Reader: Your review of Cadence sounds terrific, but how do South Kensington and Fishtown get so many interesting eats and the Graduate Hospital/Fitler Square area so few?
Craig LaBan: You’ve touched on an ongoing mystery to me, as well: Why, of all the fast-evolving neighborhoods, has the Graduate Hospital/Fitler zone accumulated so many underwhelming, unadventurous places? The most forward-cooking fine-dining kitchen there is still Pumpkin, the tiny BYOB that is already 14 years old (but aging gracefully).
The answer considers both demographics and real estate. The right mix of residents just hasn’t been quite been there to support a cutting-edge restaurant. There are a lot of Penn students and that’s resulted in a vague college-town vibe to the many casual new places that have popped up around South Street West.
There are well-to-do residents in the sprawling Naval Square development, but its origin as a gated community did not foster much spillover to a thriving restaurant scene beyond its walls.
Lovely Fitler Square, just north, meanwhile, is filled with older empty-nesters who still pine for the mushroom soup of the old Friday Saturday Sunday. (Just kidding! I liked that soup, too!) Actually, the new edition of Fri Sat Sun is definitely in Cadence’s league in terms of culinary thrills, but it’s officially in the Rittenhouse neighborhood, a well-established dining destination.
In the neighborhoods we’re talking about just south and west, Pub & Kitchen has always overachieved on the plate for a gastropub. Rex 1516 has its moments for Southern inspirations, too, beyond its excellent burgers. And I like Trattoria Carina on 22nd Street just fine, but it exists only because the more ambitious Fitler Dining Room struggled to win lasting support from a neighborhood that just didn’t warm to that kind of upscale dining.
But it really also comes down to real estate. In Fishtown and Kenzo, as well as East Passyunk, you have both the millennial demographic of hungry, adventurous young professionals living there and the reasonable retail rents (at least for now) where start-up entrepreneurs can take chances, invest $120,000 or less to get up and running (as Cadence did), and still keep menu prices within reach.
More tellingly, many of these emerging neighborhoods are also close to where many restaurant industry staffers live. So, when chef Michael Fry passed by the corner storefront at Girard Avenue and Hancock Street and saw Modo Mio was suddenly for rent, which started the ball rolling for Cadence, he and partners Jon Nodler and Samantha Kincaid decided to open their dream restaurant not in Center City, where they’d worked together at Fork and High Street on Market, but in South Kensington — close to home.
For those living in G-Ho and Fitler Square, the blocks in Point Breeze just south of Washington Avenue are ripe for similar pioneering bistro action, though to date mostly gastropubs (i.e. American Sardine Bar) and Mexican spots have thrived.
But it’s important also to let each neighborhood find its own unique voice, and the recent news that Dock Street Brewing Co. plans to open a large production space and taproom in a former tile warehouse at 2118 Washington Ave. is especially intriguing. This longtime industrial corridor feels poised for a major transformation into a thriving commercial strip. Will it bring fine-dining thrills, too? Who knows? But as with so much in Philly these days, if the craft beer starts flowing, good things are likely to follow.