From 'stellar' to 'awkward': Craig LaBan looks back at his year in eating

Jared Cornfield shakes two drinks at Double Knot.

Philadelphians learned to share their meals like family in 2016, and, in the process, they often feasted on a United Nations of skewers, from Cypriot sausages to Afghan kebabs, Malaysian saté and robatayaki-grilled Japanese scallops. Sometimes, as was the case at Filipino-themed Perla, they even ate with their hands.

The all-day cafe came into its own as places like Double Knot and Hungry Pigeon showed that restaurants could deftly morph through three distinct personalities from morning coffee to cocktails and dinners, and essentially redefine the range and mission of a neighborhood restaurant. Speaking of neighborhoods, Fishtown and East Passyunk continued to dazzle as the primary poles of Philly's dining energy. But other quarters also asserted themselves with newfound restaurant fortunes, including Queen Village, Pennsport, Fairmount. Also Mount Airy, where Fountain-alum David Jansen's eponymous debut became a linen-draped outpost of Four Seasons-style civility, a fading commodity.

More casual concepts, in general, ruled the year's new offerings, rarely at the expense of great food. But 2016 was not entirely about new restaurants, either. My recently published Ultimate Dining guide gave me the opportunity to revisit many favorites and take a much broader view of Philadelphia's dining scene to name my Top 25 favorites, old or new. And several proved to have matured beautifully.

As a result, the four-bell category ("superior," my highest rating) had its first additions in years as four special places - Vernick Food & Drink, Fork, Vedge, and Laurel - stepped up to join four-bellers Zahav, Vetri, and Bibou. It was a meaningful acknowledgment of the dining riches Philly already possesses as the pace of new openings quickens and our menu becomes ever more surprising and diverse. My table in 2016 was a memorable feast, and this Year in Bells is a chance to revisit the highlights.

What follows is a summary of the restaurants reviewed this year, primarily on Sundays, but also in my Ultimate Dining guide. Any restaurant whose rating changed in the guide is noted here.

As always, there were some second-chance revisits to check for improvement. I returned to five that were within striking distance of a rating change - those are designated with an asterisk (*).

Some good news: Two stepped up from one to two bells (Bar BombónTredici), and one climbed out of the no-bells basement (Besito). On the downside, another fell hard, from one to zero (Little Lion).

SUPERIOR (Four bells)

The Ultimate Dining guide published in late October crowned seven four-bell restaurants, including three stalwarts - ZahavVetri, and Bibou - that reaffirmed previous ratings. The following four are the newest members of Philly's dining elite:

FORK

306 Market St., 215-625-9425, forkrestaurant.com

Co-owner Ellen Yin's Old City pioneer is the rare restaurant that's improved steadily over two decades, taking its final step up to four bells under the watch of partner and culinary director Eli Kulp. The emergence of rising star chef John Patterson has maintained that trajectory since Kulp was tragically paralyzed in the 2015 Amtrak crash, and Fork has honed a seamless contemporary dining experience with elegant and witty food that evokes memories, seasons, spontaneity, and sense of place. The ever-changing $55 Wednesday-night menus are a deal. Read my updated four bell review. 

LAUREL

1617 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-8299, restaurantlaurel.com

This intimate East Passyunk jewel box from Top Chef champ and Le Bec-Fin alum Nicholas Elmi has begun to redefine what modern French gastronomy can be, from frozen foie gras over foraged knotweed jam and granola to dreamy Dover sole stuffed with truffles. With inventive $85 tasting menus and the addition of a liquor license (though it's still BYO-friendly) that gives Laurel's tuned-in service staff an opportunity to make stellar pairings, dinner here is a personal and memorable night. Read my updated four bell review.

Camera icon DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Five takes on radish from Vedge.

VEDGE

1221 Locust St., 215-320-7500, vedgerestaurant.com

They prefer to call it a "vegetable restaurant" rather than vegan. But no matter how you classify Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's open-kitchen perch in this gorgeous historic manse revamped with modern style, Vedge is the kind of place that has defied stereotypes to become one of the region's best dining destinations in any genre. The small-plate cuisine continues to evolve, from sushilike riffs on radishes and pastrami-spiced carrots to Jacoby's stunning vegan desserts. With polished service and a distinctive focus on cocktails and natural wines, Vedge is now a national destination. Read my updated four bell review

VERNICK FOOD & DRINK

2031 Walnut St., 267-639-6644, vernickphilly.com

Is Vernick Food & Drink the "toast place"? A crudo counter for uni and soft-scrambled eggs? Or the trend-setting wood-fired kitchen that turns out the city's ultimate roast chicken? That chef Greg Vernick's Walnut Street destination is all of those things - and cooks it all with such powerfully refined simplicity - is the reason it has captured the current spirit of American dining. Add in stellar service, spot-on seasonal cocktails, and a linen-free bilevel space that feels special without being stuffy, and you have Philly's best overall restaurant. Read my updated four bell review and my piece on Greg Vernick as Chef of 2016

EXCELLENT (Three bells)

A MANO

2244 Fairmount Ave., 215-236-1114, amanophilly.com

Chef-owner Townsend "Tod" Wentz (of French-theme Townsend) is the big name here, but this simply decorated Fairmount BYOB is all about showcasing the refined Italian cooking of talented young chef Michael Millon. The menu is built on hand-crafting seasonal flavors and intricately layered cooking, especially with some of the city's most exquisite pastas. The cash-only policy and noise are definite drawbacks. But with excellent service and an inspired kitchen, this one is worth the fuss. Reviewed March 27.

BAR VOLVÉR

Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., 215-670-2302, philadelphia.volverrestaurant.com

For those reluctant to embrace the expense and time commitment of a tasting meal at Jose Garces' gastronomic atelier in the Kimmel Center, the decision to transform its adjacent lounge into a dining destination in its own right is welcome news. The small but well-wrought menu delivers a more accessible á la carte taste of what chef Dave Conn can do, including casual versions of past tasting menu hits (fried chicken instead of squab), a lamb chop riff on poutine, and saffron-tinted sushi rolls stuffed with the makings of paella. The cushy lounge seating makes for a glam spot to do an inventive pretheater cocktail, but also to indulge in one of the deepest Champagne lists in town with the masterful guidance of super sommelier Gordana Kostovski. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

Camera icon Charles FOX / Staff Photographer
The ahi tuna at Bistro 7, which has a new menu concept split between small plates and large sharing platters.

BISTRO 7

7 N. Third St., 215-931-1560, bistro7restaurant.com

Michael O'Halloran's Old City BYOB is an 11-year-old labor of love that's survived the ups and downs of the neighborhood, the chef's career, and the now-saturated BYOB scene itself. With a decor makeover and a new menu concept split between small plates and large sharing platters, Bistro 7 has reemerged better than ever, with a more international palate and a comfortable new casual vibe that should put it back on diners' go-lists once again. One caveat: Big parties can quickly make this little room noisy, noisy! But the epic sharing platter of whole chicken both stewed and curry-fried is worth it. Reviewed July 24.

BRICK FARM TAVERN

130 Hopewell Rocky Hill Rd., Hopewell, N.J., 609-333-9200, brickfarmtavern.com

The gastro-farm movement has grown a major new player in New Jersey with this spectacular Hopewell project, a beautifully converted 1800s farmhouse where chef and co-owner Greg Vassos creates inspired modern American plates from sustainable meats and vegetables (and hay) grown on 500-plus adjacent acres owned by visionary partners Jon and Robin McConaughy. Vassos, formerly at Racine, has a knack for avant-garde presentations that sometimes outdo a dish's overall success. But ultimately, great ingredients, sharp service, and a strong drink program (with an on-site brewery and distillery) make Brick Farm a must-visit table-to-farm destination. Reviewed Oct. 30.

CHARCOAL BYOB

11 S. Delaware Ave., Yardley, 215-493-6394, charcoalbyob.com

Charcoal is still a diner by day, with its picture-window perch over the Delaware River. But experimental chef-brothers Mark and Eric Anton Plescha have stepped up at night to a third bell by refining their inventive modern plates, including offbeat pastas (A-1 rigatoni with meat loaf marinara?) that are as tasty as they are witty. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

DOUBLE KNOT

120 S. 13th St., 215-631-3868, doubleknotphilly.com

There's a lot going on inside this sexy, multilevel Sampan sibling on 13th Street. Elixr coffees flow in the moody ground-floor cafe, which also serves fun Vietnamese street food for lunch and stellar cocktails at night. But the real magic is in the unmarked basement, a sultry, candlelit lair scented by the robatayaki grill, where chef Kevin Yanaga is also serving some of Philly's most exceptional sushi. The fashion scene is a bit much, and the vast menu has weak links, but the sushi is worth it, and the space transports like few in town. Reviewed May 8.

HUNGRY PIGEON

743 S. Fourth St., 215-278-2736, hungrypigeon.com

What's it like to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a chef's house? Probably just like this lovable all-day corner cafe in Queen Village, where co-chef-owners Pat O'Malley (ex-Balthazar) and Scott Schroeder (South Philadelphia Tap Room) collaborate for updated comfort menus built on stellar house-baked goods, local ingredients, and quirky whims, from the city's best breakfast sandwich to sharing platters at dinner (and, yes, some tasty pigeon). With charming service, good drinks, an effortlessly casual neighborhood vibe, and a serious Ultimo coffee program, Hungry Pigeon was one of the year's most inspired and personal new restaurants. Reviewed April 10.

ITV

1615 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-858-0669, itvphilly.com

This sleekly modern and intimate bar beside Laurel offers a more casual taste of Nicholas Elmi's food with small plates that show creative wit (chicken liver stroopwafels, rabbit schnitzel) and rise on the same top ingredients and refined techniques that have distinguished its next-door sibling. Add a concise but impressively well-rounded bar program with good Euro wines, clever cocktails, and a dozen outstanding beers and ciders (plus sake), and ITV delivers an intriguing new vision for the gastropub genre. Reviewed Oct. 16.

JANSEN

7402 Germantown Ave., 267-335-5041, jansenrestaurant.com

Longtime Fountain chef David Jansen has brought a touch of Four Seasons polish to Mount Airy, revamping a historic stone building on Germantown Avenue into a whitewashed oasis with a garden where luxury ingredients, classic haute cuisine, and thoughtful service present fine dining with a personal touch. There's a retro feel to the cooking, but Jansen's commitment to professionalism has created a haven of accessible fine dining that an underserved and traditionally conservative dining neighborhood will surely embrace. Reviewed July 31.

Camera icon  David Swanson / Staff Photographer
The gyro at Kanella Grill incorporates layers of flavor.

KANELLA GRILL

1001 Spruce St., Philadelphia, 267-928-2085, on Facebook.

The aroma of sizzling Mediterranean meats on skewers has returned to the corner of 10th and Spruce, where Konstantinos Pitsillides, a year after moving his more upscale original Kanella to Queen Village, has installed a traditional Cypriot kebab house. The pick-your-skewer for sandwich or platter concept and BYOB space are minimalist. The service is relaxed. The cash-only policy is a pain. But the deeply wrought flavors are so evocative of another place, and the prices are so fair, especially with the $30 three-course family-style mezze option, that this casual newcomer compensates for its lack of frills by being one of Philadelphia's great dining values. Reviewed Nov. 13.

SAGAMI JAPANESE RESTAURANT

37 W. Crescent Blvd., Collingswood, 856-854-9773, on Facebook

After an astounding 42 years of unwavering craftsmanship, Shigeru Fukuyoshi's low-lit, dark-wood destination in South Jersey for classic Japanese cooking remains a gold standard for pristine sushi cut right. Try the chirashi and broiled miso-eggplant appetizer. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

SOUTH PHILLY BARBACOA

1703 S. 11th St., 215-694-3797, southphillybarbacoa.com

Onetime food cart operators Cristina Martínez and husband Benjamin Miller have gained national acclaim for the rustic power of the authentic barbacoa served with a side of political activism at their mosaic-tiled storefront restaurant - my current favorite taqueria in Philly. Unlike competitors with bigger menus, this kitchen rises on the mastery of a handful of profoundly good specialties, namely the hauntingly tender whole-animal lamb barbacoa and spicy pancita sausage served only Friday through Sunday with exceptional fresh tortillas made from house-ground masa (and locally grown Mexican corn), nopales, and soulful chickpea-lamb consommé. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

WM. MULHERIN'S SONS

1355 N. Front St., 215-291-1355, wmmulherinssons.com

A former whiskey blending house from the 1870s has been gorgeously rehabbed into an Italian gem that is the grown-up restaurant Fishtown has been waiting for. With a wood-fired oven and grill, former Il Pittore chef Chris Painter makes his case as one of Philly's best Italian cooks, turning out refined Neapolitan pizzas (with an early assist from the Pitruco Pizza crew), elegant pastas, and impressive grilled meats. An excellent drink program (Italian wines, great cocktails and amari), smart service, and a beautiful tile-and-wood decor that pays homage to the historic character complete Mulherin's as the best new restaurant of 2016. Reviewed July 17.

VERY GOOD (Two bells)

26 NORTH BYOB

26 N. Third St. CLOSED.

Chef Michael Stollenwerk's Old City comeback didn't last. He's resurfaced at Two Fish in Haddonfield. Reviewed Feb. 21.

AUTOGRAPH BRASSERIE

503 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-964-2588, autographbrasserie.com

The strip mall manse in Wayne once occupied by Le Mas Perrier has been revived by the White Dog's Marty Grims and chef Ralph Fernandez as a clubby American brasserie. The meat-centric menu is not always as consistent (or original) as it should be for the prices. But Fernandez generally puts high-quality ingredients into appealing combinations, with house-made pasta a highlight. A solid wine list, a handsome multiroom décor, and outgoing service that knows how to correct mistakes make this new entry feel like a properly posh fit for the Main Line. Reviewed Nov. 6.

BAR BOMBON *

133 S. 18th St., 267-606-6612; barbombon.com

Vegan quick-serve queen Nicole Marquis pays homage to her Puerto Rican roots with a Latin-theme corner restaurant-bar close to her HipCityVeg in Rittenhouse. The colorful space has an evocative Caribbean vibe and an outgoing staff. But the original menu's reliance on mix-and-match mock meats for tempeh tacos and seitan burritos was not compelling. The recent hiring of Justin Petruce as culinary director has paid instant dividends, with a renewed push toward more creative veg-centric cookery, from hearts of palm ceviche to grilled carrots with carrot "mojo" and squash confit with braised collards, that give this distinctive concept the ambitious menu it deserves. Reviewed Jan. 17; revisited and upgraded from one bell in December.

BAR HYGGE

1720 Fairmount Ave., 215-765-2274, barhygge.com

The esoteric name may be a hard-to-pronounce evocation of the Danish phrase for "getting cozy with friends," but this noisy new brewpub should be easy for the Fairmount neighborhood to appreciate. Brewer and co-owner Tom Baker's quirky beers are as well-crafted as expected from the man behind Earth Bread + Brewery. An eclectic menu anchored by build-your-own tasting boards with ever-changing seasonal bites shows a scratch kitchen that goes beyond usual brewpub fare. Hygge already has the makings of a local hub, fueled also by good cocktails and draft wines. Reviewed May 29.

Camera icon sTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Pescado parroquia (branzino with poblano cream) at Blue Corn.

BLUE CORN MEXICAN RESTAURANT & BAR

940 S. Ninth St., 215-925-1010, on Facebook

This cozy Italian Market ode to authentic Mexican food brings a little extra polish to Ninth Street's taqueria scene, with experienced service and a bar mixing good renditions of classic beachy drinks. The kitchen excels with seafood and anything made with blue corn masa from the Sandoval family's home in San Mateo Ozolco. Some flavors taste a bit restrained, perhaps with the large gringo clientele in mind. But, overall, this is a worthy destination for many dishes not found elsewhere in the city. Only drawback: It's cash-only. Reviewed Oct. 2.

BIGA

810 Glenbrook Ave., Bryn Mawr, 610-525-4800, restaurantbiga.com

This casual cousin to Sean Weinberg's Restaurant Alba has brought wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and craft beer to a laid-back and colorful Bryn Mawr corner space, where locals gather around communal tables to savor the heat-blistered pies, veg-forward small plates, and a limited (but tasty) selection of moderately sized entrees and pastas that are well-priced for the neighborhood. A fridge with 80 craft brews (plus six on draft) gives pizza-loving beer geeks an added draw. Reviewed Dec. 4.

BUCKMINSTER'S

1200 S. 21st St. CLOSED.

Emerging Point Breeze wasn't quite ready for this "neo-bistro." It's been replaced by the simpler Burg's Hideaway Lounge. Reviewed Jan. 24.

BUTCHER BAR

2034 Chestnut St., 215-563-6328, butcherbarphilly.com

This multilevel carnivore's bonanza near Rittenhouse Square from the Valanni group (Mercato/Varga Bar) is a high-energy bistro with a vintage look dedicated to the joys of meat, from a variety of creative meatballs and sausages to reimagined bar food, big steaks, and whole fish off the wood-fired grill. The menu is a little inconsistent, the cocktails could use more polish, and the noise can be off the charts. But this is still an undeniably fun place to go with a group of red-meat lovers willing to pitch in for the $250 "trough" that brings everything on a plank for a family-style feast. Apologies in advance to those sitting nearby. Reviewed Dec. 18.

CAFÉ LUTECIA

2301 Lombard St., 215-790-9557

After more than a quarter-century as a beloved Fitler Square hub for breakfast and lunch with a genuine French panache, this family-run corner cafe launched Tuesday-night dinners featuring simple tapas and rustic plats du jour inspired by family recipes from owner Valérie Blum's home in the Basque country of France. The tiny space and underequipped kitchen limit what can be done, but the best dishes are homey in a good way, and the experience as a whole, fully embraced by its devoted fans, offers hints of an intriguing new chapter for one of Center City's most enduring neighborhood gems. Reviewed Aug. 7.

CHAAT & CHAI

1532 Snyder Ave., 215-271-1253, on Facebook

Indian street food gets a cheery update at this unexpected South Philly storefront BYOB, where a gorgeously colorful little dining room is framed with a parasol ceiling and Bollywood-bright murals, and the creative South Indian-accented menu is built on crunchy chaat salads, Kerala short rib paratha tacos, and hearty all-in-one "curry bowls." Technical limitations (no fryer or tandoor) keep the menu concise. But a personal touch, fair prices, outgoing service, and unique aesthetic make this project from two friends a distinctive and worthwhile entry to the usually predictable local Indian scene. Reviewed April 3.

COEUR

824 S. Eighth St. CLOSED.

The Euro-inspired food, beers, and ciders were great, but this project from the Strangelove's-Memphis Taproom team did not last. Reviewed Jan. 3.

THE DUTCH

1527 S. Fourth St. (at Cross Street), 215-755-5600, thedutchphilly.com

South Philly's already bountiful breakfast-lunch scene has gotten yet another charming entry in this cheery blue-and-white cafe near Dickinson Square, a welcome collaboration between two star-chef pals from East Passyunk - Lee Styer of Fond, and Joncarl Lachman of Noord. This is breakfast as you know it, from waffles to farm-fresh eggs, but with quality ingredient upgrades, a nod to traditional Pennsylvania Dutch flavors (as well as some real Dutch specialties), and a fun, relaxed vibe that channels this fast-rising neighborhood's youthful new spirit. Reviewed Aug. 21.

ITA101

20 S. Main St., Medford, N.J., 609-654-0101, ita101.com

Medford's native son Kevin Maher has returned from a 14-year cooking tour of Italy (followed by a stint at Il Pittore) to bring authentic Italian flavors dosed with seasonal tasting menus, deft seafood, and fresh pastas to an ambitious BYOB on this quaint South Jersey Main Street. The food is fresh, handmade, and filled with a genuine personal passion that deserves an audience - even if prices sometimes trend a little high and the exposed-brick dining room can become terribly noisy. Reviewed June 26.

Camera icon  DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
The parillada mixed grill feeds two at Malbec Argentine Steakhouse.

MALBEC ARGENTINE STEAKHOUSE

400 S. Second St., 215-515-3899, malbecsteakhouse.com

A traditional Argentine steak house has landed in Head House Square, transforming the evocative old-time tavern of the old Artful Dodger into a chimichurri-scented carnivore's corner. The service can be awkwardly overeager, and the drink list needs refining beyond its signature wine. But with properly cooked, well-seasoned, and quality steaks (try the parillada mixed grill), plus surprisingly good house pasta, empanadas, and a tango sound track, this is a romantic setting for a night of red meat and red wine. Reviewed April 17.

MISSION TAQUERIA

1516 Sansom St., 2nd floor, 215-383-1200, missiontaqueria.com

The team behind the Oyster House has opened a boisterous Mexican cantina right upstairs that's become a lively addition to Sansom Street's burgeoning nightlife scene. With great tortillas made from house-ground masa and a wood-fired grill rooting its kitchen, this modern American vision of a taqueria is built on affordable tacos, small plates, and large sharing platters, like the cochinita pibil, that land more hits than misses (those are usually the fusion detours). But when the tequila-fueled party crowd rallies noisily around the foosball and shuffleboard tables, the cheerful ambience can quickly morph into a raucous fiesta. Reviewed Oct. 23.

PERLA

1535 S. 11th St., 267-273-0008, perlaphilly.com

Filipino cuisine finally finds an ambitious local muse with chef Lou Boquila, whose snug BYOB off East Passyunk offers a contemporary setting for two distinct menus on separate evenings: a modern interpretation served á la carte during most of the week, and a fun Kamayan prix-fixe feast of traditional dishes served atop banana leaves on Sundays (with Wednesdays starting soon). The eat-with-your-hands Kamayan feast is special; the modern food needs lots of work. But while this fast-evolving passion project is still refining its focus, it's trending in the right direction. Reviewed Nov. 20.

ROOT

1206 Frankford Ave., 215-515-3452, rootrestaurant.com

Fishtown's next-wave makeover continues with this stylishly designed and intimate wine bar restaurant from Starr alum Greg Root, who's partnered with chef Nick Kennedy (a vet of NYC's Jean-Georges and Del Posto) to create a polished tile and chiffon-draped oasis for offbeat wines, outgoing service, and a menu with Italian and Spanish accents that's strongest with small plates. The entrée-size dishes still need work, but Root's burgers - especially the fantastic duxelles patty made of mushrooms - are among several reasons this chic newcomer could become a citywide draw. Reviewed Aug. 28.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Sona and Hamad Hahsy have upgraded the ambience at the new location of Sansom Kabob House.

SANSOM KABOB HOUSE

1300 South St., 215-751-9110, sansomkabobhouseonsouth.com

The street address may be different, but the name remains the same, and so does the quality of the traditional Afghan cooking at the Sansom Kabob House. A significant upgrade in ambiance marks progress for chef Hamad Hahsy and his wife, Sona, as restaurateurs, after 14 years of earning a loyal clientele in their basement space on Sansom Street. But it's the steady family feel of the service and homespun cooking, especially the tender kabobs, yogurt-sauced dumplings, rice platters, and whole wheat naan that distinguish this pleasant BYOB as one of the city's unique international values. Reviewed Feb. 7.

SATÉ KAMPAR

1837 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-324-3860, on Facebook

Skewers-up to this aromatic BYOB dedicated to the Malaysian art of saté. The deeply marinated meats (try the goat!) sizzle in back over open grills filled with coconut shell charcoal, and the rest of the small menu offers boldly flavored Malay specialties, like the superb rendang, laksa noodles, blue rice nasi kerabu, and several specialties wrapped in "bungkus," banana leaf bundles that evoke restaurateur Angelina Branca's homeland. The casual East Passyunk space has a street-food motif and doubles as an authentic Malaysian kopitiam coffee and tea bar, with frothy hand-pulled drinks that are unique and richly tasty. One of the year's most distinctive newcomers. Reviewed May 15.

SOUTH

600 N. Broad St., 215-600-0220, southrestaurant.net

The Bynum brothers (Zanzibar Blue) have returned to Broad Street with a polished new take on the jazz club-restaurant, this time north of City Hall in the former Route 6 with an ambitious menu inspired by New Southern flavors. Chef Paul Martin (ex-Catahoula, Strangelove's) goes well beyond his Louisiana gumbo roots to draw modern takes on ingredients from the Carolinas to Georgia, including an epic pork porterhouse that gives the kitchen almost equal pull with the jazz parlor. Overeager servers have a tendency to smother guests, but South is still a worthy new destination for lovers of music and regional American cuisine alike. Reviewed Jan. 10.

SOUTH HELM

100 Morris St. (at Front St.), 267-324-5085, helmphilly.com

Chef-partners Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths bring the same hyper-seasonal chalkboard menu and bare-bones BYOB mojo to Pennsport that helped them set the early tone for Kensington's rising culinary ambitions at the original Helm. Their smaller southern annex shares the local farm inspirations, outgoing service, and a minimalist - and noisy - decor. The vegetable-driven small plates are deceptively layered and nuanced, despite the casual presentation, but with only one large dish for sharing that hadn't changed much for months since opening (a cheesy stuffed chop), this promising follow-up felt a bit more limited early on than Helm's first act. Reviewed Sept. 4.

SOUTHWARK

701 S. Fourth St., 267-930-8538; southwarkrestaurant.com

This beloved Queen Village standby for good cocktails and thoughtful seasonal cooking has transitioned nicely from one talented couple to another. New chef-owner Chris D'Ambro and his partner-fiancée, Marina de Oliveira, have done a fine job preserving the friendly neighborhood character and craftsmanship of drinks in the bar while updating the menu with charcuterie and Italian accents (previewing the upscale modern Italian project, Ambra, that recently opened in their adjacent space). D'Ambro sometimes tries to do too much on his plates, but the focus on good ingredients and earnest scratch cooking usually pays off with satisfying results. The late-night menu (and, in particular, the new burger) is gaining buzz. Reviewed June 5.

SUGA

1720 Sansom St., 215-717-8968, sugabyfoo.com

Asian-fusion pioneer Susanna Foo returned to Center City in collaboration with son Gabriel for a sleek and broodingly dark Sansom Street restaurant that's more intimate - also noisier and less polished - than the eponymous landmark on nearby Walnut Street that she closed years ago. Though it hasn't been quite the triumphant revival I was hoping for, due both to evolution in our dining scene and some uncharacteristic flaws in food and service, there are still more than enough qualities here - especially with the chef's classic dishes, special teas, and a brighter lunch vibe - to merit a visit. Reviewed May 22.

TREDICI ENOTECA *

114 S. 13th St., 267-928-2092, tredicienoteca.com

Zavino pizzeria has grown a stylish wine-bar sibling just across 13th Street, where a sleek marble bar and sophisticated look, appealingly affordable Mediterranean small plates, and some exceptional wines by the glass on Cruvinet have made it a destination on its own. The "enoteca" name is a bit misleading, as both wines and menu roam beyond Italy. But I had more pressing concerns during the initial review over lackluster cooking. A revisit brought far more consistent plates, from briny raw oysters to crisp pork Milanese and a memorable squid ink tonnarelli with clams in spicy cream sauce, so Tredici is now finally starting to taste as good as it looks. Reviewed March 6; revisited and upgraded from one bell in December.

HIT OR MISS (One bell)

BESITO *

105 Coulter Ave., Ardmore, 484-417-6825, besitomexican.com

This dressed-up Mexican chain from New York (via Tampa, Fla.) landed on the Main Line at Suburban Square with a blazing outdoor hearth, a votive-candle wall, and a polished decor that reflects the upscale prices. Unfortunately, though the food has roots in authentic ideas, the execution was sloppy, the flavors stiflingly bland, and the servers, who range greatly in service skills, too often resort to iPad slide shows to sell the menu, as though diners have never seen a taco. A revisit that brought slightly more competent service and more carefully cooked food has helped Besito climb out of the "no bells" cellar. But only just barely, considering our entire three-course meal was rushed to chain-style completion in less than an hour. Reviewed Feb. 14; revisited and upgraded from zero bells in December.

FRONT STREET CAFE

1253 N. Front St., 215-515-3073, frontstreetcafe.net

Fishtown flexitarians should be understandably intrigued by this sprawling and handsome hybrid, a rehabbed historic building beside the El that's part coffee shop, part bar, and part all-day restaurant (with a vast back patio), where the health-forward menu is largely vegan with the option for organic meats and seafood. As a unique, affordable concept and potential hub for the growing neighborhood, it's a keeper. The kitchen, though, consistently struggled to realize the menu's promising ideas. Reviewed Feb. 28.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
The striped bass at Lou Bird's.

LOU BIRD'S

500 S. 20th St., 267-804-7977, loubirds.net

Reimagining the neighborhood restaurant at this prime corner on the border of Graduate Hospital and Rittenhouse has long been tricky, and though it's gotten a major rehab with new owners since its days as Meritage, the new incarnation still isn't quite right. The team behind the Happy Rooster is aiming for a more refined experience here with talented Garces veteran Natalie Maronski as chef. The food shows ambition, but perhaps too much to sustain consistently, as persistent flaws beyond the smallest plates, especially with entrees in the mid-$20s, hamper this project's potential. Reviewed Nov. 27.

URBAN FARMER *

1850 Ben Franklin Parkway, Logan Hotel, 215-963-2788; urbanfarmerphiladelphia.com

This steak house chain with a progressive sensibility out of Oregon has the unenviable task of replacing the Fountain, but it has also compounded its challenge with a disastrously kitschy design littered with neon and rocking chairs that, in an effort to casualize the chophouse genre, feels more like a West Elm furniture store. There are some quality ingredients (with an emphasis on local beef and cheese), diligent service, a worthy (albeit very overpriced) beverage program, and fresh outdoor spaces worth noting. And the kitchen, which struggled during the initial review, showed progress on my revisit in consistently hitting meat temperatures. It's definitely improved. But, ultimately, with an ambiance more suited to the mall, I still can't imagine spending my own money here for a blow-out meal with steak prices that easily soar into the $50s and beyond. Reviewed March 13; revisited with no rating change in November.

POOR (No bells)

AQIMERO

Ritz-Carlton, 10 Avenue of the Arts, 215-523-8200, richardsandoval.com/aqimero

The Ritz-Carlton has swapped the pink hue of its uninspired 10 Arts Bistro for the supposed sizzle of Richard Sandoval's Latin coastal grill. Unfortunately, after its white-curtain revamp, the grand domed space is as pale and awkward as ever, better suited to the corporate cocktail scene at its center than the upscale restaurant tucked behind the lobby columns, where the Mexican-inspired flavors (plus a hint of Asian fusion) are unexciting and poorly executed, especially considering the prices. Reviewed Oct. 9.

THE LITTLE LION *

243 Chestnut St., 267-273-0688, thelittlelionphilly.com

The pairing of a historic Old City bank space, a thematic nod to Alexander Hamilton, and a menu focused on Southern comforts has always seemed an oddly confusing concept, and it was poorly executed during its initial review. A revisit since a chef change, though, resulted in even more disappointment, with a kitchen that demonstrated exactly how not to fry chicken (chewy and dry), pickle a green tomato (achingly sour), season pimento cheese (inedibly spicy), or even make tomato soup that tastes something like tomato. The handsome vaulted-ceiling room will inevitably still draw history-minded tourists, but they'd better bring their coats because those majestic vintage windows have made the room this winter as drafty as Valley Forge. Reviewed April 24; revisited and downgraded to no bells in December.

Continue Reading