food

How Craig LaBan reviewed Philly's restaurants in 2017

Craig LaBan, Food Critic

Updated: Friday, December 22, 2017, 12:31 PM

The prawns at Hearthside, Craig LaBan’s restaurant of the year.

Philadelphia’s best chefs turned back time in 2017, embracing some old favorites with nods to tradition, and then making them relevant again. That’s how Joey Baldino turned a century-old private Italian hideaway called the Palizzi Social Club into the hottest table in town — even with the added challenge of needing to find a member to host. That’s how Chad and Hanna Williams transformed Friday Saturday Sunday from a restaurant renaissance relic into one of the most exciting contemporary kitchens and bars of the year. Panorama, that classic Italian, got fresh culinary energy, too.

Jesse Ito behind the sushi bar at Royal Izakaya. MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Handout
The soupe de poisson at a.kitchen. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
The octopus mural at Cheu Fishtown. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Hearthside, 801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, N.J. November 21, 2017 DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Calve's Tongue Tortellini at Park Place Café, DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Kinki scorpion fish at Royal Izakaya. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
The homemade spumoni at the Palizzi Social Club. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Handout
The baked eggplant Parmesan at Angelina's has a homey Neapolitan touch. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The Negroni cocktail at The Butcher and Barkeep. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Misha Demetrashvili bakes traditional bread at Georgian Bread. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Dan Popernack tests a beer at La Cabra Brewing in Berwyn. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Chef Sylva Senat at Maison 208. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Smoked matzo ball soup at the Rooster Soup Co DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Frank Nattle makes one of the best Regina pizzas in the region at Vecchia Pizzeria. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Handout
The pea soup at At the Table. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Scarpetta DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: How Craig LaBan reviewed Philly's restaurants in 2017

We saw some existing restaurant concepts get perfected in new editions as Cheu and Farm & Fisherman Tavern stepped up to three bells in second locations. Neighborhoods such as Fishtown, East Passyunk, and Queen Village continued to sizzle, and the western end of Walnut Street, spanning the Schuylkill to University City, suddenly came alive.

Jesse Ito behind the sushi bar at Royal Izakaya.

It was a banner year for rising talents Jesse Ito (Royal Izakaya), Michael Vincent Ferreri (Res Ipsa), Eli Collins (a.kitchen), Yianni Arhontoulis (Mica), and Phil Manganaro, whose Park Place Cafe was a gastronomic BYOB surprise in Merchantville.

But 2017, more than ever, was not entirely about new Center City restaurants. I ate the exotic loaves at Georgian Bread in the Northeast, a vast yet underappreciated slice of Philly where I also found 60 other recommendations. Our second annual edition of the Ultimate Dining guide took me on a surprisingly inspiring suburban journey, driving 4,000 miles over six months to 160 restaurants. A few standbys gained a bell over previous rankings, and some newcomers landed among my favorites regardless of geography, including my restaurant of the year: Hearthside in Collingswood, from two young veterans of Vernick.

This Year in Bells is a chance to revisit the highlights of all the restaurants reviewed on Sundays and those that had a rating change in the Ultimate Dining guide. As always, there were some second-chance revisits, and I returned to five — each designated with an asterisk (*). Unfortunately, a rating change didn’t happen for most. But the good news is that one restaurant did help its case: Ambra improved to elite three-bell status, with a more confident and inventive Italian experience.

In a year of nostalgia trips and road trips, that sense of an entire region getting more delicious by the day was one I want to remember.

THREE BELLS STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer The soupe de poisson at a.kitchen.

A. KITCHEN
135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030; akitchenandbar.com

The chefs keep changing, but a.kitchen remains one of Philly’s best, and perhaps most undervalued, destinations for a great meal with world-class wine in a sleek modern setting. Ex-Pub & Kitchen chef Eli Collins is the latest star, and he has given the menu a strong French accent, channeling his DBGB years in New York for masterful charcuterie and inspired family-style sharing feasts (spring lamb five ways; the ultimate Alsatian choucroute) to pair with beautiful seasonal small plates and the outstanding service that has been a fixture there since the High Street/Fork group took over three years ago. Its burger is also one of Philly’s best. Reviewed Nov. 19.

*AMBRA (revisited; upgraded from 2 bells)
705 S. Fourth St.; 267-858-9232; ambraphilly.com

Chef Chris D’Ambro and fiancee Marina de Oliveira created one of the year’s most ambitious and unusual new dining destinations: an intimate 16-seater that shares a kitchen with Southwark, their Queen Village restaurant and bar around the corner. The level of attention to handcraft — from the mixed wood and concrete decor to the myriad hors d’oeuvres, wine pairings, and outgoing service — is admirable. D’Ambro’s ever-changing modern Italian tasting menus are inspired, too, though they needed more consistency during the initial review. I found exactly that at a recent revisit, with better lighting and several truly memorable dishes — sweetbread agnolotti; tomato leaf pasta with preserved summer tomatoes; a smoking s’more for dessert — that showed inventiveness with a more confident touch. My only complaint was the soundtrack: too loud and jarringly out of place. Reviewed April 16; revisited and upgraded in December.

CANTINA FELIZ
424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington; 215-646-1320; cantinafeliz.com

After six years and several spin-offs (La Calaca Feliz, Taqueria Feliz), the original Cantina in Fort Washington remains the best of the Feliz family from Brian Sirhal and chef Tim Spinner, who’ve created one of the region’s most satisfying Nuevo Mex dining experiences, pairing a casual space with outgoing service, excellent tequila cocktails, myriad fresh guacamole variations, epic nachos, and a menu built to please a broad audience. Though the restaurant caters to suburban American tastes, Spinner, a Garces alum, draws inspirations from classic, no-shortcut preparations updated with polished style and quality ingredients. Cantina’s track record of consistency and continuous evolution helped it to rise to three bells. Re-reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

The octopus mural at Cheu Fishtown.

CHEU FISHTOWN
1416 Frankford Ave.; 267-758-2269; cheufishtown.com

The hipster noodle fusion works of chef Ben Puchowitz and partner Shawn Darragh have stepped up to the next level with their latest creation, an energetic Fishtown hybrid of their original Cheu Noodles and Bing Bing Dim Sum, set in a 19th-century carriage house reimagined as a moody night market wrapped in graffiti murals. The decor’s intense artistic energy is met by the culinary imaginations of Puchowitz and chef Justin Bacharach, who’ve refined Cheu’s nontraditional riffs on Asian-inspired street foods with wit, finesse, and a distinctive Jewish touch, like the matzo ball brisket ramen and must-order Bubbie Chow’s sliced beef sharing platter. In tandem with the fun space and impressively fair prices, Cheu 2.0 is one of Philly’s signature restaurants of the moment. Reviewed Nov. 5.

THE FARM & FISHERMAN TAVERN
575 Horsham Rd., Horsham; 267-673-8974; farmandfisherman.com

Can real food — seasonal, local, scratch-made, and creatively presented — survive in the suburbs in a way that feels accessible to a wide audience weaned on chains? Co-chefs and co-owners Josh Lawler and Todd Fuller have transitioned from fine dining to the perfect neighborhood restaurant with the second edition of F&F Tavern. This Pennsylvania counterpart to the South Jersey original feels more polished than the one in Cherry Hill, with refined recipes, informed service, a wide-ranging drink program built on local beer and spirits, and a diverse American menu that delivers quality at every level, from sandwiches to seafood specials, and with a greater sense of value than ever. Reviewed Aug. 13.

FRIDAY SATURDAY SUNDAY
261 S. 21st St.; 215-546-4232; fridaysaturdaysunday.com

This Rittenhouse institution has undergone a bold evolution under new owners Chad and Hanna Williams, who completely rehabbed the bi-level townhouse and handsomely transformed a restaurant renaissance relic into a relevant destination for great cocktails and contemporary fine dining. The change is drastic for some old-timers, who may hedge at edgy ingredients (smoked beef heart?) and complain about noise. But the new downstairs bar and upstairs room are gorgeous; the drinks are superb (try the Fibonacci series); and the delicious plates from Chad, a longtime Garces vet, make his case as one of our rising stars. Reviewed March 12.

Hearthside, 801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, N.J. November 21, 2017

HEARTHSIDE
801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood; 856-240-1164; hearthsidebyob.com

Chef Dominic and Lindsay Piperno’s stylish wood-fired American BYOB is blazing away at next-level sophistication for Collingswood, with a moody corner space built from scratch and a modern menu that tastes like a transplanted Center City kitchen. The parallels to Vernick, where Piperno (also ex-Zeppoli) met co-chief Aaron Gottesman (Fat Ham) are obvious in a good way, from artful crudos and inventive seasonal pastas to large-format sharing entrees (what a porterhouse!) blessed by the heat of the flames. Hearthside isn’t just the best new restaurant in South Jersey; it’s the best new restaurant in the entire Philadelphia region for 2017. Reviewed Dec. 3.

MICA
8609 Germantown Ave.; 267-335-3912; micarestaurant.com

The gem of Chestnut Hill has gotten even better, thanks to a change in ownership. Going BYOB, improving food value, and adding the spontaneity of weekly themed tasting menus has also transformed Mica from a special-occasion destination into a neighborhood-centric haunt. Most important, it’s a showcase for the bright new culinary talent of owner-chef Yianni Arhontoulis, who worked for former owner Chip Roman but who is making his own mark with elegant modern plates that channel local seasonality and international influences, from crab beignets to tuna tartare, curried branzino, and churros. Reviewed June 18.

MISTRAL
King of Prussia Mall, 160 N. Gulph Rd.; 610-768-1630; mistralkop.com

Serious cooking at the mall? Star Princeton chef Scott Anderson is making it happen with this airy King of Prussia sibling to his Central Jersey original, where a flexible menu of gorgeous plates with diverse international influences finds a delicate balance between accessibility and modern culinary craft. Great cocktails, an outstanding wine list (with a sommelier on site), and a grand patio add to this ambitious new project’s potential as a post-shopping oasis. Reviewed June 4.

PANORAMA
Penn’s View Hotel, 14 N. Front St.; 215-922-7800; panoramaristorante.com

With Guinness world-record status as the biggest single wine-by-the-glass system in the world, Panorama has been a wine lover’s destination for 27 years. A major recent renovation, in tandem with an ambitious new young chef, has brought the dining room and Italian menu a needed update, infusing the food with more seasonality, local products, and creativity, and helping to make this still-elegant Old City pioneer relevant once again. Reviewed Jan. 29.

Calve's Tongue Tortellini at Park Place Café,

PARK PLACE CAFE & RESTAURANT
7 E. Park Ave., Merchantville; 856-662-2200; parkplacecafeandrestaurant.com

Phil Manganaro’s owner-chef debut at this charming BYOB is an inspired solo performance of in-the-moment gastronomy from the longtime Starr veteran (Il Pittore, Parc, Dandelion), who presents stellar ingredients, from 55-day dry-aged rib eye to turbot, truffles galore, and outstanding pastas, elevated by handmade bread, foraged mushrooms, “magic oil,” and even sea salt boiled in-house. The simple decor and service are minimalist but delightful, allowing the food and cozy ambiance to create a very personal experience that also feels sophisticated — sometimes even edgy — but without pretense. Reviewed Oct. 15.

RES IPSA
2218 Walnut St.; 267-519-0329; resipsaphilly.com

This spare little storefront near the Walnut Street Bridge is another entry to the all-day restaurant trend, morphing from a cafe serving top-notch coffee and breakfast sandwiches to light but cheffy lunches, and then an unexpectedly compelling Italian BYOB at night. Almost every bite at this hybrid, co-owned by Stock’s Tyler Akin and the ReAnimator Coffee crew, is delicious. But it’s the Sicilian-driven dinner menu that certifies first-time exec chef Michael Vincent Ferreri (Zeppoli, Aldine, Zahav) as a name to remember. Don’t miss the octopus, agrodolce chicken, fazzoletti with bottarga, lamb tartare, or whole fish. Reviewed April 30.

Kinki scorpion fish at Royal Izakaya.

ROYAL IZAKAYA
780 S. Second St.; 267-909-9002; royalsushiandizakaya.com

Lovers of Japanese food will rejoice at the return of father-son chef duo Matt and Jesse Ito, who’d been absent since selling Fuji in Haddonfield. Jesse has taken the lead at this very different project in Queen Village, a collaboration with the Royal Tavern’s owners that is actually two restaurants in one. In front, a lively izakaya with an epic list of Japanese booze serves well-executed classics to a no-reservations barroom lighted by anime cartoons. Behind a curtain in back, a reservations-only crowd indulges in omakase tastings at a stunning mahogany sushi bar overseen by Jesse. The tastings are ultra-pricey, but the craftsmanship and the quality of fish, most imported from Japan, vie for the city’s best sushi splurge. Reviewed Feb. 12.

SLATE BLEU
100 S. Main St., Doylestown; 215-348-0222; slatebleu.com

This brasserie from owner-chef Mark Matyas has become Doylestown’s best restaurant over the last 11 years, serving classic French dishes — salmon tartare, silky quenelles in crawfish cream, stuffed loin of lamb, and textbook trout meunière — in a historic Civil War-era space. Son Eric now works alongside Mark in the kitchen while daughter Siena works the dining room with Matyas’ wife, Susan, bringing a family warmth to the restaurant. No wonder devoted locals like to perch at the soapstone bar for expert cocktails, perfect baked oysters, and wonderful house ice creams with profiteroles for dessert. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

TERESA’S NEXT DOOR
124 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne; 610-293-9909; teresas-nextdoor.com

What began a decade ago as a Belgian bar with a novel Mexican twist has settled in, refined its Euro-taqueria bistro menu, and evolved into so much more than just a great beer bar. There aren’t many places where you can order delicate waterzooi seafood stew alongside tender goat tacos and “disco frites” in Brie Mornay. Even more compelling, TND has blossomed into what may well be the single greatest place to drink well in the suburbs, a distinction that has elevated it to a third bell, with nearly 400 whiskeys, outstanding cocktails, a tap box that is entirely gluten-free, a 75-bottle “natural” wine list, and, of course, some of the greatest beers in the world to pair with those fricadellen Belgian meatballs, carnitas tacos, mussels, and more. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

WALNUT STREET CAFE
Cira Centre South, 2929 Walnut St.; 215-867-8067; walnutstreetcafe.com

This airy all-day cafe, restaurant, and bar may be hidden behind the sloping glass walls of the latest Cira Centre skyscraper, but it’s one of Philly’s most sophisticated newcomers, courtesy of the crew behind New York’s Michelin-starred Rebelle. The modern American menu rises on high-level scratch cooking, from baker Melissa Weller’s exceptional morning pastries to chef Daniel Eddy’s standout pastas, raw bar, and meats. Add a beautiful modern space, stellar cocktails, and one of the most exciting wine programs in town from star sommelier Patrick Cappiello, and University City has landed a knockout destination. Reviewed Oct. 8.

Not formally rated JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer The homemade spumoni at the Palizzi Social Club.

PALIZZI SOCIAL CLUB
1408 S. 12th St.; palizzisocial.com

It’s been a members-only secret in Italian South Philly for nearly a century, but suddenly everybody wants to belong to the Palizzi Social Club. The reason? Joey Baldino, who owns Zeppoli, has transformed the rowhouse hideaway once owned by his uncle into a tribute to the family recipes he grew up with in the Italian Market, with spaghetti in crab gravy and spumoni made in-house. Paired with creative Italian cocktails and late hours that draw an industry crowd, it feels like a time capsule come to life. Nonmembers will have to find an in-the-know host to take them as guests. Its private club status explains why I’ve assigned no official rating. But Palizzi is now one of Philly’s most essential places to eat, so on this list, at least, it belongs among my favorites. Featured June 15.

TWO BELLS TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer The baked eggplant Parmesan at Angelina’s has a homey Neapolitan touch.

ANGELINA’S
743 S. Eighth St.; 215-922-1349; angelinasbyob.com

After decades of serving Center City with Girasole’s trademark Italian glitz, Angela and Franco Iovino have gone back to basics in a tiny South Philly BYOB that feels like an Italian grandma’s living room. The decor is minimal, but the food is the epitome of Neapolitan home cooking, from low-rise lasagna to soulful braciola and handmade pastas that satisfy with the simple comfort of a nonna’s knowing touch. It’s cash-only, of course. Reviewed Nov. 12.

BAIT & SWITCH
2537 E. Somerset St.; 267-639-5041; thebestseafood.com

It smells like a summer vacation at this casual fish house and gastropub in Port Richmond, where chef Joe Hunt draws on inspirations from North Philly to South Carolina for quality seafood updates that are fresh and affordable, from Louisiana-style BBQ shrimp to excellent fried fish. This smartly renovated corner tavern with a congenial front U-shaped bar and beer garden gets its youthful vibe from the team behind Fishtown’s Loco Pez and certifies that a new generation has arrived in Port Richmond. Reviewed Jan. 8.

BARCELONA WINE BAR
1709 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-515-7900; barcelonawinebar.com

Spanish tapas have landed in a big way on this pointy East Passyunk corner, a former clothing store converted into a deceptively large, wedge-shaped space done up with industrial chic, a U-shaped marble bar, and fold-up windows beside a hedge-trimmed sidewalk patio. You’d never know it was a national chain, except when some of the big Spanish menu’s traditional dishes lack touch. But there are enough good plates, good wines, and a lively social vibe for this magnetic newcomer to offer added value to the Avenue. Reviewed Oct. 29.

B2 BLUEFIN
401 E. City Ave., Bala Cynwyd; 610-227-1507; b2bluefin.com

Yong Kim’s East Norriton Japanese hit makes a splash in Bala Cynwyd with a swanky new sushi hall for the Main Line crowd. The sleek modern space feels much more corporate than the strip mall original. The slightly smaller menu also has fewer cooked options for the raw-fish-averse. But if you crave great tuna, the high-grade bluefin sliced into colorful sashimi and maki rolls (try the Bentley, Boathouse, Ramp, and B2 Naruto) sets this ambitious newcomer a worthy half-step above the suburban average. Reviewed May 7.

The Negroni cocktail at The Butcher and Barkeep.

THE BUTCHER
& BARKEEP
712 Main St., Harleysville; 267-932-8407; thebutcherandbarkeep.com

Standard Tap alums Cody Ferdinand and Gerard Angelini have created a bumping Northern Liberties-style gastropub in a quiet retail strip out in the sticks of Harleysville, loading the 21-tap draft system with one of the best beer selections in the suburbs, plus great craft cocktails, like a barrel-aged boulevardier. Chef Jeff Sacco cooks a neighborhood-friendly menu of bold flavors at affordable prices, from meat and cheese boards to sandwiches built on scratch meats to dishes with a Southern flair, like shrimp and grits, a convincing shrimp gumbo, and “sexy fries” in truffled hollandaise. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

CHICK’S
1805-7 Washington Ave.; 215-546-2233; chicksphilly.com

Everything behind the garage door walls of this cavernous restaurant, pizzeria, and bar is so unlikely — the converted warehouse space on Washington Avenue, the multiculti comfort food updates, the underworld history of its name and ownership — that Chick’s is a genuinely pleasant surprise. The staff is outgoing and friendly. The prices are reasonable. And the scratch menu ranges appealingly from Italian sandwiches to pho broth mussels, tacos, unusual pizzas, and meat loaf Americana. Chick’s has the potential to become a lively and casual all-purpose hub for a rapidly evolving neighborhood. Reviewed July 16.

DUBU
1333 W. Cheltenham Ave., Elkins Park; 215-782-3828; thedubu.com

The name means tofu, in a nod to the hot stone bowls of spicy soondubu stew that are its signature dish. But you don’t have to be into bean curd to appreciate that this gem, tucked into a contemporary space at the back of an Elkins Park strip mall, is one of the area’s best all-around Korean restaurants. The menu covers a wide array of classics, from grilled L.A. short ribs to stone pot bibimbap, but extra layers of depth, finesse, and a confident spicy funk set it apart. Reviewed May 28.

EL MARIACHI LOCO
101 Bellevue Ave., Hammonton; 609-270-7224; elmariachilocorestaurant.com

The “blueberry capital of the world” also happens to be one of the best places for authentic Mexican food in New Jersey, thanks to generations of agricultural workers who’ve settled and opened restaurants. Robert Diaz’s El Mariachi Loco, which relocated into a grand gingerbread Victorian storefront beside the train tracks, is the best reason to visit. The enchiladas in mole poblano is a standout, but so are the hand-pressed “super grandes” huaraches al pastor, quesadillas stuffed with huitlacoche, Coke-braised carnitas, chilies rellenos, and the soulful bowl of pozole hominy stew. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

Misha Demetrashvili bakes traditional bread at Georgian Bread.

GEORGIAN BREAD
10865 Bustleton Ave.; 215-677-4323 or 267-481-1971; georgianbread.business.site

Come for the distinctive boat-shaped breads baked in a huge tandoor hearth called a “toné,” then grab a seat at a picnic table in the dining room for a feast of other homey specialties that make Georgian food such a distinctive cuisine, rich in walnuts, pomegranates, stews, and cheese-laden khachapuri. Try the juicy khinkali dumplings and ostri beef stew. Northeast Philly already has a treasure of culinary options from republics once dominated by the Soviet empire, but this casual spot fills a spot in Georgian cuisine that’s been empty for a few years. Reviewed Nov. 26.

HARP & CROWN
1525 Sansom St.; 215-330-2800; harpcrown.com

The latest scene magnet from Michael Schulson and Nina Tinari-Schulson (Double Knot) is another upstairs-downstairs surprise, with a soaring dining hall dressed up in shabby-chic nostalgia, and a luxe bowling alley lounge hidden in the basement favored by rap stars and sports celebs. The wide-ranging New American menu is better than it needs to be for such a hot spot. The lamb meatballs, spicy soppresata pizza, and N.Y. strip for two are hits. Reviewed Feb. 19.

HEARTH KITCHEN
Shoppes at Longwood Gardens, 847 E. Baltimore Pike, Kennett Square; 484-732-8320; hearthkennettsquare.com

After years in Wilmington, chef Bryan Sikora has returned to Kennett Square (where he helped create Talula’s Table) and opened an appealing Italian concept in an updated strip mall space outfitted with a wood-fired pizza oven. The service has at times been problematic. But the food is often outstanding, especially the pastas and rustic Euro entrees, like the stuffed veal loin and pork cheek ravioli with chanterelles, executed with fresh seasonal flavors and local inspirations that remind me why Sikora has long been one of my favorite chefs. A solid bet for dinner on the way to Longwood Gardens. Reviewed Oct. 22.

JAXON
701 N. Third St.; 215-922-2621; jaxonbyob.com

This tiny corner BYOB replaced Il Cantuccio and is a worthy gem if you’re seeking a grown-up dining option in Northern Liberties. Owner Tony Shiro (ex-Latest Dish) runs the dining room with personal warmth, and chef Matthew Gansert (Rex 1516, Will BYOB) turns out a frequently changing blackboard menu built on seasonality and good ingredients that range New American-style from a daily crudo to fresh pastas and a pork chop with local grits. Reviewed Jan 1.

Dan Popernack tests a beer at La Cabra Brewing in Berwyn.

LA CABRA BREWING
642 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn; 610-240-7908; lacabrabrewing.com

One of the local craft-beer scene’s newest stars is across from the Berwyn train station, where former Spanish teacher and garage cult brewer Dan Popernack has combined his love of beer and Spanish culture in a gastropub that dabbles in pan-Latino themes. The kitchen veers liberally from tradition but leans on indulgent scratch cooking (lots of pork belly and duck confit) to embellish dishes ranging from tacos to Cubano sandwiches and foie gras pierogi. Popernack’s true passion — funky barrel-aged brews — began emerging this spring, with variations on Belgian sours and wild yeast lambics that are impressive. Reviewed March 5.

LA MAISON
1470 Old Ridge Rd., Coventryville; 484-680-2631; martinskitchen.com

This early-18th-century stone house in historic Coventryville is both the residence of Martin and Janet Gagné and their 24-seat restaurant, where rustic French tasting meals are served three nights a week. The multicourse $90 menus (and smaller $42 Thursday suppers) are conceived spontaneously each week, so plan-in-advance diners must be flexible (and bring cash!) Gougères, chicken braised with morels, and a leek-and-goat cheese tart were among the highlights. But the family-style hospitality and setup make for a personal dining experience worth the trip to this bucolic corner of Chester County. Reviewed May 21.

LA MULA TERCA
2053 S. Beechwood St.; 267-761-5194

Amid the taqueria riches of South Philadelphia, La Mula Terca in Point Breeze aspires to be something distinct, with a slightly more upscale decor and the fact there isn’t a taco on the menu. Instead, this project from Arturo Lorenzo and Maricela Tellez, who own casual Cafe Y Chocolate across the street, highlights updated street foods, a repertoire of soulfully rustic soups (lamb birria!), grilled steak with huitlacoche sauce, and pan-Latino influences that borrow flavors from Venezuela (arepas) and Argentina (chimichurri). Reviewed Jan. 26.

LA PEÑA MEXICANA
609 W. Cypress St., Kennett Square; 610-925-2651; lapenamexicana.com

The immigrant-rich community around mushroom country has a long tradition of great Mexican food, but La Peña Mexicana is my favorite. Its building, striped like a bumblebee in a Mexican flag, is impossible to miss. But the food inspired by the northern coastal state of Guerrero is the real draw. Try the hand-pressed huaraches, top-notch tacos with pineapple-spiked al pastor, or sublimely tender lengua. But what I really crave is the chimichanga fried to greaseless glory in a flaky shell wrapped around meticulously layered rice, beans, and meats — such as the boneless smoked pork chop filling. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

MAIDO!
5 Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; 484-417-6745; maidoardmore.com

The region’s only Japanese grocery moved from Narberth to Ardmore and remains an essential source for kombu and other imported goods. More important, Maido’s lunch counter, known for rice bowls topped with chicken katsu in thick curry gravy and tender gyu don beef stew, is bigger and brighter here. I come just for the Kansai-style okonomiyaki, a delicious savory pancake-omelet stuffed with nuggets of pork and shrimp, cabbage, and grated yam, streaked with tangy sauces and shaved bonito flakes that dance atop the surface in the pancake’s heat. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

Chef Sylva Senat at Maison 208.

MAISON 208
208 S. 13th St.; 215-999-1020; maison208.com

Is it a glamor lounge for the retractable roof deck set, an accessible showplace for one of the city’s most talented chefs, or a destination for mural lovers? Maison 208 has been all of the above, a tweener project that bridges the bar-restaurant divide with culinary ambition, creative cocktails, and natural wines. The return of ex-Tashan chef Sylva Senat is the most compelling draw, as he brings a unique modern cuisine accented by the island flair of his Haitian roots. His talent is not always best showcased by the multitasking mission, but together with the inventive drinks, including the interactive gin and terrarium punch, Maison 208 is a fun destination nonetheless. Reviewed Sept. 3.

MARGARET KUO’S
175 Lancaster Ave, Wayne; 610-688-7200; margaretkuo.com

We come to hear the gong announce what is still the region’s best Peking duck. But there are many other favorites on Margaret Kuo’s menus that certify her as one of our pioneers of authentic Chinese food: the first soup dumplings in the area, open-ended Peking-style potstickers, Shanghai braised pork shoulder with fluffy homemade buns, and red-cooked short ribs. The competition has caught up to Kuo’s menu, and the elegant Wayne location now feels a little staid. It no longer feels like a three-beller, but it still remains a favorite for a special occasion. Rereviewed and downgraded from three bells in the Ultimate Dining guide.

THE ORIGINAL CLAM TAVERN
339 E. Broadway Ave., Clifton Heights; 610-623-9537; clamtavern.net

The Original Clam Tavern is a throwback in the best sense, an old-school fish house of the sort that’s all but disappeared in Philly but that has stayed true to blue-collar Clifton Heights for 50-plus years. That’s largely thanks to veteran owner Tony Blanche, who understands the value of quality ingredients treated simply with pride. The clams casino, red-sauced mussels, lumpy crab cakes, spaghetti with clams, and lobster fra diavolo are all spot-on. Even the filet mignon and veal Oscar in buttery hollandaise and crab are fantastic. But don’t miss the signature baked clams roasted whole in a distinctive steel tray. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

Smoked matzo ball soup at the Rooster Soup Co

*ROOSTER SOUP CO. (Revisited; no rating change)
1526 Sansom St.; 215-454-6939; roostersoupcompany.com

Eating smoked matzo ball soup and awesome banana cream pie for charity is a brilliant idea from the star powers of Zahav’s Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. This subterranean restaurant’s mission to reinvent the lunch counter is also a noble quest, with affordable blue-plate prices, a lively diner counter, and outgoing service. The kitchen has stabilized since the departure of opening chef Erin O’Shea, turning out some inventive sandwiches, like the vegetarian beet-L-T, along with meaty hits like the everything-spiced burger and Yemenite chicken pot pie. The spicy Schug-A-Rita drink is even better as philanthropic sipping. Reviewed May 14; revisited in December.

ROOTS CAFE
133 E. Gay St., West Chester; 610-455-0100; rootscafewc.com

Farm-to-table bistro cooking in a funky yellow room and light-strung back patio feels like the right speed of casual-but-ambitious for this college town successor to the more formal Gilmore’s. Dinner brought good ingredients in unusual poses: crispy duck with raspberry butter and grits, a solid lobster roll, a swordfish “burger” with cheese and a fried egg that was better than it sounds. But brunch is Roots’ strongest course, when the omelets are outstanding, the corned beef is house-cured, and the Bloody Marys come with a swizzle stick of beef jerky. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

ROY PITZ BARREL HOUSE
990 Spring Garden St.; 215-995-6792; roypitzbarrelhouse.com

This newcomer from Chambersburg, Pa., has barreled onto Spring Garden Street with big oak foudres of sour ale. Technically, this handsome industrial-chic space is more an aging room for Pitz’s ambitiously funky beers, which are still brewed in Franklin County. But it’s a fantastic and spacious place to grab a drink before a show at Union Transfer. And the full-service menu goes beyond the usual brewpub fare with seasonality and fresh ingredients (carrot hummus; shrimp ceviche; fried green tomato Caprese) at prices that should make it a hub for Spring Garden’s emerging beer district. Reviewed Aug. 6.

STOVE & TAP
329 W. Main St., Lansdale; 215-393-8277; stoveandtap.com

In a part of Montgomery County particularly dominated by chains, few restaurants have done as good a job of reinventing the neighborhood tavern with quality ingredients as much as this massive and handsome bi-level corner project from two alums of the Stephen Starr orbit. Co-owner Justin Weathers and chef Benjamin “Biff” Gottehrer (ex-Dandelion) deliver updated American comfort foods with scratch cooking and creative twists, from confit chicken wings to grilled shrimp in garlic conserva, smoked chicken pot pie, and a nearly perfect double-patty ode to the Big Mac. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

TRATTORIA CARINA
2201 Spruce St.; 215-732-5818

The owners of Fitler Dining Room have reflagged their New American jewel box into a more approachable corner trattoria featuring updated Italian favorites (chicken Milanese; tagliatelle Bolognese) and a decidedly low-key, no-reservations vibe (also BYOB-friendly) that has locals lining up for the community table and counter seats. The new concept feels right for the neighborhood, and the frequently changing menu is already very good (try the spicy crab shells), though, given the fancy pasta machine in back, there’s still room for it to grow and find its true identity in a city of great Italian restaurants. Reviewed Dec. 17.

24 WOOD FIRED FARE
2401 Walnut St.; 215-333-3331; 24philly.com

Jose Garces’ foray into the wood-fired Italian wave serves solid but unremarkable renditions of antipasti, pastas, hoagies, and fresh salads at fair prices in a casual, industrial chic setting that occupies a perch overlooking the Schuylkill River Trail. The inconsistent pizzas need work, but the unique location, simple successes, and circular bar have potential to grow into a fixture for those lingering by the trail and crossing the Walnut Street Bridge. Reviewed Feb. 26.

Frank Nattle makes one of the best Regina pizzas in the region at Vecchia Pizzeria.

VECCHIA PIZZERIA
249 Bridge St., Phoenixville; 610-933-1355; on Facebook.

Frank Nattle’s Phoenixville pizzeria has long been a destination for perfect Neapolitan pie — the crust puffing quickly from the 1,000-degree heat of a wood-fired oven. The Regina, made with buffalo mozzarella, a sunburst of San Marzano sauce, and aromatic basil is the perfect example (and a steal at $10 for lunch). An expansion of the minimalist menu to include some more salads and classic pastas, like the excellent spaghetti with cockle clams, is even more reason to go. Reviewed in the Ultimate Dining guide.

WISTER BYOB
26 N. Third St.; 267-239-5900; wisterbyob.com

The industrial chic Old City BYOB previously known as 26 North changed names and chefs but didn’t lose its culinary ambitions. Benjamin Moore, the longtime brunch master at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, makes a bright head-chef debut with a seafood-centric menu that dabbles in some creative concepts and seasonality. Among the highlights were a truffled scallop crepe, the chicken for two, and the tuna appetizer. The sometimes awkward service and weak desserts show this bistro’s understaffed limitations. But Wister is still a good bet for a pleasant grown-up meal in Old City. Reviewed March 26.

ONE BELL DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer The pea soup at At the Table.

*AT THE TABLE BYOB (Revisited; no rating change)
11 Louella Ct., Wayne; 610-964-9700; atthetablebyob.com

Wayne’s dining scene should be ripe for a sophisticated BYOB serving beautiful contemporary cuisine. But Alex Hardy and Tara Buzan’s ambitious bistro struggled early on to bring enough substance to its pretty plates to merit sky-high prices ($20-plus for appetizers? No.) A brief closure and reboot with a new menu, less precious presentations, and slightly less expensive prices seemed smart, and the service was sharp at a recent revisit. But the cooking hiccups persisted in multiple dishes, and our meal was simply too underwhelming to merit $30 an entree — or the end-of-year rating boost I’d hoped for. Reviewed April 23; revisited in December.

*CO-OP (Revisited; no rating change)
The Study hotel, 20 S. 33rd St.; 215-398-1874; thestudyatuniversitycity.com

With sleek glass walls folded up for al fresco dining and an airy dining room outfitted in woody Nordic chic, this corner restaurant-bar in the new Study boutique hotel gives University City a handsome all-purpose destination for a stylish New American meal. Food and service, however, got off to a rough start. A recent revisit was pleasant enough, with outgoing service and a fine rotisserie chicken. But too many other details were flawed, and a lack of finesse with more ambitious dishes (like the dry $28 salmon) make it hard to recommend for more than a drink and burger. Reviewed Aug. 20; revisited in December.

*SAVONA (Revisited; no rating change)
100 Old Gulph Rd., Gulph Mills; 610-520-1200; savonarestaurant.com

A three-bell suburban standby for two decades, Savona has struggled to remake itself from a fine-dining temple of wine and French Riviera cuisine into a more accessible spot focused on Italian flavors. It took a big ratings tumble after a pair of midsummer meals that brought questionable cooking, haughty staff, and shabby wine service for a one-bell review that was very nearly a zero. A December revisit showed improvements in service, and worthy wines by the glass were found once the personable sommelier went “off menu” for something special. But there was something wrong with seemingly everything else, from an undrinkably bitter cocktail to the fridge-cold bread basket, a pasta too fine and flimsy to be called “chitarra,” and otherwise prime ingredients (a $55 Dover sole and tender $38 lamb) that were tasty but barely hot. Even the brownie was a fluffy dud. To quote the gentleman complaining at the table behind me: “For these prices, I expected more.” Reviewed July 23. revisited in December.

Scarpetta

SCARPETTA
Rittenhouse Hotel, 210 W. Rittenhouse Sq.; 215-558-4199; scarpettarestaurants.com/philadelphia

With its glassy hotel perch overlooking Rittenhouse Square and a New York pedigree, Scarpetta promised upscale Italian dining with a chic ambiance and gorgeous parkside view. Most of that view, however, is obscured by a giant macrame work. The kitchen disappointed, too, with dishes that featured fine ingredients but little finesse, and that strangely arrived too often not hot. In a city brimming with soulful Italian competition, this anticipated newcomer fell short. Reviewed Jan. 28.

VEDA
1920 Chestnut St.; 267-519-2001; vedaphilly.com

It’s been a while since Center City had an Indian restaurant with decor as swanky as Veda, which replaced Le Castagne with bold street-art reds, sleek dark booths, chandeliers, and a bar with fusion-style potential. Unfortunately, the flavors were dialed back to such timid blandness for a presumed mainstream audience that the menu of fairly standard dishes lacks enough character, complexity, and consistent execution. Reviewed April 2.

Craig LaBan, Food Critic

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