These days, Philadelphia’s restaurants rival its storied sports franchises, with culinary stars arriving from New York, San Francisco and other dining capitals, amid rampant speculation about who might be the next hot toque in town.
Buzzworthy out-of-towners are making their presence felt at restaurants new and established, enlivening a local scene dominated by ubiquitous restaurateur Stephen Starr and “Iron Chef” Jose Garces and known for its storefront-style BYOB restaurants.
Wooed by affordable real estate, the city’s neighborhoody vibe and strong ties among fellow chefs, these new boldface names include Josh Lawler, formerly of New York’s acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns, who has gone the BYO route at the Farm and Fisherman in Washington Square West. Greg Vernick, an alumnus of the Jean-Georges Vongerichten empire, has opened the splashier Vernick Food & Drink in Rittenhouse Square.
“I feel like I’m just riding a wave,” says Vernick, a South Jersey native. “This is a really cool time to be in Philadelphia.” The Culinary Institute of America graduate worked for more than five years as a sous chef for Vongerichten at his New York restaurants Jean-Georges, Nougatine and Spice Market, and elsewhere as a chef trainer, before returning to Philly to open his namesake restaurant last year.
In Old City, Eli Kulp, a Washington-state native who made his name at New York’s Torrisi Italian Specialties, is revamping Fork, the well-regarded contemporary American bistro. Along Passyunk Avenue’s burgeoning restaurant row, Le Virtu’s Joe Cicala, formerly of New York’s Del Posto and Cafe Milano in Washington, is marrying authentic recipes from the Abruzzo region of Italy with local ingredients.
“I left New York because the business is so cut-throat, people will throw you under a bus just to advance,” says Cicala, a native of Laurel, Md. “I made a name for myself here on my own terms. What I found in Philly is that the community of chefs is very close — everyone wants everyone to succeed.”
Although Cicala — who got his job through a Craigslist posting — had never set foot in Philadelphia, others are more familiar with the city. Christopher Lee, a former chef at the now-defunct Striped Bass, is running Sophia’s on Passyunk after a turn at New York’s high-end Aureole. Michael Santoro, whose credits include the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, was the opening chef at Talula’s Table and is now a partner in the Mildred, an upscale comfort-fooder near the Italian Market.
Many of these places serve contemporary American menus with a strong farm-to-table accent, but the roster is notable for its variety, too. Besides Le Virtu, there’s casual barbecue (the second location of Joe Carroll’s Brooklyn-based Fette Sau), upscale Indian (Tashan, helmed by Sylva Senat, another Jean-Georges vet) and more coming soon: Northern European (Noord from Joncarl Lachman of Chicago’s Home Bistro) and pan-Asian (Serpico, a spot on South Street from Momofuku veteran Peter Serpico and Starr).
Even the venerable Le Bec Fin, once the city’s best and best-known restaurant, is now in the hands of an out-of-town crew. Original chef-owner Georges Perrier, a transplant from his native Lyon, last year sold the restaurant to Nicolas Fanucci, the former manager of the famed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Behind the stove is Walter Abrams, late of San Francisco’s trendy Spruce and the French Laundry.
For the diner, there’s much to savor by having these new hands stirring the pot. At Fork, the polished dining room has gained new energy from a colorful mural of trees that reflects the added oomph coming out of the kitchen. Under Kulp, there are fun “bites,” such as his take on chicken nuggets with a spicy mustard sauce; new housemade pastas, including a pappardelle with wild boar ragu with olives and preserved lemons; and “feasts,” which spotlight Wagyu beef, duck and other land and sea creature and are served family-style.
In Wash West, Lawler, a Philly area native, is enjoying the simplicity of running a BYO. The space’s small footprint — there’s no room for a walk-in refrigerator — helps Lawler stay true to his locavore mantra. The menu, which changes several times a week, almost always features his signature beet “steak” and also might include parsnip and Cameo apple soup, mushroom risotto or Hudson Valley dorade with onions, potato, parsnip and cardamom.
“It’s really seasonal and vegetable-driven,” he says. “I have farmers bring me whatever they’re excited about, and I base the menu on that.”
The goal for Vernick, whose handsome bi-level restaurant opens up to busy Walnut Street, was to create a high- energy destination that would work for casual meals at the bar and date nights in the more intimate dining room.
The sprawling menu ranges from toasts (with such toppings as creamy fromage blanc or peas and bacon) to small and big plates that are meant to be shared (charred Brussels sprouts salad, barbecue beef short rib, seafood and shellfish roast), supplemented by a raw selection of oysters and ceviche-like preparations of fish and sea creatures.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn transplant Fette Sau is one of the spots helping to transform the working-class neighborhood of Fishtown into a hipster destination, complete with warehouse-residential conversions and trendy restaurants, bars and shops. The brisket, pork belly and ribs are difficult to resist, and the hearty food makes for a good companion to a night at Frankford Hall, Starr’s indoor-outdoor beer garden next door.
Of course, sometimes all you really want is a nice dish of pasta. Cicala certainly offers that at Le Virtu — the porchetta agnolotti in a sage, butter and black truffle sauce is one of the current stars — but also has the freedom to fully explore Abruzzo cuisine without having to dumb it down with more routine Italian fare. Le Virtu is known for its more than two dozen kinds of house-made salumi, as well as for special dinners, such as a popular event celebrating offal. Although roasted chicken is on the menu, it’s outsold 3 to 1 by the rabbit in a braised lentil and chestnut ragu.
To Cicala, who goes back to Italy several times a year to look for recipes, choosing Philly came down to location. “Over the past two years, more restaurants in my neighborhood have popped,” he says. “A lot of younger chefs are coming from around the country. The BYO scene is pretty huge, and we have killer amazing local products as far as produce, meats and dairy — all that stuff that comes from Lancaster County, Southern Jersey or Berks County.”
And what’s happened to the cheese-steak, the city’s best-known culinary export? It’s still out there, Cheez Whiz and all, perhaps waiting for one of these newcomers to reinvent it.