A cadre of young culinary talents is enhancing Philadelphia's considerable dining scene with casual but ambitious restaurants. Here are seven spots that are currently among the city's toughest tables to book.
Michael Solomonov, the acclaimed chef behind Israeli-themed Zahav, offers his playful take on Jewish cuisine from around the world at Abe Fisher. Think classics like borscht, presented “tartare”-style with trout roe, sour cream, onion potato chips, and hard-boiled egg; chopped liver with toasted rye bread and pastrami-onion jam; and veal schnitzel, in taco form with “health” salad and anchovy mayo. The food is mostly served as small plates, which can be paired with a house cocktail like “Yesterday, Today and Amaro,” a mix of rye, Cynar, Averna amaro, and Benedictine; or wine from a similarly worldly list.
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What to Order: For those who want to sample as much as possible, the $39 prix fixe, offering one plate from each of three savory categories, plus dessert, offers a good value.
Petruce et al.
Brothers Justin and Jonathan Petruce have built their Center City restaurant, Petruce et al., around a wood-fired oven and craft-cocktail list. The flame is used judiciously throughout the seasonally driven menu, from small plates like roasted carrots with kale, bagna cauda, and pistachios; to a Moroccan-inspired striped bass with merguez sausage; to the crusty house-made sourdough that accompanies the burrata with shishito pepper, chestnut, and persimmon. A compact but well-edited wine list, cider, and beer on tap, plus cocktails like the “Man Man-Hattan,” a rye-based version of the classic, help round out the experience.
What to Order: The fire treatment ramps up the flavors in dishes like sweet potatoes with avocados, tomatillo, and queso fresco, as well as the sprawling 20-oz. strip sirloin.
Nicholas Elmi, a recent Top Chef winner, has not let his instant celebrity pull him away from the stove. The alumnus of Philly's legendary Le Bec-Fin supervises every aspect of Laurel, his small, personalized restaurant that tops out at 26 seats and lets its patrons bring their own wine. But Elmi's national profile has resulted in Laurel getting instantly booked as soon as the reservations open each month. The lucky few can savor his seasonal, French-derived cuisine, which is served a la carte Tuesday through Thursday, or as a tasting menu on the weekends.
What to Order: The menu is subject to change, but Elmi's albacore tuna with horseradish, shallot, green apple, and sour-cream-and-gossamer-ricotta gnocchi are musts.
High Street on Market
High Street on Market, the casual sibling to Old City's acclaimed Fork, showcases chef Eli Kulp's singular way with pasta, and Alex Bois' artisan bread-making. Kulp, a 2014 Food & Wine Best New Chef winner, has fashioned a menu that runs the gamut from fresh-baked pastries and hot breakfast items, to lunchtime riffs on classic sandwiches, to shareable appetizers, pastas, and larger plates during the candlelit dinner hours. The best part is that almost everything is priced under $25. Every Tuesday at 9 p.m., the restaurant showcases local purveyors with a special menu.
What to Order: Forget about the carbs for once and be sure to order a High Street sandwich, like the pastrami on rye with cabbage and onion slaw, Russian dressing, and Gulden’s Mustard, or try one of the creative pasta dishes, such as the seasonal smoked pumpkin tortelloni with burnt sage, walnuts, and rye cracker.
For his first restaurant, Serpico, Peter Serpico, the former director of culinary operations for New York's Momofuku empire, teamed up with Philly's most famous restaurateur, Stephen Starr, for a pan-Asian spot that succeeds as both a destination restaurant and neighborhood spot. The setting is dramatic but approachable—black chalkboard walls listing the menu and drinks, accented by white-painted bricks, black subway tiles, and a sprawling open kitchen/chef's counter decked out in gleaming stainless steel. The friendly staff will help guide you through the menu, which is loosely organized from small to big plates and is meant to be shared family-style.
What to Order: The menu gets tweaked regularly, but constants include the raw fluke; ravioli stuffed with Cope's Corn (a Pennsylvania Dutch product), chorizo, and white cheese; and the Korean fried chicken wings.
After nearly two decades years of working in other people's restaurants in Philly and New York, chef Townsend Wentz at last has his own kitchen. Townsend, located in the heart of South Philly's Passyunk Avenue business district, is part of a new wave of French-inspired restaurants around the city. The look is classic white-tablecloth, but with distinctive touches like the handmade bar topped with a slab of reclaimed cherry wood. With his menu, Wentz similarly honors the classics, but shows his own deft touch on dishes, like seared sea scallops with preserved citrus, seaweed butter, and roe emulsion; and the loup de mer with pumpkin barigoule, cockles, and verjus. The mainly French wine list is complemented by inventive cocktails.
What to Order: Rabbit stew never tasted as good as Townsend's pot-au-feu, with roasted loin roulade, braised rabbit, carrots, and potatoes. For dessert, it’ll be worth it to wait the 15 minutes needed to bake the chocolate soufflé with Pernod-flavored Chantilly cream.
Although a.kitchen is located inside AKA Rittenhouse Square, an extended-stay apartment-hotel, which technically makes it a hotel dining room, that term doesn't do justice to this personable, farm-to-table restaurant and its sibling, a.bar. With a menu overseen by Eli Kulp (Fork, High Street on Market), a.kitchen offers fare that's accessible enough for a Tuesday-night dinner but ambitious enough to “wow” for a special occasion. The menu segues from tastes like a fried-oyster tartine through a raw section, small plates, and charcoal-grilled items, before finishing with plates to share, such as grilled Atlantic sea bream with green papaya, pickled mushrooms, and tamarind. Sunday brunch is a must, especially when the weather's right for the seasonal outdoor seating. Before or after a meal, have a cocktail at seafood-centric a.bar, which features a raw bar, crudos, and snacks like clams on toast and Old Bay-dusted french fries.
What to Order: Dishes such as the grilled prawns with creamy grits and basque peppers, available for brunch, as well as the smoked beets and Asian-inspired duck breast with XO sauce and fried Brussels sprouts show off a.kitchen's range.