Hot new restaurants get all the buzz, but places that withstand the test of time deserve plaudits, too. How’d they manage to make it through the years of ups and downs and surprises and unknowns and low margins and rotating staff and shifting trends and fickle diners?
Often, it isn’t by rigidly staying the same, but by embracing change. Here are five classic Philly restaurants that successfully refreshed or reinvented themselves this year.
200 S. Broad St.
When the steakhouse in the Bellevue shut down for renovations in March 2016, there was a lot of skepticism about whether it would actually reopen. Company execs got calls and emails by the dozen from people sure it was done for good. Admittedly, its reputation as the city’s main see-and-be-seen dining spot was receding faster than the hairlines of celebrities memorialized in the caricatures on the walls.
Demise predictors were wrong. Just over a year after doors closed, they reopened, ushering in a second life for the Center City chops-and-seafood hub. Higher ceilings, luxe modern decor, an integrated bar and a new edition of boldface wall portraits helped the restaurant regain its status as a destination for Philly luminaries, from politicians and lawyers to entertainers and socialites. They come for the giant martinis, the extensive wine list and the giant cuts of pricey beef.
1312 Spruce St.
Not like Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin’s original dining venture ever lost its luster, but the Italian fine dining destination underwent several changes this year. To an outsider, they were subtle, but each had a notable effect or meaning.
The first adjustment was the name. For its first 18½ years, the spot was officially Vetri Ristorante. The switch to “Cucina” — Italian for “kitchen” — speaks to the increasing breadth of operations in the restaurant’s rowhouse. There’s still a dining room serving plated meals, but there’s also a show kitchen hosting cooking classes, plus a milling room for heirloom grain research.
Another change in 2017: Regularly opening for Friday lunch, something that in the past had just been a pop-up offering. Will the new Vetri Vegas offer lunch, too? Unknown, but the announcement that one of Philly’s most beloveds would allow itself to be duplicated in Sin City was a bit of a paradigm shift. Last new thing: After stepping down from his position at URBN, Marc Vetri himself is now back in the kitchen nearly full-time.
261 S. 21st St.
Ok, so the reimagining of this four-decade Rittenhouse mainstay actually relaunched in the last month of 2016, but 2017 was the year it established credibility and spread its wings. Originally opened in the 1970s, the bi-level hamlet was one of the early bright spots for Center City nightlife, always busy and buzzing on its namesake days of the week, and then some. In April 2015, with a whole ecosystem of bars and restaurants competing for their customers, the original owners sold.
The new proprietors, young couple chef Chad and Hanna Williams, kept the name but revamped almost everything else in the place. Instead of being upstairs, the bar was moved to the ground floor (where it serves cocktails based on the Fibonacci sequence) and the entire space was refinished. The new look is much sleeker, with white walls and smooth marble, but it still pays homage to the past with antique fixtures and over-the-top hospitality.
3420 Sansom St.
This West Philadelphia icon has gone through several iterations since it opened in 1982. Founder Judy Wicks intended the cafe to be a complement to her sustainable living bookshop, but it was more popular than anyone expected. It morphed into a full-fledged restaurant that became a pioneer of local sourcing and healthy cuisine. When Marty Grims bought the place nine years ago, he poured $2 million into ongoing renovations, and in 2015, said he was finally satisfied they were complete.
But the world is never static. This year, Grims embarked on a big expansion that has just finished up, giving the spot two new dining rooms. Part of the reason he made the move was because the space next door was vacated and went up for sale, but there’s a bigger factor at play: his daughter. After four years running high-capacity restaurants in NYC, 26-year-old Sydney Grims is joining the business, and will help steer White Dog through what the family hopes is another 35 years.
8826 Frankford Ave.
This quintessential Northeast Philly diner has evolved over its 57 years of existence, but most of the major changes happened decades ago. Sixteen years after the 1960 launch, founder Joe Morozin moved locations. After a catastrophic fire, he rebuilt down the street, and then added additional rooms to accommodate crowds. When daughter Nancy took over, she expanded the business to include a bakeshop and market.
But throughout it all, the spot had always been open 24 hours a day, 364 days a year (closed on Christmas). This year, Nancy Morozin changed that — or tried to, anyway. In August, she announced the overnight hours would stop, and even effected the change. It lasted only a week before the outcries of saddened (and sometimes angry) customers convinced her to reverse course, with a compromise. Now, doors are open nonstop from Friday morning all the way through Sunday evening, when the schedule switches to the weekday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. routine.