Last year at this time, with more than 50 significant restaurant projects in various stages of development in the greater Philadelphia area, 2016 was shaping up as the busiest year for openings.
This year, the crop of major newcomers seems to be smaller, by about 25 percent, signaling a cooling of the restaurant scene.
Cooling, mind you, is relative. Since the industry recovered from the 2008 recession, growth has been utterly staggering in the city and suburbs.
This year should see a modest gain, fueled mainly by the continued growth of residential population in Center City and nearby neighborhoods but offset by the keen nature of competition.
Two of the more significant 2017 restaurant projects in Center City are actually holdovers from 2016: the unnamed Korean-influenced bistro at 2025 Sansom St. in Rittenhouse from chef Peter Serpico, backed by Stephen Starr (opening date unknown), and the Washington Square branch of the New York City bar P.J. Clarke's, coming to the Curtis Center, Sixth and Walnut Streets, which owner Philip Scotti expects to open in May. (Starr, by the way, says he is still undecided about the concept for the former Serafina, at 18th and Sansom Streets. Let's tack that project onto the 2018 list.)
A sampling of what's on the way for 2017 in Center City - big and small: Rooster Soup Company, a luncheonette/diner at 1526 Sansom St. from the Federal Donuts crew that promises to send profits to charity (opening Jan. 23); bāo • logy, a takeout-oriented specialist in Taiwanese street food from Andy Tessier and Judy Ni Tessier at 1829 JFK Blvd. (February); Wiz Kid, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's vegan drop-in at 124 S. 19th St., next to V Street (February); Keen, a long-awaited bistro at 1708 Lombard St. (late winter); Maison 208, a bar-restaurant at 13th and Chancellor Streets from Top Chef contestant Sylva Senat (March; hiring has begun via email@example.com); Tria Wine Garden, an expanded version of the popular wine bar, on 18th Street near Market (spring); a branch of the Northeast Philadelphia Peruvian favorite El Balconcito, replacing Tin Angel and Serrano at 20 S. Second St. in Old City (spring); and Giuseppe & Sons, a red-gravy Italian restaurant on the 1500 block of Sansom Street, pairing Michael Schulson (who has Harp & Crown next door) and the Termini Bakery family. Also, the Palm is supposed to return this spring, in a smaller footprint, at the Bellevue.
Much of 2017's action happens to be outside of Center City. For starters, two neighborhood-oriented bar-restaurants are due this month: Booker's, at 5021 Baltimore Ave. in West Philadelphia from Saba Tedla of the nearby Aksum, with chef Michael Thomas, and the sprawling Chick's, at 1807 Washington Ave. in South Philadelphia.
On the splashier side: the King of Prussia Mall spinoff of Mistral, the Princeton foodie fave (winter); Danlu, a long-in-the-works upmarket Asian restaurant at 3601 Market St. in University City from the team behind Nectar in Berwyn (late spring); a still-unnamed restaurant at FMC Tower at Cira Centre South from the creators of the New York City bistro Rebelle (spring); Cheu Noodle Bar's second location, at 1420 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown (March); a Montco branch of Cherry Hill's Farm & Fisherman Tavern, at Norristown and Horsham Roads in Horsham (April); chef Bryan Sikora and wife Andrea's latest, Hearth Kitchen, a bar with an Italian menu at the Shoppes at Longwood Village in Kennett Square (late April); the ambitious chain Founding Farmers in King of Prussia (spring); a second Tredici, in Bryn Mawr (spring); an unnamed wood-fired grill from former Zeppoli/Petruce/Vernick chef-alum Dom Piperno in Collingswood (June); and East Passyunk's first out-of-town chain restaurant, Barcelona Wine Bar (summer).
In Manayunk, the landmark Jake's/Cooper's Wine Bar is coming back later this month after a long shutdown from flood damage. Arpeggio in Spring House, Montgomery County, is preparing for a nearby move within its shopping center in the spring.
Also on the way are at least a half-dozen brew pubs or breweries with tasting rooms, including Goose Island, at 33 E. Laurel St. near the Fillmore in Fishtown; the nearby Fishtown Brewpub (1101 Frankford Ave.) and Evil Genius (1731 N. Front St.); Urban Village Brewing Co. at the Schmidt's Commons in Northern Liberties; Wissahickon Brewing Co. at 3705 W. School House Lane in East Falls; Second District, at 1939 S. Bancroft St. (at McKean) in South Philadelphia; and a Spring Garden offshoot of Chambersburg, Pa.'s Roy-Pitz Brewing Co., at 990 Spring Garden St. Kurant Cider hopes to open a small cider house/tasting room at 436 E. Girard Ave. in Fishtown this summer.
Also: In the spirits world, Philadelphia Distilling is getting close to opening at 25 E. Allen St., near the Fillmore.
Jose Garces is coming to Tropicana in Atlantic City in March with three restaurants: Olon (seafood), Okatshe (noodles), and La Cerveceria (a bar). Michael Symon goes to Borgata with Angeline, an Italian restaurant.
As for the wildest concept, that would be Mad Rex, a post-apocalypse-theme restaurant planned next to the Fillmore, with an "Entertainment Eatery and Lounge" called Urban EEL next door.
As the local scene shows signs of cooling, some observers believe that the business situation nationally is downright dire because of fast-rising rents, taxes, labor, and food costs. In the Philadelphia area, the price of liquor licenses has skyrocketed as supermarket chains pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the same piece of paper as a corner bar for the privilege of selling alcohol.
To some, the marketplace seems saturated. Chef/restaurateur Kevin Sbraga, who opened a branch of The Fat Ham last year in King of Prussia but has no 2017 expansion plans, said: "I can go out 45 nights in a row to 45 different great restaurants."
Small-time operators - the independents that largely define a city's restaurant scene - have been all but priced out of many parts of Center City, particularly the so-called Rittenhouse district west of Broad Street.
"There's no small business in the city anymore," said Peggy Stephens, whose tea company Premium Steap enjoyed a 10-year run on 18th Street near Chestnut until her landlord proposed doubling her rent a year ago.
Stephens moved Premium Steap into a lower-rent office building at 211 N. 13th St. in Chinatown; an eyeglass boutique took her spot.
Stephens traded her Rittenhouse street visibility for a newly expanded online business. While her revenue is not what it was, she now works better hours. "I've maintained my core customers, but for somebody who didn't have a home base and clientele [and had to move], I feel bad for them," she said.
Much new Center City development is poised east of Broad Street; among the newcomers will be stir-fry/salad specialist Honeygrow, opening this summer at 15 S. 11th St., and a branch of Wrap Shack at 112 S. 11th St.
Tenants have not yet been announced for East Market (the mixed-use development along Market Street between 11th and 12th Streets) and the Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia (the former Gallery, just east of that). Most, if not all, of these new restaurants are expected to be chains or at least well-funded regional players.
A sampling of other restaurants on the way for 2017, and estimated openings, includes:
Bernie's (58 N. York Rd., Hatboro, mid-February): The popular Jenkintown bar/restaurant takes over for the short-lived 58 York in Hatboro.
Blue Duck (212 S. 11th St., March): The Northeast Philadelphia bruncherie comes downtown, adding a Washington Square West offshoot with a small bar.
Bryn & Dane's (909 Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr, in the spring, followed by Atwater Village in Malvern and the Franklin, on the 800 block of Chestnut Street): Specialist in healthy, fast-casual food.
Buena Onda (1735 Chestnut St., late spring/early summer): Jose Garces spins off his Logan Square beach-theme taqueria to Rittenhouse.
Far East Descendant (240 N. 13th St., April): Asian small-plates, stylish bar, roof deck in Chinatown.
Fox & Son Fancy Corndogs (Reading Terminal Market, winter): Corn dogs are the specialty of this stand.
Gina's 45 (45 S. Third St., spring): Neighborhood tavern in Old City from Curt Large and Josh Shemesh of Fishtown Tavern and Buffalo Billiards.
Grace & Proper (941 S. Eighth St., summer/fall): Italian-theme bar-restaurant at Eighth and Carpenter Streets from the Hawthornes/Cambridge/Tio Flores crew.
Harvest Seasonal Grill (Village at Newtown Shopping Center in Newtown, Bucks County, spring): The locally bred farm-to-table restaurant.
Love & Honey (1100 N. Front St., March): Fried chicken and pies in Northern Liberties.
Otis & Pickles Speakeasy (2500 S. Third St., February): A Pennsport bar from The Institute's Charlie Collazo.
Pineville Tavern (2448 E. Huntingdon St., spring): The Bucks County bar-restaurant sets up shop on a corner in the Port Richmond area.
Poi Dog (102 S. 21st St., February): The Hawaiian-theme truck comes in from the cold with a Rittenhouse storefront.
Shoo Fry (200 E. Girard Ave., late winter): The fry specialist adds a Fishtown location.
6 Feet Under (727 Walnut St., March): Subterranean bar off Jewelers Row. A great place to grab a cold one.
Somo (4311 Main St., spring): A bar-restaurant replacing Rubb, in Manayunk.
Suburban Restaurant & Beer Garden (Eagleview Town Center in Exton): Chef Eric Yost goes farm-to-table with a restaurant and beer garden.
Trolley Car Station (40th Street and Baltimore Avenue, September): An offshoot of Trolley Car Diner comes to the 40th Street trolley portal in Spruce Hill.
Tuna Bar (205 Race St., spring): A sushi specialist sets up in the new Bridge building in Old City.
As always, watch this space.