One of the many great things about living in Philadelphia is the embarrassment of riches that is the city’s dining scene. Longtime residents can recite the history that led to this delightful state, beginning with the 1970s “Restaurant Renaissance” and building from there to the present. Philadelphians today enjoy a dazzling variety of eateries, from greasy spoons to elegant establishments, that offer cuisine from around the world and close to home in settings from relaxed to super-formal and at prices that suit every budget.
That scene is constantly changing, too, as new chefs try out new ideas and established names branch out in new directions. One notable local trend this year was the opening of a raft of restaurants that feature local ingredients, like The Farm and the Fisherman and The Farmer’s Cabinet in Washington Square West and Kennett off South Street. Dining impresario Stephen Starr gave Center City its first authentic English pub with The Dandelion, which opened this past summer, and another new Starr-backed establishment, Talula’s Garden, proved an immediate sensation with critics and diners when it opened on Washington Square later in the year.
Your blogger wasn’t quite able to sample all the delicious developments in Philly’s dining scene this year. But with some help from friends, we’ve been able to put together a list of 10 places – some old, some new – that consistently deliver excellent food with good service in a great atmosphere. Here, then, are Philly Living’s 10 favorite Philadelphia restaurants of 2011, in no particular order:
Han Dynasty, 108 Chestnut Street, Old City. The in-town outpost of the highly regarded Sichuan restaurant in Exton never disappoints. From mild to wild, the dishes are consistently well executed. Go with a group and be sure to share – it will be an education for your palate.
Opa, 1311 Sansom Street, Midtown Village/Washington Square West. This moderately priced newcomer offers contemporary interpretations of classic Greek fare in a casually stylish setting. Not out for a full meal? Try one of their excellent appetizers at the bar, which has a creative cocktail menu and several great local brews on tap.
City Tap House, 3925 Walnut Street, University City. Sure, you will be sharing the space with Penn students on a bender, but there’s plenty of room for everyone in its large, modern-rustic dining room. There’s also an outdoor terrace in good weather. Craft beers and fresh seasonal ingredients go together like hand in glove at this eatery, which capitalizes on Philadelphia’s reputation as one of the best beer cities in America.
Friday Saturday Sunday, 261 South 21st Street, Rittenhouse Square. This sole survivor of the Restaurant Renaissance still “loves you every night.” It’s also still the best place in town for a romantic dinner date, with its intimate size and still-funky decor. Its kitchen is still producing simple yet elegant dishes with flair, 37 years on, and it still has the lowest markup on wine in the city – every bottle only $10 over cost.
PYT, 1050 North Hancock Street, Northern Liberties. What’s a burger joint doing on this list? Constantly experimenting, that’s what. Legendary party promoter Tommy Up’s uber-casual burger joint/lounge/club in the Piazza at Schmidt’s continually turns out new, creative, and sometimes flat-out weird variations on the classic burger, with a different featured burger each week. Past creations include the Krispy Kreme Burger, the Chicken & Waffle Burger, and the Korean Short Rib Burger, which proved such a hit it was added to the permanent menu. Needless to say, this is not a place for the health- or weight-conscious.
Le Virtu, 1927 East Passsyunk Avenue, South Philadelphia. All Abruzze, all the time, made the old-fashioned way with all the local ingredients the owners can get their hands on. House-cured meats and fresh pasta are among the stars at this anchor of the East Passyunk Avenue restaurant row.
Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge, 1227 Sansom Street, Midtown Village/Washington Square West; 1050 North Hancock Street, Northern Liberties; Cafe Boyd’s, inside the men’s wear store at 1818 Chestnut Street, Rittenhouse Square. This stylish contemporary Japanese restaurant, which recently opened a second outpost at the Piazza, loves to play with its signature dish. If you like it raw, you will love what the sushi masters here do with rice, fish and vegetables. The cooked entrees aren’t bad either.
Osteria, 640 North Broad Street, Fairmount. Marc Vetri’s more casual Italian dining spot is every bit as outstanding as his justly famous small restaurant on Spruce Street, but easier to get into and somewhat easier on the wallet. It’s a must-visit for pizza lovers as well, as the pies on the menu are the best in the city. Of special note is the Lombarda,with Cotechino sausage, two cheeses and a fried egg atop a delicate crispy crust.
Los Taquitos de Puebla, 1149 South Ninth Street, Italian Market/Bella Vista. The influx of immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Puebla is perhaps the best thing that’s happened to the Italian Market in years, and this unassuming taqueria is a happy product of that phenomenon. Cheap and delicious, their tacos de pastor are the best in town. More adventurous eaters will find on the menu dishes made from parts of the cow you probably never thought edible: anyone for ojos or cabeza de res?
Picanha Grill, 6501 Castor Avenue, Castor Gardens. Like Fogo de Chao, this Brazilian churrascuria in the Northeast is run by actual Brazilians. And like Fogo, it features a salad bar and a dine-till-you-drop parade of succulent meats. But unlike Fogo, you can enjoy all this without taking out a loan for your meal: the all-you-can-eat experience here costs a mere $25.
Bonus: Oyster House, 1516 Sansom Street, Rittenhouse Square. Sam Mink, the third generation of the Philadelphia family behind the legendary Kelly’s of Mole Street, took his family’s old-school seafood restaurant and lightened it up. The bright, open dining room still sports the knickknacks that have graced its walls since 1976, but just about everything else is new and improved, including the best lobster roll outside New England. Don’t miss the buck-a-shuck oyster special at the bar at happy hour.