Updated 8:35 a.m.
You can now sing it loud and proud, Philadelphia: Zahav is the best restaurant in the entire country.
The accolade — which many who’ve dined there already believed — was confirmed Monday night when the modern Israeli gem from Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook snagged the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant.
It was Philly’s only win this year at what’s referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” but it was a big one. A restaurant becomes eligible after 10 years in business, so this was Zahav’s first time as nominee — it opened in 2008. And despite various other restaurant nominations over the decades, it was the first time a Philly spot took home the coveted prize.
In the wake of the honor, guests shouldn’t expect anything to change at the vaunted Society Hill dining room.
It’s certainly a humbling to be called out as “the best,” Cook told Billy Penn, “but it’s subjective, and those superlatives don’t really matter to the people who are eating here tonight if their meal isn’t what they expect it to be.”
If anything, he said, the award will make the jobs of CookNSolo’s 300-person team even harder. “They have high expectations already,” Cook said of the guests who fill the place every night. “This is only going to increase those expectations.”
It’s a challenge he welcomes, however. “We’re gonna use this to hopefully keep getting better,” Cook said. “I love what we have here, it’s a special place.”
Here’s 10 things to know about the seemingly magical restaurant.
It was Cook and Solo’s third restaurant together
When they partnered to open Zahav, it was Cook and Solomonov’s third project. They met at Marigold Kitchen when Solo, who’d been sous-cheffing at Vetri, was hired at the West Philly BYOB. They went on to open Mexican-inspired Xochitl on Headhouse Square, before starting their focus on the cuisine of Solomonov’s native Israel.
They weren’t sure they’d make it through year one
“Our goal was to make it to one year,” Cook explained, “which we almost didn’t.” Zahav’s debut was marred not by problems with the food or service, but by personal struggles. Solomonov, dealing with his brother’s death, had become addicted to seriously hard narcotics, and it took an intervention by Cook and others to get him clean.
Solomonov’s favorite place is at the laffah station
After getting sober, Solomonov became an even better chef, who now oversees dozens of restaurants — but his favorite place is at the laffah station by the fire at Zahav. That’s part of what makes the restaurant so special, Cook said. “The idea you would walk in the door and 20 feet away you would see Mike cooking the bread for everyone in the restaurant — that couldn’t exist in more than one place.”
Bar seats are saved for walk-ins
So there’s no forthcoming expansion to free up more reservations, which sell out two months in advance. “We’re out of real estate,” Cook said, joking they’d even considered hanging chairs from the ceiling. But there are 15 seats reserved for walk-ins at the bar, which eager diners line up for starting at 5 p.m. daily.
Staff is treated like a family
It takes more than 50 people to run Zahav every day, per Cook, and he credits them with being “the driving force” behind the whole restaurant group. The owners try to treat them as family, he said, and it seems to work. Things like group 5-minute planks and line dances before service hammer the sentiment home.
Also known for wine and cocktails
That bar is popular not just for the food, but also the wine and cocktails. Credit much of that to former CookNSolo beverage director Brian Kane, a sommelier who elevated Israeli vintages to coveted status and also helped push forward fresh fruits and veggies used in drinks.
Hummus is easy to get at Dizengoff
Zahav first became famous for its creamy Israeli-style hummus tehina, which is still one of the best things to order at the restaurant. But if you can’t score a table, CookNSolo’s several Dizengoff outposts are the next best thing. The hummus isn’t exactly the same, but it is stellar, and you definitely don’t need a reservation to get it.
You can make the hummus at home
Thanks to the restaurant’s eponymous cookbook, which has a recipe for the chickpea-tahini dip, you can get close to the flavor right at home. It won’t taste exactly the same, but it’ll be better than most other hummus you’ve tried.
Tasting menu is the best value in the city
What should you order if you do get a seat? The “Tayim” tasting menu is one of the best value meals in the entire city, if not the East Coast. For $48 per person, your table will be loaded with salatim appetizers, hummus and laffa, a coal-grilled entree and dessert. You’ll have plenty to take home the next day.
Zahav spawned an empire
While there’ll never be another Zahav, there will be plenty of other CookNSolo restaurant to explore. Soon to join fast-casuals Dizengoff, Rooster, Goldie and Federal Donuts are K’Far, an all-day Israeli cafe in Rittenhouse, Laser Wolf, an Israeli grill in Kensington, and Merkaz, a sandwicherie in Midtown Village.