Back in 2006, the South Philly blocks between East Passyunk Avenue and Broad Street were, to me at least, an affordable real estate consolation prize. Newly married and wanting a home of our own, my husband and I packed up our Queen Village apartment and went on a farewell tour of our best-loved neighborhood haunts at the time: Ansill, Gayle, Horizons, Southwark, a little Middle Eastern spot called Shouk. Restaurants drew us to that neighborhood in the first place, and it was hard to say goodbye.
At the time, our new neighborhood’s main drag—East Passyunk Avenue—was mainly home to dated Italian-American red gravy joints, the best of which was the dusty but charming Mr. Martino’s Trattoria. There was also the trailblazing Paradiso, an upscale Italian restaurant opened in 2005 which attracted a certain business-suited city-council-connected crowd. But within days of our move, something began to shift.
Overnight, when one of the Avenue’s saddest empty storefronts was painted a highlighter-hued neon orange, the buzz began. The cavernous space was about to be reborn as Cantina Los Caballitos, a Mexican gastropub from the owners of the very hip Royal Tavern. In record time, the doors and windows were opened wide, margarita-tipsy people tangled up in a web of dog leashes and bike locks smoking unfiltered cigarettes on the sidewalk.
Best of all, the food was reasonably good—not on par with Ansill or Gayle—but well prepared and interesting enough to become my new go-to spot. The chips were freshly fried, the salsa was house-made. Unexpectedly food-nerdy dishes like goat tacos appeared on the specials chalkboard often, and I kept going back.
The place brought a jolt of energy to the Avenue, and other barkeeps and restaurateurs followed suit. There was the short-lived French bistro Clementine’s that came and went. The POPE, with its esoteric beer list and moody jukebox, began drawing so many hipsters that on any given weekend night the overflow of bikes needed to be chained up across the street at Acme. (At this point, I believe they are biking all the way from Brooklyn to drink here.)
Francis Cretarola, owner of Le Virtu on the 1900 block of the Avenue, watched Cantina and POPE with great interest. Deep in the throes of planning to open a fine dining restaurant whose life would depend on drawing customers from beyond South Philly, he was encouraged by the fact that these bars were becoming destinations and bringing attention to the neighborhood.
“We had some trepidation,” says Cretarola. He knew they would be bucking conventions with their strictly Abruzzi menu, absent Italian-American staples like veal parm. And in those first weeks, the restaurant’s future seemed murky. “Some people were angry,” says Cretarola. “They would look at the menu and look at me and say, ‘Don’t you serve any Italian food in this place?’”
Just as the beer geeks found their way to POPE, fans of authentic Italian food came from the neighborhood and beyond for those regional Abruzzi dishes. In 2010, Cretarola brought in Joe Cicala, an experienced chef from the Washington DC area, and under his watch the restaurant earned a 3-bell review from Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan. “It changed things overnight,” says Cicala.
Elsewhere on the Avenue, Fond restaurant, a quintessentially Philadelphia his-and-hers BYOB that opened in 2009, was quietly gathering steam. Owned by chef Lee Styer and his pastry-chef wife Jessie Prawlucki, both in their mid-20s and alums of Le Bec-Fin, Fond’s early years were met with strong neighborhood support and positive reviews.
Over time, the pair honed their menu and learned to adjust to their new micro kitchen. In 2010, they expanded down the street to a pastry shop and kitchen, Belle Cakery. Earlier this year, Fond received an updated 3-bell review from the Inquirer. This fall, the restaurant will move to a larger space nearby and get a liquor license—improvements that make me optimistic that it will soon be more impressive than ever.
Walking the blocks of my neighborhood in 2010, I couldn’t believe my luck. Most of those places I loved in Queen Village had closed, and some of my new favorite restaurants were right outside my door. East Passyunk now boasted its own location of the Philly-based but world-renowned Capogiro gelato shop. In March, The New York Times even profiled the neighborhood as a new dining hotspot, noting an “influx of fresh, hipster-ready cafes.” People were calling it a mini restaurant row. Little did anyone know the real restaurant boom was just getting started.
The second half of 2010 saw the opening of The Bottle Shop (a craft beer boutique), Chhaya Café (upscale coffee and waffles), and the long anticipated but short lived Sticks & Stones gastropub. Salt & Pepper, a beloved Queen Village BYOB, relocated to a new storefront on East Passyunk and upgraded with a bar.
But the next sea change came with the opening of Stateside in 2011, a new American small plates type of place led by chef George Sabatino, fresh from a stint at Barbuzzo, Marcie Turney’s acclaimed Mediterranean spot on 13th Street.
The first time I ate there, it was obvious how far East Passyunk diners had come since Le Virtu nudged them out of their Italian-American comfort zone. Stylish and pricier than other spots on the avenue, Stateside didn’t seem anxious, the way Cretarola had been, that the restaurant would find its audience. Confidence oozed from the cocktail list, which is fancier and more considered than other places in South Philly, as well as the small menu, which is packed with the kind of aggressively cheffy stuff a lot of people still won’t eat: Raw oysters, rabbit, foie gras. Stateside is nervy enough to up charge you $2 should you need more bread with your rillettes.
Stateside was safe in its swagger, because by the time it opened, the Avenue was fully alive every night of the week with people from all over the region enjoying a night out, East Passyunk style: drinks at the Cantina or POPE, dinner at Fond or Le Virtu or any number of second-string options, dessert at Capogiro or Belle Cakery and perhaps a nightcap at one of the places you failed to pop into earlier.
“The neighborhood support is incredible,” says Sabatino. He says people wander back to the kitchen to say hello to him and regulars follow him on Instagram to keep up to the minute on new dishes. “In Center City, it was impersonal. We could do 200 covers in a night and I wouldn’t cook for one person that I know.” He cites a sense of community among the chefs and the diners as fuel for his creativity.
Christopher Kearse, a local chef whose resume includes stints under luminaries such as Grant Achatz, Charlie Trotter, and Laurent Gras, was drawn to the camaraderie as well. He could have easily opened his first restaurant anywhere in Philly—or anywhere in the country, for that matter. But his new restaurant, Will BYOB, is schedule to open later this week at 1911 East Passyunk Avenue.
“I was this close to signing a lease for the old Gayle space,” says Kearse. But something about the property just didn’t feel right. “I didn’t want to be so close to South Street. And parking there is a hassle.” Going with his gut instinct, he passed on that lease and his search continued for another six months. He wasn’t going to commit to something less than perfect.
Like most of Philadelphia’s notable chefs, Kearse went to Le Bec-Fin on the last night of Georges Perrier’s reign there. He ended up talking to Lee Styer, who works out at his same gym. The subject turned to his hunt for a restaurant space, and Styer encouraged him to look at an available address on East Passyunk. Within days, he checked it out. “This is it,” he said.
It’s remarkable that Styer, whose progressive American, French-inspired menu is similar to the one that Kearse himself has planned, would urge the chef to open up shop mere blocks from his own restaurant. The economic recovery can hardly be considered complete and there are only so many mouths to feed in South Philly.
“The competition isn’t a bad thing,” says Styer. He describes a fellowship of young chefs helping one another succeed by relentlessly striving to be the best. “For us,” says Kearse, “Executive chef isn’t a word on your chef’s jacket—it’s a role in the kitchen that you show up and do every day.” Joe Cicala says he always feels nervous on his rare days off (Le Virtu is open seven days a week) because he knows regulars will come in expecting him to be cooking.
This concentration of ambition and talent—Styer, Cicala, Sabatino, and Kearse—makes East Passyunk Avenue not a mini restaurant row or South Philly’s restaurant row, but Philadelphia’s new restaurant row. The Restaurant Row. Nowhere else can you find so much inventive food in so few blocks.
And beyond these big four restaurants, there are a host of other spots—fun and affordable bars like Stogie Joe’s, neighborhood sushi gem Izumi, or recently renovated stalwarts like Tre Scalini and Marra’s—that fill out the strip’s identity as Philly’s most vibrant eating and drinking scene. Just as that now-defunct restaurant row on Walnut street, the one that included Le Bec-Fin, Striped Bass, and Susana Foo, defined restaurant culture in its heyday, so too does today’s East Passyunk Avenue. The restaurants are intensely chef driven and prone to creativity rooted in classic techniques. Each of these places worships at the local-food church but none is preachy about it. This is the locus of the food-centric come-as-you-are restaurant ethos in Philadelphia.
The chefs are obviously a key part of the equation, but the things that drew them to East Passyunk are just as important. “It’s a real neighborhood, a specific place,” says Le Virtu’s owner Francis Cretarola. It was never exactly blighted, merely run down, and many of the food businesses that gave East Passyunk its bona fides as a food neighborhood remain in business: Mancuso & Son’s cheese shop, for example, and those aforementioned Italian-American places, like Mr. Martino’s. “The avenue was reinvigorated without ever losing its identity,” says Cretarola.
This is in sharp contrast to other food hotspots like Midtown Village, which is dominated by moguls like Marcie Turney, Michael Schulson, Stephen Starr, and Marc Vetri. Center City’s higher rents and the needs of the tourists that saturate this part of town can sometimes constrain a chef’s creative impulses. Passyunk’s cheaper rents and established base of adventurous diners translate into the freedom to take risks. “It’s the kind of place that lets you think bigger than you ever could in Center City,” says Cretarola.
Other corners of town, like Northern Liberties (also home to some great restaurants, including one-of-a-kind Philly treasure KooZeeDoo) feel so contrived you could be eating inside a theme park, especially in the ticky-tacky Piazza and along Liberties Walk. “It’s like a lot of social engineering that hasn’t really worked yet,” says Cretarola.
East Passyunk’s real neighborhood vibe, the authentic sense of place that has evolved organically, means that its restaurant scene is more than just the food. The area has drawn residents such as myself and my husband, for whom walkable access to terrific restaurants is an important quality of life metric. And it has attracted young chefs and restaurateurs flooded more with ideas than capital.
The convergence of all these forces has given Philadelphia a brand new Restaurant Row. Collectively, these places reflect the moods, trends, whims, wishes, and tastes of the era at hand. They also throw off waves of energy that inspire chefs citywide. The Philadelphia food zeitgeist has slipped south of Washington, and if it’s up to those of us who live and eat here, they’re not getting it back.
Photos by Michael Bucher