It’s a good time to be in the restaurant business in Philadelphia, and also a good time to be a restaurant customer — there have never before been so many good places to eat or drink in so many areas of the city. That doesn’t meant government and restaurateur always see eye-to-eye, and this year saw a few dust-ups in that regard, from zoning regulations to what happened during the Pope’s historic visit. So without further ado, here’s an overview of the Philly restaurant world in 2015.
Midtown Village and East Passyunk continue their streaks
A decade ago, 13th Street in Wash West was full of laundromats and check-cashing spots, and East Passyunk was a mostly sleepy has-been with a few old-school trattorias. Times have changed, and this year saw both neighborhoods continuing to add more restaurants.
In January, Midtown Village welcomed wacky-hip lodge Franky Bradley’s from Silk City’s Mark Bee. U-Bahn, the below-ground sister to Bru Craft & Wurst, joined in March. Turney/Safran throwback Americana spot Bud & Marilyn’s opened in August, and Zavino cousin Tredici began service in November. Coffee shop/izakaya Double Knot from Michael Schulson is on tap very soon. The one downer was the September arson of the in-progress French spot from former Tashan chef Sylva Senat — no word on whether that project will move forward or not, at this point.
East Passyunk newcomers included February’s Bing Bing Dim Sum, the unorthodox dumpling house from the creators of Cheu Noodle Bar, and P’unk Burger from the Slice pizzeria crew. April brought Gennaro’s Tomato Pie to the Ave (originally called Grace & Pat’s), and May was all about hipster red gravy with the relaunch of Triangle Tavern. August brought the surprise runaway hit of the year: Sam Jacobson’s Stargazy, serving classic British meat pies with mash and parsley liquor.
Taco mania takes hold
In addition to the fact that you can now order (really good) tacos at something like 50 percent of restaurants in Philadelphia, non-Mexican taco shops are proliferating at a rapid clip.
Sylva Senat’s fancy French restaurant may have burned down, but his tiny Dos Tacos is rocking at 15th and Sansom. Peter McAndrews, of Modo Mio and Paesano’s renown, went the tortilla route with window-service Heffe in Fishtown. Jose Garces got into it with Baja-inspired spot Buena Onda on Callowhill, Nicole Marquis focused on tacos for Bar Bombon in Rittenhouse, and the couple behind the Cambridge and Hawthornes looked to tacos as the base of their new Tio Flores on South Street West. Authentic Mexican taquerias also got a new standard to chase, when South Philly Barbacoa made the move from truck to permanent location in South Philly.
A regional brewpub boom
The number of breweries in the U.S. reached an all-time high this autumn, topping the previous record of 4,131, set all the way back in 1873. It’s possible that soon, nearly every neighborhood in America will have its own brewpub.
Around here, Crime & Punishment opened the doors to its Brewerytown tasting room in July, following the February launch of Boxcar Brewing’s West Chester pub and April’s openings of both Tired Hands Fermentaria (in Ardmore) and Victory at Magnolia (in Kennett Square). Victory doubled down with the November launch of a brewpub at its Parkesburg brewery. Up for 2016 are Nodding Head (Point Breeze), Brewery ARS (West Passyunk), Bar Hygge/Brewery Techne (Fairmount) and a new tasting room from Forest & Main (Ambler).
Food truck kerfluffles
Running a food truck is harder than it looks. There’s a lower upfront cost than a brick-and-mortar spot, but the work can be uncomfortable, the hours are long, and regulations are restrictive. Philly’s mobile food flock ran up against a few new challenges this year.
In May, the rotating list of vendors who had signed up to vend outside 30th Street Station learned they wouldn’t be continuing the service any longer. University City District instead partnered with Michael Schulson and Groundswell Design Group — who impressed with their al fresco Independence Beer Garden — to create something more permanent there. The result ended up being attractive and popular, but not before truck owners expressed displeasure that they were losing one of few legal vending spots and patrons voiced disappointment over losing variety in lunchtime options.
New regulations also threatened to limit truck diversity a few blocks away near Drexel University. A pending ordinance would have restructured the area around 33rd and Arch/33rd and Market to make it more static, assigning trucks to specific spots and reducing their number. Once the public found out about it, they raised an uproar on social media, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell withdrew her bill. Changes are still on the table, but the Councilwoman is first holding meetings with all the players, including the Mobile Food Truck Association and the Drexel administration.
Chef Eli Kulp paralyzed in Amtrak 188 crash
On the evening of May 12, Northeast Regional train Amtrak 188 zipped around a bend in Northeast Philly at speeds that were way too high, causing seven New York-bound train cars to derail. Eight people were killed and hundreds suffered injuries of various degree.
Eli Kulp, chef and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group (Fork, High Street on Market, a.kitchen), was one of those whose injury was incredibly serious. When he was tossed from his seat, his neck hit the luggage rack, immediately immobilizing his arms and legs. He was eventually dragged out from the rubble and taken to the hospital, where he underwent rush surgery to stabilize his neck. There was nothing doctors could do to prevent the paralysis, it turned out. But nobody outside his immediate circle knew that for several weeks while he went through rehabilitation.
Thanks to Kulp’s business partner, veteran restaurateur Ellen Yin, and the talented and capable staff they had already assembled, all of the restaurants he co-owned continued to operate, maintaining their stellar reputations. Fundraisers brought in more than $150,000 to help the Kulps defray medical costs, but it’s still not nearly enough to pay the bills they’ll face, we found out in late July, when Eli prepared to move back home. They have filed suit against Amtrak to help cover the mounting costs.
Despite the hardships, Kulp has continued to collaborate with Yin and his co-workers, and Dec. 21 brings the impressive launch of their next restaurant, High Street on Hudson, the group’s first in NYC.
Point Breeze Pop-Up Garden drama
Real estate developer (and SPTR and American Sardine Bar owner) John Longacre had the idea to turn an unused empty lot in Point Breeze into a pop-up beer garden for the summer. He asked local elected officials and some community groups for input, and it seemed like everyone was in favor. Not so fast.
Soon after it opened, a group of nearby residents voiced loud complaints at a tense community meeting. Six weeks later, a cease and desist order for improper zoning was slapped on the spot by the Department of Licenses and Inspections, forcing the beer garden to temporarily shut down. Longacre sued, and Philadelphia Municipal Court agreed that his access to due process had been violated, allowing the garden to reopen. L&I then appealed that ruling to Commonwealth Court, putting the shutdown back into effect, but within a week, a municipal judge granted an emergency injunction that let the beer start flowing again while the appeal was pending. Several weeks later, the season ended, so it was all pretty much moot, and the garden officially closed. Longacre has plans to develop the site as part of a retail rejuvenation project along Point Breeze Avenue.
Philly’s craft beer scene turns 20
Two decades ago, independent breweries were just beginning to find their footing in American markets long-dominated by big macro brands, and a cluster popped up around Philadelphia all at the same time. NJ’s Flying Fish was first in 1994, and then Yards launched on a Manayunk back alley in April of 1995. Easton, Pa.’s Weyerbacher came online that May, and Delaware’s Dogfish Head started production that June. October brought Pottstown’s Sly Fox into the picture, and Victory joined the party in Downingtown just after the start of the New Year, in January 1996.
Pope week is a big restaurant bust
Pope Francis thrilled crowds that numbered close to a million when he graced Philadelphia with his presence in September, but local businesspeople were less sanguine about his historic trip. Although the city and World Meeting of Family officials originally touted the visit as bringing an economic boom, things turned out very differently. Restaurants, bars and cafes that had been advised to stock up on extra supplies found themselves empty, as residents fled the region and the visiting pilgrims eschewed sit-down dining rooms. By the end of the weekend, many places reported record low sales and were sitting on leftover food that threatened to go to waste. On the bright side, some were able to connect with organizations that helped redistribute the food to hungry people in need.
Philly restaurant critics become less anonymous
A recent movement has seen professional restaurant critics around the country shed their anonymity, long a standard prerequisite for the job. Arguments in favor include the fact that many chefs and restaurateurs have their pictures and already know who they are, and that dining room service and kitchen performance can’t turn on a dime if they show up unannounced, anyway. While the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan continues to protect his anonymous status with trademark ferocity, others in the Philly area have dropped the veil.
City Paper restaurant critic Adam Erace scored a Food Network show with his brother and Green Aisle Grocery partner Andrew Erace, so his face all over TV meant his anonymity went out the window. Of course, the CP has shut down, so that’s no longer an issue, but Erace does still review Philly spots for Cherry Hill’s Courier-Post.
Philly Mag’s Trey Popp had been one of the most successful at hiding his identity, but in September the magazine announced he was gone and would be replaced by food editor Jason Sheehan. Sheehan has been working in the area for four years, so yes, everyone in the industry knows his face. If you’re thinking that might affect how fair or accurate his reviews are, your consolation is that he himself isn’t worried about it.
Urban Outfitters acquires the Vetri Family
In November, Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin dropped a bombshell: After 17 years building an independent restaurant group, they and their partners were selling it to Urban Outfitters, Inc. All Vetri Family properties — with the exception of original fine-dining gem Vetri — will become part of a new branch of URBN. Vetri and Benjamin will run that subsidiary company, along with culinary directors Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence, and will also oversee all food and beverage for Urban Outfitters.
For the Vetri partners, the move was all about streamlining expansion and making it easier for staff to keep advancing within the company. As part of URBN, they have access to a slate of engineers, designers and real estate specialists to help them expand existing concepts like Pizzeria Vetri (an Austin shop just opened and a DC lease has been signed). They also have a whole department to handle things like human resources and payroll, freeing up Vetri and Benjamin to focus more on what’s actually going on at the restaurants.
For Urban Outfitters, the acquisition made it easier to follow a strategy they were already pursuing. Retail traffic is down because people now shop on the internet, but the one thing you can’t do online is go out to eat. So opening restaurants near storefronts is a surefire way to increase foot traffic. Wall Street didn’t immediately understand this facet of the deal, and URBN stock took a brief hit after the Vetri announcement, but soon bounced back.