We could begin by talking about how Philadelphia was once a gourmet backwater, about how, culinarily speaking, visitors to this city were once limited to cheesesteaks, scrapple, and pepper pot. But by now that's such old news that it doesn't even seem worth mentioning. Over the last decade or so, Philadelphia has evolved into a bona fide dining destination, one that boasts every type of culinary
experience, from authentic ethnic cuisine to chef-owned storefront bistros to high-profile four-star dining rooms. And there's no indication the surge is slowing.
You can trace the current explosion back to the 1970s and '80s, when the openings of Le Bec-Fin, Friday Saturday Sunday, and the White Dog Café snuffed out the dark ages and heralded the beginning of a protracted dining renaissance. Soon, neighborhood by neighborhood, lights turned on and kitchens fired up. The march of the restaurants followed the march of development.
Exhibit A is mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr, who has opened more than a dozen of Philadelphia's most buzzed-about restaurants. He triggered the boom in Old City when he opened the Continental Martini Bar and Lounge in 1995. Since that year, more than 100 restaurants have opened in a five-block radius. Hipster neighborhood Northern Liberties began to hum with restaubars once artists started moving there from Old City. South Philadelphia continues to be a haven for down-home Italian cooking and recently for more complex Italian flavors even as clusters of ethnicities who are newer to the city—Vietnamese, Mexican, Ethiopian—form new dining pockets there.
In fact, the formation of dining pockets is the newest chapter in the Philadelphia dining story. Some of the culinary landmarks on Walnut Street's Restaurant Row—Susanno Foo, Striped Bass, Brasserie Perrier—have closed, but dozens of restaurants opened during the same period. Some, such as Eric Ripert's 10 Arts and Stephen Starr's Barclay Prime, fill the fine-dining void left by the departing marquee restaurants, but most are more casual, ambitious spots grouped in less centrally located neighborhoods. East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia is one example—what was formerly the place to go to find spaghetti with gravy is now home to Paradiso, a sleek sophisticated place where chef and owner Lynne Marie Rinaldi cooks rabbit cacciatore and offers a wine list to rival any in the city. In Northern Liberties, Peter McAndrews' Modo Mio has become a destination unto itself. Thirteenth Street bustles with energetic, eclectic eateries like El Vez and Lolita; and the 700 block of Chestnut has a new restaurant row since Chifa and Union Trust joined stalwart Morimoto.
Philadelphia has also emerged as a national leader in restaurant design. At Chifa, Distrito, and Amada, New York designer Jun Aizaki has created wholly distinct environments based on the research trips he's taken to Spain, Mexico, and Peru with restaurateur Jose Garces during each project's conception phase. The New Yorker also manages to match the tone of each joint to its distinct neighborhood—Amada in Old City exudes a grown-up kind of cool while Distrito is trendy, playful, and over-the-top like its young clientele in University City. At XIX (Nineteen) at the top of the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, local design doyenne Meg Rodgers updated the former Founders Room to create something iconic and modern. And it's not surprising to discover that the owner of Bar Ferdinand, Owen Kamihira, has a splashy design pedigree—he put the Buddha in Buddakan and the pop-art olives in the Continental. Finally, Morimoto was designed by internationally renowned product designer (and former prof at Philadelphia's University of the Arts) Karim Rashid.
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