Food delights on East Passyunk

An occasional series spotlighting the city's great restaurant neighborhoods. For a list of select East Passyunk Avenue restaurants, bars, and cafes, go here.

Article updated, July 2016

  

In the nervous moments just before Paradiso debuted, chef Lynn Rinaldi and her father, Daniel, looked out onto East Passyunk Avenue and waited. A car didn't pass for 20 minutes.

"Did you do the right thing here?" he asked his daughter, whom he raised a few blocks away.

"If not, we're going to be homeless," she said. "We just put our properties up for collateral."

That was 2004. A decade later, there's so much traffic bound for reservations at the two dozen other places that have sprouted here since, there are valet stations six nights a week to welcome destination diners to "the Avenue" in style.

And they don't come just for the many fine Italian flavors that harken more than a century to the neighborhood's immigrant roots . With an influx of new young residents, there are gastropubs, a rustic Dutch bistro, funky dim sum, an artisan grocery (for local pickles and bacon), and a cluster of the city's finest French kitchens.

East Passyunk - the locals say "Pash-yunk" - is serving up a rare combination of new restaurant energy and serious quality.

Seven three-bell restaurants dot a 10-block stretch of the Avenue, a former Lenni Lenape trail that slices diagonally northeast across the city's grid. And though its success is a happy confluence of many factors, the timing makes sense.

As fine dining struggled over the last decade in the high-rent districts of Center City, rising stars like Top Chef champ (and Le Bec-Fin alum) Nicholas Elmi headed straight to this South Philly strip, where he opened his 20-seat hit, Laurel. The affordable rents, intimate spaces, proactive neighborhood groups, and restaurant-friendly landlords had already lured a tight-knit group of ambitious young cooks like Lee Styer (Fond), Christopher Kearse (Will BYOB), Joe Cicala (Le Virtù), Rinaldi Baver and her husband, Corey Baver (Izumi.)

With rare exceptions, you'll see them cooking every night. And the shared success has become magnetic and has only made them tighter.

"If we need chives, we run around the corner to Fond," says Elmi. "We take deliveries for Townsend when they're closed. We recognize we're in a special place and all encourage each other to be good."

"It's like a village," agrees Joncarl Lachman of Noord. "We support each other. Sort of like a social experiment that went well."

The Avenue's revival is far from complete. But for Philadelphia's diners, the East Passyunk Experiment, so far, has gone very well, indeed.

Following are my favorite places to eat, shop, and sip on or near the Avenue.

 

 

Barbacoa South Philly

Not formally rated

1703 S. 11th St., 215-694-3797; on Facebook

Cristina Martinez and husband, Benjamin Miller, have transitioned from their hit barbacoa taco cart into a colorfully mosaic-tiled storefront (formerly Vegan Commissary) that has fast become my current favorite taqueria in Philly. Unlike many competitors with broader menus, the couple succeeds on mastering a handful of profoundly good things, namely the hauntingly tender whole-animal lamb barbacoa and spicy pancita sausage that are served Friday through Sunday alongside exceptional tortillas made fresh from house-ground masa, nopals salad, and addictively earthy bowls of chickpea-lamb consommé. On weekdays, frijole-smeared tortas made from pillowy house-baked bread sandwich pulled chicken in mole Poblano and a bright green Toluca-style mole for tender pork meatballs blended with rice.

Bing Bing Dim Sum

1648 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-279-7702; bingbingdimsum.com

The latest deliberately inauthentic and funky twist on Asian street food from the talented duo behind Cheu Noodle Bar is a high-energy fusion take on dim sum. The lively room of Chinese booths, community tables, and dumpling-inspired pop art brims with a youthful no-reservations crowd who come for the hot pastrami bao, Bing bread clams, and kimchi soup dumplings, then wash them down with tea-infused cocktails by the pitcher. There are some misses. But the prices are affordable, the experience is fun, and chef Ben Puchowitz’s plates work best when straying furthest from tradition.

 

The Bottle Shop

Not formally rated

1616 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-5551; bottleshopbeer.com

In a city where craft beer quenches the thirst of gentrification, every emerging 'hood needs a bottle shop with a few hundred beers in the fridge. Fortunately, East Passyunk’s primary retail beer source has made a smart upgrade move to brighter digs right beside Green Aisle Grocery, where its coolers are stocked with 500-plus labels and six taps for growler fills have a local accent. Tall tables beside wide-open storefront windows make for breezy in-store sampling.

 

Brigantessa

1520 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-318-7341; brigantessaphila.com

The team behind Abruzzi-inspired Le Virtù embraces the same updated rustic approach to reconnect South Philadelphia to its more southern Italian roots (Campania, Sicily, Calabria) at this lively bi-level restaurant-bar, which hits a perfect tone of casual elegance. Some serious Neapolitan pizza comes from the imported oven. But it's the rest of co-owner chef Joe Cicala's menu, from the wood-fired antipasti to the exceptional pastas (black chickpea pappardelle with whey-braised lamb), plus an ambitious drink program, that make Brigantessa an essential new player in Philly's Italian scene.

Reviewed January 11

 

Cantina Los Caballitos

1651 E. Passyunk Ave, 215-755-3550; cantinaloscaballitos.com

This raucous Mexican gastropub was one of the early engines of East Passyunk's new surge, drawing big crowds to its al fresco sidewalk and corner lot for margaritas - and better food than expected. A recent brunch in the moody orange room showed the kitchen has remained consistent, with burrito ambitions that encompass both authentically-inspired rustic flavors (braised goat) and veggie options (seitan anticuchos), plus excellent garlic shrimp, tamarind BBQ ribs, hangover-friendly chilaquiles and a chorizo-egg scramble that tastes so much better than it looks.

Revisited March 2015

 

Chhaya Café

Not formally rated

1819 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-465-1000; chhayacafe.com

This is the larger, new location for Varnana Beuria's cafe, one of the first Third Wave-style shops to offer pour-overs and siphon pot coffee in South Philly. While the baristas aren't always the warmest, I return because Chhaya does a fine job with local beans from ReAnimator, One Village, and Philly Fair Trade Roasters, and works wonders with a creative waffle-driven menu (try the waffled-grilled ham and cheese.)

 

Essen Bakery

Not formally rated

1437 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-2299; essenbakery.com

Tova du Plessis, a South African-born pastry chef and veteran of several notable kitchens (Avance/Le Bec-Fin; Citron & Rose; Lacroix at the Rittenhouse) has replaced Belle Cakery with an atelier dedicated to baked Jewish comforts, from exceptional chocolate babka (laced with halvah) to challah dusted with mixed seeds and even a crusty rye loaf used for take-out sandwich delights, like the one with aged cheddar and house-made strawberry jam. Good Elixr coffees are a plus.

Fond

1537 S. 11th St. (at 11th and Tasker), 215-551-5000; fondphilly.com

Fond, which opened in 2009, was one of the early success stories of the more ambitious Passyunk newcomers, trading up after a few years from its starter BYO to an airier corner space with a liquor license beside the Singing Fountain. No magic was lost in the move as (ex-Le Bec) chef Lee Styer, his pastry chef-wife, Jessie Prawlucki, and charming host Tory Keomanivong, continue to evolve with sophisticated French cooking, fine desserts, and excellent service. Don't miss the tuna crudo, lobster risotto, seared foie gras, malted milk chocolate ice cream with peanut brittle - and what is still the city's definitive crispy pork belly.

Reviewed in 2013

 

Fountain Porter

Not formally rated

1601 S. 10th St. (at Tasker); fountainporter.com

Evan Clancy wanted a bar, not a gastropub. And this appealingly minimalist, wood-clad corner hangout is very much that - a craft-beer hub with a rotating chalkboard of several cult brews on draft, from Mikkeller US Alive to Jolly Pumpkin Maracaibo, plus lesser-known locals like Carton Boat and Other Farm. The bar's limited menu, though, happens to be a hit: a throwback griddled cheeseburger that's one of the best $5 patties in town (when cooked right), and excellent house pickles (curried carrots, green beans and jalapeños) that will surely stoke a thirst.

 

Gennaro's Tomato Pie

1533 S. 11th St.; on Facebook

After some complications, including a short-lived name change at this address, owner Mike Giammarino has finally managed to move his Gennaro’s Tomato Pie from its Jackson Street corner nook to a larger space beside East Passyunk’s Singing Fountain. Initially called Grace & Pat’s — and serving only thicker square pies — Giammarino has rebranded this project to reflect his original concept focused on crispy-crusted NY-style pizzas, zesty antipasti, fresh salads and a handful of simple pastas. I do miss G&P’s take on the thicker Bensonhurst-style “grandma pies.”

But it’s hard to complain.

Giammarino, who also runs SoHo’s legendary Lombardi’s Pizza, is a master of the classic NY style and turns out some of the best pies of that ilk in Philly. It’s consistent with the previous location, so its previous rating still applies.

 

Green Aisle Grocery

Not rated; retail

1618 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-465-1411; greenaislegrocery.com

This tiny but mighty market from South Philly-raised brothers, Adam and Andrew Erace, set an artisan food tone for the new East Passyunk. The shelves are stocked with gems from local makers, including Zahav/Dizengoff hummus, Green Meadow Farm Bacon, Weckerly's Ice Cream and just-foraged ramps. There are national icons here, too, like Mast Bros. chocolates and Kentucky soy, sharing space with the ever-growing line of housemade pickles, jams and nut butters (pistachio!) Expect to spend big. But the cost of knowing the latest Philly food trends has its own value.

 

Green Olives Café

Not formally rated

1941 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-639-3527; greenolivescafephilly.com

It's easy to overlook one of the Avenue's more low-key ethnic gems. But pay attention to Green Olives Café, a humble BYO across from glitzy Palladino's that serves homespun versions of Middle Eastern specialties that can be hard to come by in town. The ownership is Jordanian, which informs the silky hummus and vividly parsleyed falafel. But the real finds here are from Marrakech-born cook Nouzha Cooper, including zesty "zaalouk" eggplant salad, lemony chicken tagine, and an especially tender, gingery tomato lamb couscous with pumpkin and zucchini.

Visited February 2015

 

Izumi

1601 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-1222; izumiphilly.com

This sleek little sushi counter from Paradiso owners, Corey Baver and Lynn Rinaldi, serves superb raw fish and a small menu of Japanese plates in style across from the Singing Fountain. It's one of the Avenue's few worthy Asian options, with high-quality fish including velvety sea eel, creamy uni and gorgeous tuna. Some composed sashimi specialties lean too much toward distracting sweetness. The yellowtail canopy is one roll that gets every spicy-crunchy note right. Baver's braised pork belly over congee, buta kakuni, is also a cold-weather comfort I crave.

Revisited March 2015

 

Laurel

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

Since winning Top Chef and opening this intimate jewel box on East Passyunk, Le Bec-Fin vet Nicholas Elmi has evolved quickly and impressively in his quest to redefine what modern French gastronomy can be.

Among the changes since opening to a 3-bell rave, the move from à la carte to inventive $85 tasting menus, plus the addition of a liquor license (though it’s still BYO-friendly), have only increased Laurel’s ability to deliver a memorable and personal experience. Pairings from the wine list are smart and unique.

The service is tuned in. And Elmi’s gorgeous cuisine — at once modern and rooted in French lineage (like a dreamy Dover sole stuffed with truffles) — continues to mature with finesse and imagination. The rating may be reassessed once its recently opened cocktail bar (ITV) next door gets rolling. But there’s already a good reason Laurel is one of the toughest reservations in town.

Reviewed February 2014

 

Le Virtù

1927 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-5626; levirtu.com

One of our best authentic Italian restaurants, and South Philly's first three-beller, Le Virtù continues to evolve with an impressively wide array of house-cured salumi, focused regional cooking and exceptional pastas under chef, Joe Cicala, who both celebrates authentic Abruzzese flavors and makes them feel fresh and up-to-date. A polenta special topped daily with a soulful meat braise (we loved a recent wild boar), is another unique sharing option, in addition to Cicala's famous 30-foot-long noodle called pasta alla mugnaia. Add great regional wine values, proper service and a handsome rustic space (plus a sweet alfresco patio), and Le Virtù has come to be one of the city's uniquely refined dining experiences.

Reviewed in 2011

Revisited April 2015

 

Lucio J. Mancuso & Son

Not rated, retail

1902 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-389-1817

Step into a time capsule of East Passyunk Past at this South Philly cheese and import shop, 75 years old, and still selling dried bacalao out of wood crates, sardine tins, and a countertop display of olives and salumi like it's 1940. More important, elder statesman Phil Mancuso holds court with Avenue old-timers and still makes fresh cheese - mozzarella, basket cheese for Easter, and the city's sweetest ricotta - just as his Calabrian dad and grandfather taught him. Come summer, the housemade chocolate and lemon water ices (filled with pithy bits) are worth the visit alone.

 

Lucky 13 Pub

1820 S. 13th St., 215-336-8467; lucky13pubphilly.com

There are destinations on East Passyunk, and then there are local hangs. This pocket-size "old man bar" turned hipster haven is definitely the latter. But there's also a personality to this tin-ceilinged nook that is unique, from amiable owner Clark Newman behind the bar (with good craft options) to the surprisingly eclectic fare, from mac-n-cheese ("all hooked up") to Cinci-style chili, veggie masala curry, Thai peanut salad, and an Ace of Spades tempeh sandwich glazed in sweet sauce.

Reviewed 2009

Revisited April 2015

 

Noir

1909 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-319-1678; noirrestaurantandbar.com/home.aspx

The menu is hearty Mediterranean-meets-Montreal at this low-key bar/restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue, so you may not want to fill up on poutine before tucking into the Bolognese. Tight, dark dining room might not be for the claustrophobic. The poutine is not especially authentic. But one of the biggest crab cakes in town earns Noir’s place on this list.

 

Noord Eetcafe

1046 Tasker St. (at 11th St.), 267-909-9704; noordphilly.com.

After a decade in Chicago, native Philadelphian Joncarl Lachman has made his homecoming count with an intimate, Dutch-influenced bistro that captures the best of our BYO scene. Lachman's "eetcafe" eschews trendy "new Nordic" cuisine for a more rustic take on Northern European cooking, from grill-marked house barley bread to rabbit smothered in zuurkool, and vibrant mustard soup with scallops and caviar. Noord's brunch is also distinctive, from the smoked brisket hash to a rabbit-bean frittata, chicken with eggs in Suriname curry, and hot fresh stroopwafel wafers for dessert stuffed with warm spiced molasses.

Reviewed in 2013

Revisited in 2015

 

 

Paradiso

1627-29 E. Passyunk Ave. 215-271-2066; paradisophilly.com.

The new wave of East Passyunk dining began here a decade ago when Avenue native Lynn Rinaldi revamped an old furniture store into a crisply modern Italian restaurant with thoughtful updates of classic local flavors, from rabbit cacciatore to stand-out tripe. Based on a recent visit, the restaurant has continued to grow, adding housemade pastas and salumis, and building a big roof garden (with bees!) We loved the sweetbread ravioli, cavatappi with duck sausage, and big pork chop Milanese. Some inconsistencies (a tiny entree of bass; less-than-perfect charcuterie; a promising veal breast special that needed refining) still held it back from the next level. But not nearly as much uneven service that, on a busy weekend, can become frazzled.

Reviewed in 2005

Revisited in 2015

 

Plenty

Not formally rated

1710 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-909-8033; plentyphiladelphia.com

Plenty, which also has a handsome Rittenhouse location, is one of Philly's best hybrid cafés, pairing top-notch locally roasted coffee (including two new signature house blends made by Square One) with a worthy scratch menu of sandwiches and salads spun with a globe-hopping theme, including the Seoul (with bulgogi short ribs), the New Orleans (with spicy house-roasted Tasso ham and fig jam), and one of the better takes on a classic chicken salad sandwich.

 

The Pub on Passyunk East (P.O.P.E)

Not formally rated

1501 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-755-5125; pubonpassyunkeast.com

For the last decade, Dennis Hewlett's Dickinson Street pub - a.k.a. "the P.O.P.E" - has marked the unofficial northern border of East Passyunk's reviving strip, with a rambling warren of low-lighted, half-timbered rooms and one of the city's good beer lists. The friendly servers and affordable comfort menu draws a diverse crowd, from hipsters to pinochle players from the senior center across the street. The cheesy crab fries are for heavy-drinking sessions only; the Pope burger with basil mayo and a fried tomato was among the best burgers I had had recently on the Avenue.

 

Ramayana

Not formally rated

1740 S. 11th St., 267-815-4033;  on Facebook

Fans of Indonesian kitchens west of Broad Street (Hardena, Sky Cafe) can get a tasty and affordable nasi goreng fix east of Broad at this four-month-old corner nook, where East Java-born Erwin Siswanto stocks the steam-table buffet with homecooked classics. The rawon beef soup, enriched with dark sweet kluwak nuts, was a stand-out. But vegetarians can also find full-flavored satisfaction from a turmeric-spiced tofu-tempeh; coconut-creamed kale; and surprisingly meatlike young jackfruit stewed Javanese-style with coconut and coriander. Load up on snack bags of fresh-popped rice crackers and crisps made from belinjo nuts.

Visited April 2015

 

Saté Kampar

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

Skewers-up to this aromatic new BYOB dedicated to the Malaysian art of saté. The deeply marinated meats (try the goat!) sizzle in back over custom open grills filled with coconut charcoal, and the rest of the small menu offers boldly flavored Malay specialties, many wrapped in bungkus banana leaf bundles that evoke first-time 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.

 

Stargazy

Not formally rated

1838 E. Passyunk Ave.; on Facebook

Get a taste of East London on East Passyunk at chef Sam Jacobson’s irresistibly personal British pie shop. The flaky rectangular pastries stuffed with ground beef and onions are Jacobson’s ode to the classic comfort staple he grew up with. So simple. But when they’re made right, from the butter-flaky crust to the peppery meat filling, lumpy mashed potatoes and subtle parsley broth splashed over top, every forkful hums with deep comfort. I can’t think of $9 better spent on a more satisfying meal. Except there are so many of the other delights here, from the housemate sausage rolls to Cornish pastries, Bedfordshire Clangers and some of my favorite sweets anywhere — sticky toffee pudding and the banana-topped Banoffee tart — that I always have trouble deciding. (Jellied eels? Maybe someday.) Tip: on Thursday and Saturday Stargazy also sells some exceptional loaves from the Mighty Bread Co.

 

Stogie Joe's Tavern

Not formally rated

1801 E. Passyunk Ave, 215-463-3030; stogiejoestavern.net.

Talented chef Kristian Leuzzi, formerly of upscale Kristian's, has teamed with brothers Dominick and Joseph (a.k.a. "Stogie Joe") in a more casual venture, giving an old-school tappie a pleasant face-lift with a roll-up garage door patio and fresh updates to classic South Philly Italian comforts. The pan pizza and strombolis are popular, but I prefer the meatballs, roast pork, and especially the zesty "crab gravy" made from whole crustaceans simmered for six hours in tomato sauce for a full-flavored spaghetti sauce (also sold in quarts to-go) that is a genuine taste of neighborhood tradition.

Visited April 2015

 

Townsend

1623 E. Passyunk Ave. 267-639-3203; townsendrestaurant.com.

Former Lacroix disciple Townsend "Tod" Wentz emerged from his postrecession hiatus in gastropubs to open this refined French destination in a converted bi-level storefront. The understated excellence of the food, cocktails, and wine-savvy service add another layer of maturity to this dining strip, and has become an oasis for those who appreciate good cooking minus the unnecessary flash. Don't miss the tartares, baked oysters, rabbit pot-au-feu, delicate seafood or retro Pavlova dessert. Or sit at the bar for a copper pan special of choucroute-for-two. Easily one of Avenue's best all-around restaurants.

Reviewed July 2014

 

Tre Scalini

1915 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-3870; trescaliniphiladelphia.com.

Not much changes at this longtime favorite Italian BYOB, now in its second location at the southern end of East Passyunk. But that's a good thing, with chef-owner Franca DiRenzo still in the kitchen, turning out the unpretentious home cooking of a nonna Molisana. The house tonnarelli, toothsome square-cut strands hand-pressed through the wires of a chitarra, is still among my favorite simple pastas. The fettuccine with porcinis, black pappardelle with seafood, spaghetti with cockles, grilled polenta with broccoli rabe, veal specialties, and saffron gnocchi are also reliable hits.

Reviewed in 2007

Revisited March 2015

 

Will BYOB

1911 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-7683; willbyob.com

Christopher Kearse's artful contemporary French cooking at Will BYOB has shed an early tendency toward too many avant-garde flourishes in favor of a sharper focus and harmonious plates. The presentations are still gorgeous, but each intricate touch amplifies the theme, from a foie gras-enriched rabbit rillettes with figs, to citrus-caramelized Belgian endive and licorice that called out Sichuan spice on the duck, or a whole maitake scented with sumac and rose hips, Madeira caramel, and smoked ricotta. Will can still soften its bare-bones ambience, but has nonetheless risen to elite status as one of the city's best BYOBs and modernist kitchens.

Reviewed in 2012

Revisited, upgraded in 2014.

 

OTHER NOTABLE PLACES:

Artisan Boulanger Patissier

1218 Mifflin St, 215-271-4688.

I don't quite share the level of enthusiasm that many have for this tiny French bakery run by Cambodian emigres. But the croissants are superbly buttery (when the bottoms aren't burnt), and the house-baked hoagie rolls are the rightful secret to the popular pork belly banh mi.  

Black & Brew

1523 E Passyunk Ave., 267-639-6070;  blackbrew.net

This funky, mosaic-clad corner cafe filled with scrawled chalkboard menus was one of the neighborhood's first caffeine stations. It's still a reliable stop for a wrap and one of the better smoothies on the strip (try the Health Nut.)

 

Capogiro

1625 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-462-3790; capogirogelato.com

This scoop shop branch of the city's primo gelato chain is open from spring through late fall. And it's the perfect stop to crown an evening stroll, or "Passyunk Passeggiata" with a taste of 18 flavors (intense dark chocolate, Sicilian pistachio, grapefruit-Campari) or an espresso from the limited-edition retro Victoria Arduino espresso machine. 

Marra's Italian Restaurant

Not formally rated

1734 E Passyunk Ave., 215-463-9249; marrasone.com

The black-tiled facade, wooden booths and pizza oven made with bricks from Mt. Vesuvius have made Marra's an Avenue mainstay for 88 years that's still beloved by many. Unfortunately, it's mostly nostalgia, as my visits have brought consistently disappointing renditions of Italian-American favorites dimmed by generic red gravy, careless cooking and low-grade ingredients (including on the once-solid pizza). This classic really needs some fresh love and energy.

Revisited in 2015

 

Mr. Martino's Trattoria

1646 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-755-0663.

Not everyone gets quirky Mr. Martino's, the low-key, weekend-only, cash-only Italian BYO where Maria Farnese's cooking is so simple (pasta-and-bean soup, baked ricottas, polenta and sausages) you could probably make it at home. But there's something about this evocative space, a former 19th-century hardware store whose chestnut-paneled room is hung with antique paintings and lacy curtains, that exude a uniquely historic Philadelphian vibe.

Reviewed in 2010

 

Stateside

1536 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-2500; statesidephilly.com

This trendsetting whiskey bar and small-plater perches like a cocktail bar cockpit next to the Singing Fountain, but has slipped in the years since opening chef George Sabatino brought it to three bells. That was clear at my first revisit, which brought lobster agnolotti with little lobster, too-salty mushrooms in the lettuce roll-ups, and oddly deep-fried pork rillettes (our server: "like a high-end taquito from, you know, 7-Eleven"). The stuffed-leaf brassica dish and Sazerac held promise. But things got worse on a follow-up visit that brought less-than-prime raw oysters, miserly slices of cheese (for $6 each), and a whiskey sour perfectly stenciled with "SS" on its frothy top - but so bitter it was actually undrinkable. 

Initial 2-bell review in 2012

Upgraded to 3 bells later that year

Revisited and downgraded to 1 bell in 2015

 

RECIPES: A taste of East Passyunk Avenue is here