the sweet-corn, lobster and crab enchiladas and the well-charred, meant-for-sharing tacos al carbon were as good as we know they can be, each and every time. No matter; the crowd-­friendly, just-­different-enough dishes (that are composed with care) and always-a-party vibe make every visit satisfying. Order: The tacos for two—the sizzling table-top grill they arrive on makes for a lot of drama, and a whole lot of food. 121 South 13th Street, 215-928-9800. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Old City | New American | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 30 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
We’ve always loved Fork. It’s uncomplicated in the best of ways, with its New American food, cordial and urbane vibe, and realistic prices. (Not to mention that it has one of our favorite bars to eat at in the city.) But it was the recent addition of chef Terrence Feury that reestablished the restaurant’s original intent by bringing the food up to par with the ambience. His ever-changing menu lets his expert cooking techniques and unfussy approach shine, meshing global influences (house-made blood sausage with sauerkraut; duck confit; lemon ricotta fritters) that never stray from the modern-American mission. And it’s a welcome one: In an era of themed-to-the-death and small-plate eateries, this easy restaurant is a breath of fresh (but classic) air that gives weight to our dining scene. Order: Appetizers and the crispy-skinned roast chicken. 306 Market Street, 215-625-9425. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Washington Square | Greek | Entrées: $13-$20
Ranking: 44 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
Kanella’s “dips of the day” appetizer—three beige blobs served with soft pita—doesn’t look like much. But the minute the creamy, fish-roe-infused taramosalata passes your lips, you’ll know this isn’t the usual humdrum restaurant dip. Nor is it a typical Greek-restaurant-menu item—but this is no typical Greek restaurant. It’s Cypriot, like its obsessive chef, Konstantinos Pitsillides, who stays true to the time-honored cooking traditions of his native Mediterranean  island. This BYO is so food-focused that service snafus are common, but, like the rustic dishes that are mostly simply grilled or braised, they add to the authentic magic. Order: Whole grilled fish. 1001 Spruce Street, 215-922-1773. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other Details

Center City | Mexican | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 45 • Last Year’s Ranking: 48
When owners Valerie Safran and chef Marcie Turney’s tiny, shiny, rustic-chic Mexican BYOB opened five years ago, they immediately faced comparisons to the bright lights and big salads of also new, also Mexican, also on 13th Street El Vez. But they didn’t have much to worry about, because Lolita’s lines are out the door nightly. Their stylish first-come, first-seated (on weekends) patrons can’t get enough of the gently tweaked, deeply flavored Mexican fare—or the pitchers of in-season fruit juices that make for the city’s yummiest DIY margaritas. Order: Pulled chicken tamal.106 South 13th Street, 215-546-7100. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other Details

Washington Square | Japanese | Entrée: $21—$30
Ranking 13 • Last Year’s Ranking: 10
It’s neither the newest nor the flashiest of ­Stephen Starr’s restaurants, but ­Morimoto remains his best. To be sure, the ­seven-and-a-half-year-old Japanese hot spot is a splurge (since when is a cup of miso worth $7?), but it’s also the biggest fish in Philly’s sea of sushi spots, and rightly so, given its smart Tokyo-mod decor and a toro tartare with caviar that alone is worth the trip. It’s widely known that the restaurant’s namesake, Masaharu Morimoto, is rarely in the Philly flagship; he’s usually at the New York outpost or fulfilling his Iron Chef duties. No matter. The food is beautifully executed, be it tidy little rows of sashimi or more complex dishes like the “Duck, duck, duck”—a trio of mellow roasted duck breast, rich confit risotto and a runny-yolked duck egg. And the ­service—attentive, practiced, confident—is some of the best in the city. Ask for Benjamin. Order: The Morimoto omakase, which at $120 is pricey but worth it. 723 Chestnut Street, 215-413-9070. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Union Trust
Old City | New American | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 29 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
Union Trust—one of the city’s few non-chain steakhouses—bills itself as a place built for Philadelphia. But we appreciate the luxe restaurant’s unwavering pursuit of perfection and modern yet personality-filled vibe even more than the soft-pretzel rolls it serves in its bread basket. Service is top-notch: A battalion of waiters fusses over diners, swapping out white cloth napkins for black if you’re wearing dark clothing, crumbing the table obsessively between courses, and expertly recommending wine pairings. The straightforward steakhouse fare is just what you crave: a richly beefy rib eye, a juicy pork chop, perfectly cooked bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts, decadent German chocolate cake. Yes, like most steakhouses, a meal here is pricey. But at Union Trust, you can count on getting what you pay for. Order: Bone-in rib eye. 717 Chestnut Street, 215-925-6000. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsMake a Reservation

Center City | Italian | Entrée: More than $30
Ranking 2 • Last Year’s Ranking: 7
Marc Vetri says all he wants is for diners to remember what a great time they had at his namesake Spruce Street spot. While that philosophy may seem uncomplicated, executing it is anything but. Vetri is now in its 11th year, and the culinary missteps of meals past (like a lackluster squab) are gone, thanks to a talented team of servers led by sommelier and business partner Jeffrey Benjamin and a kitchen championed by Vetri’s trusted chef, Brad Spence. Here, luxury is redefined with a provincial approach, but despite the carefree air the place exudes, everything is intricately planned, and nothing is overlooked. Mouthwatering pastas are draped in sauces like beefy rib-cap ragu; bay scallops are so tender, they masquerade as gnocchi; and the gnocchi are a weightless version of the doughy puffs you thought you knew. Of course, all this approachability has its price: The weekend tasting menu is $135, and the scant 35 seats make nabbing reservations hard. But it’s still the finest dining in an ain’t-no-big-thing vibe that makes Vetri the cornerstone of our current, groundbreaking restaurant era. Order: The house-cured sausage.312 Spruce Street, 215-732-3478. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

China Town | Vietnamese | Entrées: $13-$20
Ranking: 39 • Last Year’s Ranking: 28
Your unadventurous parents, your foodie friends, your kids … you can take anyone to Vietnam. And people do. This Chinatown standby with a distinctly un-Chinatown ambience (polished hardwoods, a modern decor) perennially has a 30-­minute weekend waitlist. That’s thanks to things like the behemoth BBQ platter—Vietnam’s equivalent of a greatest-hits album—packed with grape leaves, lettuce-wrap fixin’s and savory grilled meatballs. It’s also thanks to aromatic broths, searing curries, and saucy pan-fried noodles. Flavors here always shine, even in the $6 dishes. (Indeed, the least-fancy food is generally the best.) Order: Wait upstairs at Bar Saigon and get the embarrassingly ostentatious Flaming Volcano cocktail for two. (It’s delicious, we swear.)221 North 11th Street, 215-592-1163. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee Menu

Old City | Israeli | Entrèes: $13-$20
Ranking: 1 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
Just when we think we’ve seen it all, Zahav comes along and introduces us to the haute side of Israeli food — a cuisine we barely knew existed beyond falafel. But it’s more than just the novel, national-attention-garnering concept that earned Zahav the prime spot on this year’s list. The room is sophisticated, yet energetic and unpretentious; the attentive (if quirky) servers are engaging; and we have yet to find a situation (out-of-towners, business deals, mother-in-law dinners, girls’ night out, romantic dates, picky eaters, snacks-at-the-bar) for which this restaurant isn’t a perfect pick.

But while the scene is set, it’s the food — which is really ethnic-turned-approachable—chef Michael Solomonov creates that steals the show. We debate which of the four hummus options is best (the answer obviously being all), and agree there’s no better way to start a meal than with the salad tasting. There are options for those who look for something atypical — smooth chopped liver on rye toast, whole roasted lamb shoulder, spices like sumac—but the skewers of beef, house-made sausage, eggplant or chicken have something everyone loves: a hot-off-the-grill, addictive charred flavor. Order: The hummus is a must, as are the just-pulled-from-the-wood-oven flatbreads to scoop it up with. 237 Saint James Place, 215-625-8800. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

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