Eating out in Philadelphia once or twice a week has never been easier. With restaurants on just about every block, you can't help but to be a bit adventurous from time to time. The challenge, however, is to broaden your horizons and go beyond the "tried and true" favorites where you know your chances of getting a good meal are pretty high and going into an unknown atmosphere.
For me, those are often the best meals, the ones where you have that moment of surprise when you try something new or something better or something just done differently than you have ever seen it before. And essentially, that was part of the point of this year's challenge, to get out there and see what the Philadelphia restaurant scene has to offer. In addition, it challenged me to go off the beaten path and explore places I had never heard of or seen before and probably would never have otherwise discovered. While I don't believe I reviewed a meal outside of the city limits (despite putting a number of suburban outposts up for vote), at least half of the places we ended up going are not trendy or well known or even convenient to get to. But part of the fun was discovering new neighborhoods and walking into a strange space without any expectations. We dove deep into south Philly, headed out to the Northeast and Mount Airy, and circled back and forth to Queen's Village, Northern Liberties, and Rittenhouse Square a number of times.
So how did we do foodwise? A mixed bag. Actually, all in all, there were probably more misses than hits, and two of the best meals I had all year weren't even in the review rotation (Dinosaur BBQ in the Bronx and Bolete in Bethlehem). But there were several standouts that I remember well -- the cheesesteak at John's Roast Pork, the gnocchi at Cucina Forte, and even the most recent lava rock shrimp at Zocalo. These are the types of dishes that always encourage me to walk into new surroundings and give new places a try. There is nothing wrong with the old reliable, but there is something fun and exciting about trying something different.
A lot of restaurant reviewers will rate a restaurant with letter grades or stars or bells, but in my mind, the question is always, "Would I go back there again?" So with that in mind, here in my year in review:
So Long To
- Azul Cantina -- Surprisingly, the only place on our list to shutter its doors was the first visit. Azul Cantina closed less than a month after we visited and has since reopened as VargaBar.
- Hymie's -- Old World Jewish deli the way it was meant to me. Huge sandwiches, great matzo ball soup, and just enough yentas to make you laugh as they kvech at the wait staff.
- John's Roast Pork -- If I had to pick a favorite from among the 26 places on the yearly jaunt, this would be it. It is the kind of place that makes Philadelphia great. The best cheesesteak I have ever had -- the sesame seed roll, the perfectly melted cheese, the perfectly seasoned steak. I makes me hungry just thinking about it. Part of me wishes John's had more accessible hours, but part of me also likes that you have to make an effort to get there for weekday lunch. I can't say enough good things about this tiny South Philly shack.
- Oyster House -- I went back with an ex (ex co-worker, that is) and was pretty disappointed. The oysters are exceptional, but my meal was bad. I'd still go back but probably only for the Happy Hour bivalves.
- Cucina Forte -- The gnocchi was divine, just melt in your mouth good.
- Meme -- If nothing else, I need to try the Thursday lunch fried chicken.
- Vetri -- It's just very pricey, but it's worth the splurge for a very special occasion.
- Geechee Girl Rice Cafe -- The wife didn't like it, but I did.
- Kanella -- If only because our waiter was the best one we had all year.
- Noble American Kitchen -- Beautiful space, ghastly prices, good food.
- Parc -- I suspect someone will drag me back one of these days, though I personally was not impressed.
- Memphis Taproom -- Worst meal I had all year, but too many friends have raved about this place so I'd be willing to give it another shot.
- Restaurant School at Walnut Hill School -- You get your money's worth, but I'd only go later in the semester when the student workers have a little more experience under their belt.
- Sweet Lucy's -- Good food, just too far of a drive.
- Uzu Sushi -- I liked everything about Uzu, but it's a crowded field for sushi in the city right now.
- Wine Thief -- It's just a hike from Center City and not really exceptional enough to justify a trip out to Mount Airy. I liked Geechee Girl better.
- Zocalo -- Very good Mexican, but very iffy location.
- Branzino -- You can do far better near Rittenhouse.
- Divan's Turkish Kitchen -- One of the nicest interiors I saw all year, but inferior food.
- Erawan -- Not a good vibe.
- Fuji Mountain -- See Uzu Sushi.
- Imperial Inn -- Not a big fan of their cleanliness.
- Le Virtu -- I liked this more than some others, but it's not special enough to stand out among more convenient Italian BYOs.
- 10 Arts -- Biggest disappointment of the year.
- Kong -- Blech.
- Novito Bistro -- They just weren't very nice people.
So what comes next? I have some ideas, though I'll probably take a break for a few weeks. Writing thousands of words for public consumption over the last year has taken its toll -- it became more and more difficult to become motivated to write comprehensive reviews these last few months. Certainly, though, we'll do something a little bit different that will hopefully be enjoyable to write and to read. I guess we'll see.