A couple weeks ago, I found myself down a country road in Chapel Hill, N.C., waiting for lunch amid the taxidermy and ice-cold jugs of sweet tea at Allen & Son Bar-B-Que. Old smoke shacks sometimes don't live up to their legends. But my first taste of this torchbearer of the East Carolina pit - its finely chopped hog sauced with a spicy vinegar tang - was akin to finding religion.
'It will be an hour for a table . . . ." That used to be the line hostesses gave when they wanted you to give up - defeated - before you even started. Rarely was it ever actually going to be an hour - unless, of course, it came with a withering stare from one of the infamous list-ticking sirens at Village Whiskey. But at least there it was worth the wait.
Have you heard of the Pot Whisperers of the Mildred? Some chefs listen to the seasons as their muse. Others channel the ancestral voices of family tradition. But for cooking school pals and partners Michael Santoro and Michael Dorris, the call of enameled cast iron - in particular, their collection of Staub stove-to-tableware - is what guides the Mildred's menu. The pot that hangs at the center of the restaurant's sign? It speaks.
'What are people expecting - the Louvre? A pillared building with pizza toys?" Brian Dwyer's monumental shock of pepperoni-red hair (think Cosmo Kramer dipped headfirst into pizza sauce) is all aquiver, though not with indignation. He radiates the simple thrill of knowing a conversation is already baking the moment one steps for the first time into Pizza Brain.
Five insider facts about Philly restaurant culture a civilian can learn from a meal at the Industry: "We'll eat any part of the animal," says co-owner Dave Garry, who puts forth a menu dotted with crispy pig ears, spicy sweetbreads, roasted marrow bones, and chicharrones (a.k.a. crispy pork rinds) as solid evidence.
On a cold and rain-slicked night in Feasterville, we drove up and down Bustleton Pike looking for the restaurant's address and its whiff of kebab adventure. The strip malls were becoming a blur as Northeast Philadelphia morphed into Lower Bucks. In the cluster of storefronts at 1135 Bustleton, I saw a hair salon, a clothing shop, a pharmacy, and a medical supplier. Just behind stood a truly giant Giant Food Store.
Lemon Hill was packed when I arrived one recent Friday for dinner. The tin-ceilinged tavern, supposedly once a speakeasy, has gone gastropub in its fine old age, with house-made sausages on the menu, top-shelf spirits and fancy ice cubes rattling in the cocktail shakers, and its big windows slung open to the Aspen Street autumn night.
The "tavola calda" at Popolino is the kind of welcome spread you just don't find much in Philadelphia anymore. Set on a long table near the entrance, this feast of colorful antipasti offers a cornucopia of appealing first bites, a dozen plates of room-temperature salads that change with the seasons (and with the leftovers, too, I presume).
Le Bec is back from the brink. And it was as clear as the crystal baubles sparkling in those chandeliers. Somewhere between the silver spoonfuls of tomato-brined fluke sashimi, the succulent Québécois pork, the otherworldly bowls of foraged mushrooms, and the box of exquisite truffles and candied-apple macaroons we toted away from our meal, I knew Le Bec Fin, with new stewards, had escaped its near-death to become as exciting and relevant as it has been in a decade.
Is our mediocre suburban dining luck about to change? The odds are strong with Philly stars lining up projects for the Main Line, plus another in South Jersey. Add in a continued gold rush of bright young talent to the hot city scene (including a New York mega-name who has been secretly prepping his debut in Stephen Starr's "bunker"), dig into the street-food promise of more funky fried chicken and a sudden barbecue boom, and it's clear: The coming months will be firing on all burners.
What can you do with a piece of toast? There are few ingredients more elemental. But for Gregory Vernick, a slice of sourdough from Metropolitan Bakery lightly grilled over hot lava rocks is the ultimate canvas, an invitation to capture a season or a whimsy, and a crunchy window into this young chef's soul.
It says a lot about the irrepressible progress of our local beer scene, not to mention burgeoning Ambler, when the young owners of a quirky new brewpub tucked into an old house just off the borough's downtown decide - in an effort to slow the crowds - to start serving their best-selling beer as warm and flat as possible.
Few diners - and for that matter, few critics - really know what goes on in the kitchen. And whether it's fair or not, both the glory and blame for dinner ultimately go to the chef. Fine dining is a performance business where the cooks must bring it every night with pans a-blazin' - not a side of excuses. And the reviews will fall where they may, inevitably coloring our impressions of the talents behind the stoves.
Live chat: Join Craig at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays in the chatroom.
Book: The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide
4 Bells: According to Craig, the best restaurants in the Philadelphia area.