How Craig LaBan reviewed Philly's restaurants in 2018
Philadelphia has always been a city of immigrants. But in 2018, as the nation’s political discourse stormed through a climate of hate and intolerance, our international communities boldly stepped into the spotlight, with restaurants that didn’t just set the tone for what we ate — they breathed fresh life into old neighborhoods and proved that when it comes to culinary success, the American dream is alive here.
That’s how South Philadelphia became a hub for a vibrant Mexican community, with nearly 40 independent restaurants I explored in a comprehensive package. That’s why Chinese restaurateurs followed new population centers to University City (“Chinatown West”) and Northeast Philly. That’s why 2018 saw a burst of Southeast Asian restaurants — Lao, Cambodian and Filipino — whose second-generation communities have come of age as entrepreneur.
The immigrant successes played out at the highest levels. My Restaurant of the Year, Suraya, is a gorgeous wood-fired homage to Lebanon that gave Fishtown a sheen of sophistication. My Chef of the Year, Jesse Ito, whose extraordinary omakases earned a new four-bell rating at Royal Sushi? He trained under his immigrant dad, Masaharu “Matt” Ito, the Japanese master who long ran Fuji and works alongside his son today.
Other tasty storylines from 2018: Ee saw stellar debuts for new talents like my Rising Star Chef, Anthony Andiario, whose eponymous restaurant wowed West Chester. The trio of Fork alums behind Cadence — Jon Nodler, Samantha Kincaid and Michael Fry — created the year’s most innovative kitchen. We also saw spirited comebacks for Jennifer Carroll and Billy Riddle at Spice Finch, and Derek Davis at Libertine.
This Year in Bells is a chance to revisit highlights of all the restaurants reviewed on Sundays and those that had a rating change in my tour of Mexican South Philly and the Ultimate Dining guide, which paid homage to Philly classics like Villa di Roma, Oyster House and Monk’s, among others.
As always, there were second-chances, and I revisited seven places. A rating bump didn't happen for most. But the good news is that two improved: The Love rose to three bells, and Vista Peru smoothed some service issues to grab two. Vista’s pisco-powered arrival in Old City was yet another success story of vibrant immigrant flavors. It was one of many in a year when Philly’s restaurant tables truly celebrated the world and became richer for it.
Royal Sushi(Upgraded from 3 bells; Royal Izakaya remains 3 bells)
780 S. Second St., Philadelphia; 267-909-9002; royalsushiandizakaya.com/sushi.html
It’s hard to find the restaurant-inside-a-restaurant that is Jesse Ito’s omakase counter at Royal Sushi. Snagging a coveted reservation is even harder. But this serene 10-seat shrine to raw seafood, tucked behind a curtain at the back of boisterous Royal Izakaya in Queen Village, has evolved into one of the most extraordinary — and rarified — dining experiences in the region, with an 18-bite tasting of such inspiration and handcraft, that it has earned a new four bell rating. Each morsel of extraordinary fish, most imported from Japan and seasonal, delivers a rare pleasure that radiates through your shoulders when you take a bite. The ultra-luxe prices aren’t for sushi novices. And yes, an order of dumplings may be handy to pad any residual hunger pangs. But think of Ito’s sushi tastings as a beautiful poem, rather than than a novel. They will not weigh you down so much as they will haunt you. Reviewed and upgraded in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
106 W. Gay St., West Chester; 484-887-0919, andiario.com
Sublime handmade pastas, wood-fired cooking, and intense dedication to seasonal local ingredients define the ever-changing menus at this ambitious and comfortably refined new restaurant in downtown West Chester from chef Anthony Andiario and Maria van Schaijik, who've returned to Pennsylvania after time in Chris Bianco's orbit in Phoenix. There were occasions when Andiario still needed fine-tuning. But this kitchen more often than not lands plates that are as inspired as any in the suburbs, and it's clear this college town now has the sophisticated fine-dining destination it's been lacking. Reviewed Aug. 12.
Blue Corn Mexican Restaurant and Bar(Upgraded from 2 bells)
940 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia; 215-925-1010
This cheerful ode to Puebla is South Philly's most complete Mexican restaurant, bringing extra polish to the Italian Market's taqueria scene with experienced service and a festive margarita bar. But I am most fascinated by the distinctive menu, which has grown more ambitious since my initial visit in 2016. The kitchen excels with seafood (best shrimp cocktail in Philly; fish stuffed with huitlacoche in poblano crema). But the Sandoval family's birthright of heirloom corn from San Mateo Ozolco is the real star. Don't miss unique dishes like the Fundación Olmeca sampler with tlacoyos and sopecitos, the blue huarache, or special fried oyster tacos with huitlacoche over green tortillas made from epazote. Only drawback: it's cash only. (Upgraded April 29)
161 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia; 215-419-7537, cadencerestaurant.com
Philly's hottest new BYOB is also one of the city's most progressive restaurants, where hyper-seasonal, modern American dishes emerge from the live-fire kitchen that's been installed in the former Modo Mio. The often-edgy cuisine, from offcuts to house-fermented accents and desserts that taste more savory than sweet, isn't for everyone, even if there are many accessible plates. But the supremely talented trio of Fork and High Street alums behind this project — Jon Nodler, Samantha Kincaid, and Michael Fry — have crafted a debut worth paying attention to, with rare maturity for a newcomer. Reviewed June 3.
2842 St. Vincent St., Philadelphia; 215-941-1898 or 215-941-1716
The dim sum palace of my dreams has materialized beside an obscure Northeast Philly Asian grocery where a sprawling new space of pink linen tables, fish tanks, rolling carts and masterful Cantonese cooking draws more than 1,500 customers a day. Don't come looking for wonton soup, which isn't on the menu. Owners Salina Ko and her husband, chef Ming Fung, are cooking for the neighborhood's growing Chinese community in this major step up from their smaller previous space, and the vast array of dumplings, wok-fired seafood and Hong Kong-style BBQ meats they produce (like the outstanding Peking duck) are as good as Philly gets in one place. Reviewed July 29.
Fork(Downgraded from 4 bells)
306 Market St., Philadelphia; 215-625-9425, forkrestaurant.com
From the microscopic root-veggie crudités and foamy celery soda at dinner’s start to a perfect striped bass over sauce Basquaise and lentils with clams, Fork’s kitchen is still capable of top-shelf Philly cooking with seasonal grace. The service staff remains among the most professional in town, effortlessly versed in pairing the outstanding wine list to the details of any dish. And yet, there is a distinct feeling that Fork’s push for four-bell magic has eased. As it continues to evolve under talented chef John Patterson, there’s been a decidedly more conservative push (especially with entrees) to satisfy the business diners that fill the dining room, rather than to be a trailblazing culinary beacon. Fork is still an outstanding restaurant committed to excellence, but the subtle shift at this 21-year-old Philly classic proves it isn’t afraid to embrace change essential to longevity. Reviewed and downgraded in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
The Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm
5281 York Rd., Holicong; 215-794-5104, barleysheaf.com
This idyllic Bucks County inn, an 18th-century estate and former home of playwright George S. Kaufman, has grown over the past few years beyond its reputation as a B&B and picturesque wedding venue to become a dinner destination in its own right. The reason is Bucks-born chef Joshua Homacki (ex-Lacroix, Snackbar, Chifa), who channels seasonal local produce and fine ingredients for New American plates that are as pretty as the frescoed ceiling in the sun porch dining room. Outgoing service and BYOB add extra value to an otherwise upscale experience that doesn't feel stuffy. Reviewed May 6.
1927 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-5626; levirtu.com
One of the city's most distinctive Italian restaurants, inspired by the traditions of Abruzzo, has undergone two challenging reboots since parting ways with its longtime star chef in 2017. New chef Damon Menapace has stepped in since my January re-review (Joseph Voller, we hardly knew ya!), and one of East Passyunk’s best restaurants has landed in good hands. A fall meal brought memorable pastas, like the snappy maccheroni alla chitarra in soulful lamb ragù, as well as tender porchetta and meaty lamb chops that found surprising seasonality over sweet corn sauce. More inspiration from Menapace’s recent trip to Abruzzo is coming, along with a continuation of notable traditions like the house-cured salumi and the epic 40-course La Panarda feast. Reviewed Jan. 21. Revisited for the Ultimate Dining Guide.
Little Fish(Upgraded from 2 bells)
746 S. Sixth St., Philadelphia; 267-455-0172, littlefishbyob.com
Mighty Little Fish has always captured sophisticated culinary aims over its two decades, two locations and multiple chefs. Alex Yoon, an alum of Le Bec-Fin 2.0 and Serpico, is the latest young star to bring an ocean of ambition to these 24 seats, and is turning out memorable modern plates built on sustainable seafood — with a few winks to his Korean heritage — that helped earn it a third bell. Among the highlights: Manila clams with chile-spiced sausage and kimchi funk; fluke with aromatic X.O. sauce; and a brick of bluefin tuna kissed with hot binchotan coals then topped with fresh-grated horseradish snow. Little Fish isn’t cheap, but the five-course Sunday tastings for $48 remain a worthy bargain. Reviewed and upgraded from two bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
The Love(Upgraded from 2 bells)
130 S. 18th St., Philadelphia; 215-433-1555, theloverestaurant.com
The superduo of Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy collaborated again to bring a touch of their Talula's Garden-esque magic to the star-crossed Serafina space near Rittenhouse Square. The pretty white brick arch interior has a magnetic, understated appeal. The $30-plus entrées prices seemed initially steep for updated American comfort food billed as fit for a “neighborhood restaurant,” especially with a kitchen still wobbling from an early false start at chef. An end-of-year revisit, though, earned the Love its third bell, proving it had found its groove as destination for grownup American dining, with bountiful seasonal touches, house-made pastas and a memorable sea bass in Bahamian curry. Huge portions means many dishes are easily shared. The service is outgoing, cocktails from the vest pocket bar are stiff, and sophisticated grades to homey desserts keep the mood whimsically delicious. Reviewed Jan. 28; revisited and upgraded Oct. 14.
Mole Poblano(Upgraded from 2 bells)
1144 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia; 215-465-1616; molepoblano.site
Few places embody the simple joys and artisan craft of South Philly's Mexican scene like Mole Poblano. This tidy storefront BYOB on Calle Nueve was launched in 2012 by the Ríos family to produce some of the very best mole and tamales in the city. But over the years, the restaurant as a whole has also come into its own, with constant touches to warm the little room, a more professional polish to the service, and a steady hand in the kitchen turning out traditional favorites like chicken tinga tostadas, garlicky shrimp, earthy goat barbacoa, and an outstanding al pastor that has made Mole Poblano my family's go-to taqueria. Upgraded to three bells on April 29.
Monk’s Café(Upgraded from 2 bells)
264 S. 16th St., Philadelphia; 215-545-7005, monkscafe.com
If you’re looking for a place to sip rare Cantillon for Zwanze Day (along with a ridiculous lineup of brews from Hill Farmstead, Oxbow, De Dolle, Russian River and an Allagash blended in co-owner Tom Peters’ honor), Monk’s is the obvious place. And the continued vibrance of its beer program over the past 21 years — plus the impressive knowledge of its well-travelled servers — is enough to merit this upgrade to three bells. But I’ve also been impressed with chef Keith Ballew’s efforts to nudge the cooking forward, with better ingredients, more seasonality and steady finesse in its beer cuisine, from diver scallops with Monk’s Flemish sour ale butter to braised veal cheeks over Green Meadow Farm polenta. The famous frites and mussel pots, meanwhile, are reminders of why this wood-panelled Belgian bistro became a hit to begin with. Upgraded to three bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
1121 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 267-324-3014, olorosophilly.com
Chef Tod Wentz extends his culinary Euro tour across the city with a stellar Spanish concept in Washington Square West to complement his French destination Townsend and Italian BYOB A Mano. The wood-fired hearth of the former Petruce space adds a distinctive smoky edge to the often-stunning Spanish inspirations that go beyond familiar tapas to some adventurous plates. (Sherry-glazed pig head, anyone?) The service is refined as is the impressive drink program featuring sherries, small-production Spanish wines and well-crafted on-theme cocktails that help make Oloroso one of Philly's most well-rounded newcomers. Reviewed Feb. 25.
Oyster House(Upgraded from 2 bells)
1516 Sansom St.,Philadelphia; 215-567-7683, oysterhousephilly.com
Is there a restaurant that says Philadelphia tradition more than the Oyster House? In a town once defined by legendary fishhouses, it is the last of its kind, a place where a raw bar counter laden with oyster crackers and horseradish, sherried snapper soup and the weird-but-wonderful local lunch combo of chicken salad with fried oysters is not an anachronism. But current (and third-generation) owner Sam Mink also has been on a remarkable mission to update the old institution. The recent addition of chef Aaron Gottesman (ex-Hearthside, Fat Ham) has energized an already ambitious kitchen with dynamic contemporary dishes built on sustainable “dock-to-table” ingredients, from tilefish over poblano-avocado puree to scallops in yellow watermelon ceviche. Add well-informed servers, the city’s best raw bar and largest gin collection, plus some beautiful desserts, and the Oyster House is a very complete restaurant, no longer just an ambassador of tradition, but one of the most rewarding places to eat in Philly right now. Upgraded to three bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
Parc(Upgraded from 2 bells)
227 S. 18th St., Philadelphia; 215-545-2262, parc-restaurant.com
What seemed like a Parisian mirage — and an overly ambitious Stephen Starr project — when this mega-brasserie landed on Rittenhouse Square a decade ago is now an irreplaceable part of Philly's landscape. The expansive corner space and its priceless parkside view has always been a gorgeous display of vintage French bistro design. But the kitchen's steady improvement over the years is most impressive. It's dialed in every dish: the city's best bread basket; spot-on steak-frites; extravagant raw-bar platters; picture-perfect desserts. To execute them with such consistent quality for half a million diners a year is a remarkable feat. Add polished service with a personal touch that makes Parc feel like a genuine neighborhood restaurant, and this upgrade to three bells feels long overdue.
52 S. Second St., Philadelphia; 267-606-6313, royalboucherie.com
Star chef Nicholas Elmi of Laurel has partnered with the gastropub masters behind Khyber Pass and Royal Izakaya for the stunning revamp of an Old City martini bar into what feels like a moody, historic tavern with classic cocktails, a standout raw bar, and a brasserie menu showcasing fine house charcuterie and polished modern cooking with French roots, not to mention my current favorite burger in the city. A worthwhile destination for a neighborhood trending back to a grownup crowd. Reviewed Feb. 4.
Saté Kampar(Upgraded from 2 bells)
1837 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia; 267-324-3860
Since Angelina Branca opened Saté Kampar two years ago with American husband John Branca, their spice-scented BYOB has become the region’s go-to destination for bold Malaysian flavors. From the saté meats sizzling over coals to the fragrant banana leaf bundles of nasi lemak coconut rice, a kopitiam coffee bar and the evocative street market murals, few restaurants can transport diners so convincingly across the globe. And Saté Kampar has only continued to get better, earning its third bell as the service found its groove and Ange digs ever deeper into her homeland’s flavors. Her series of regional laksa noodle bowls is especially intriguing, but so are the saté-crusted chicken wings, seasonal chili crabs, and the special-order feast she recently translated from the big screen to recreate the interactive Malaysian food scenes from Crazy Rich Asians. Upgraded to three bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
South Philly Barbacoa
1140 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia; 215-694-3797, southphillybarbacoa.com
It has been a big year for chef Cristina Martínez. Her bold political activism as an undocumented immigrant and her magical lamb barbacoa gained international acclaim through a podcast by Univisión and Netflix’s latest Chef’s Table season. The biggest challenge has been following her kitchen, which has moved (and changed names) multiple times. She and husband Ben Miller moved again this fall from El Compadre (now closed) to a larger South Philly Barbacoa at Ninth and Ellsworth. The early morning weekend lines are longer than ever — but still worth it. The sublimely tender meat of whole lambs anchor a deliberately small taco menu, along with spicy pancita offal sausage and a chickpea-lamb consommé, that remains one of the most profound meals Philadelphia has to offer. The tortillas made of fresh-ground masa from local corn the restaurant nixtamalizes itself are peerless, and also worth the wait. Revisited for the Ultimate Dining Guide.
220 S. 17th St, Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia; 215-309-2238; spicefinchphilly.com
It's a stylish Mediterranean homecoming for Philly's Jennifer Carroll, who's returned from the land of Top Chef celebrity and years in D.C. with fiancé Billy Riddle (ex-Lacroix, Townsend). Together, they've created an airy and appealing restaurant with a veg-forward menu that occupies an aromatic niche somewhere between Zahav and Suraya. The small plates are well-executed for sharing, and the restaurant as a whole rises on knowledgeable (though sometimes needy) service, a fun cocktail list, and a handsome space that brings both accessibility for big groups and some rare comforts (reasonable sound levels, decent lighting) that should become an asset for Rittenhouse Square. Reviewed Oct. 7.
1528 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia; 215-302-1900, surayaphilly.com
Memories of Beirut are translated into a Fishtown dream palace of modern Lebanese flavors at this remarkable all-day concept, a blocklong complex that segues from a cafe-market in front with morning pastries and man'oushe flatbreads to a richly tiled dining room with tented seats and a view of charcoal fires in the open kitchen to a back garden with floating fire and fountains. It’s the grand vision of developer Roland Kassis and sister Nathalie Richan (Cafe La Maude), whose partnership with chef Nick Kennedy and Greg Root (Root Restaurant) has elevated deep-rooted traditional inspirations to a compelling contemporary experience, drinks included, that is my choice for Philly’s best new restaurant in 2018. Reviewed June 24.
Tequila’s(Upgraded from 2 bells)
1602 Locust St., Philadelphia; 215-546-0181, tequilasphilly.com
David Suro-Piñera was the best ambassador for “serious Mexican” cuisine Philly could find in 1986 when he opened the Tequila’s, introducing authentic dishes like mole poblano, ceviche, cochinita pibil and earthy tortilla soup — not to mention an incredible list of artisan tequilas and mezcales. Our Mexican scene has grown tremendously in the decades since. But Tequila’s and its elegant Locust Street mansion decorated with whimsical Mexican folk art remain a satisfying destination for upscale Mexican favorites, from bubbling hot molcajete lava bowls to tequila-sauced giant shrimp, as well as some edgier dishes like grasshopper snacks and jicama-wrapped fish tacos. For its three decades of consistent excellence as a touchstone of Mexican pride, Tequila’s this year secured its third bell as a Philly classic. Upgraded to three bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
Villa di Roma(Upgraded from 2 bells)
936 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia; 215-592-1295, villadiroma.com
Can you smell the meatballs simmering? It hovers in the Italian Market air at Villa di Roma, where the De Luca family siblings carry on the red-gravy tradition launched by their father in 1963. There are far fancier places for refined Italian cucina in Philadelphia. And there are other old-school red-gravy survivors. But no restaurant magically touches South Philly’s Italian American soul with as much familial warmth and continuity as Villa di Roma, whose time-capsule brick dining room with wagonwheel chandeliers and a pegboard menu never changes. That’s why I’ve given it a third bell as one of Philly’s ultimate classics. The meatballs handmade daily by Basil De Luca are essential — but so is the garlic bread, fried asparagus in scampi butter, flounder francaise, sausage Genovese, chicken Sicilian or myriad variations on veal (try the Parm layered with eggplant), ziti Francis or garlicky steak Vermeil. Progress is often nice. But Villa di Roma proves that there’s also priceless comfort in knowing some Philly icons are timeless. Reviewed and upgraded to three bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
Amis at Devon Yard
138 W. Lancaster Ave., Devon; 610-590-4782, amistrattoria.com
The post-Vetri era has begun in earnest at this super-size version of Amis on the Main Line, across from the fancy garden gear of Terrain in one of Urban Outfitters' new multistore lifestyle centers. The scratch-cooked trattoria fare is a fine concept for replication that relies on simple fresh combinations of good ingredients, like the excellent house pastas, and a menu that allows for light casual bites or more involved meals. That simplicity, though, also requires a finesse that was less consistent than expected from chef Brad Spence's crew. My meals trended toward improvement, showing the potential of this big addition to the suburban dining scene. Reviewed Nov. 25.
Amma's South Indian Cuisine
700 Haddonfield-Berlin Rd., Eagle Plaza, Voorhees; 856-784-1100, ammasrestaurantnj.com
"Amma" means mother, and South Jersey's growing Indian community - in particular those from South India - will find the authentic flavors of home at this BYOB, where halal meats, fresh-ground spices and a pair of ambitious young chef-owners add up to some of the best dosas and thali lunch platters (10 items for $11.95!?) this side of Exton. From the all-natural Chicken 65 (none of that artificial pink) to the sour tamarind curries, fluffy idli cakes, tart lemon rice, onion rava dosas, and dum biryani, Amma's is one of my new favorite local Indian kitchens. A recent move to a larger space in its strip mall also brought a warm decor upgrade. Reviewed Aug. 26.
7 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore; 610-589-0500, thebercy.com
Downtown Ardmore has landed a grand brasserie in a beautifully rehabbed bank space, with a menu of French classics and a pair of owners whose Starr resumes draw natural comparisons to Parc. This stylish suburban newcomer lacks the buzzy city energy of its Rittenhouse inspiration, in part because of its sprawling multilevel layout, but also because its older Main Line crowd contrasts the youthful, more casual scene driving Ardmore's current resurgence. There are serious qualities here, though, that with more seasoning could prove an enduring anchor for an evolving community and brasserie with an identity all its own. Reviewed July 15.
1520 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia; 267-318-7341, brigantessaphila.com
Since the 2017 departure of its founding chef and partner, Brigantessa’s kitchen crew has been in transition — including yet another executive chef since its January re-review, and a staff revolt in October following the sluggish handling of an anti-Semitic incident with a new chef de cuisine, as reported by Philadelphia magazine. I find the sequence of events troubling, even though the chef in question was ultimately fired. But, having spoken to owners Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee, whom I’ve covered for many years, I also do not believe that employee’s previously unknown history reflects their values.
In the aftermath, under executive chef Damon Menapace and new chef de cuisine Kareem McFadden, Le Virtù's casual cousin has landed as an accessible, neighborhood-friendly place. A recent revisit showed sharper focus on its original Southern Italian mission, with small tweaks to improve its Neapolitan pizza dough, and a more concise menu that places the spotlight on affordable handmade pastas, along with great Italian vino, birra and amari-driven cocktails in the first floor bar. Reviewed Jan. 21; revisited in December.
Chengdu Famous Food
3635 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia; 215-386-1088, chengdufamousfood.com
University City's growing population of Chinese-born students will find a lip-numbing taste of home at this authentic Szechuan destination, a bright modern loft of an open kitchen space co-owned by a young Chengdu native who is a recent Drexel grad. In a neighborhood that's suddenly acquiring several new regional Chinese options, this casual and affordable newcomer -—with efficient counter service, a youthful vibe, whimsical panda murals and an array of fiery noodles and seafood — is one of the better bets. Reviewed Jan. 7.
3601 Market St., Philadelphia
Closed. The Taiwanese concept in University City from the team behind Berwyn's Nectar didn’t last long. Reviewed March 4.
Dinner House Polish Cuisine
2706 E. Allegheny Ave., Philadelphia; 267-596-7727
This humble Port Richmond storefront only has five tables, counter service, and a menu taped on the wall. But golabki-loving fans of authentic Polish cuisine should feel at home at the Dinner House, where chef Ela Balka cooks with a grandma's heart and touch. Some dishes are better than others, showing the limitations of a one-person operation. But Balka also makes a series of outstanding specialties — goulash-stuffed potato pancake, pickle soup, sublime pork chops, and the most delicate pierogies in Philadelphia — that make a trip to Allegheny Avenue very worthwhile. Just don't forget your zlotys; it's cash only. Reviewed Jan. 14.
31 S. 18th St., Philadelphia; 267-886-8552, harpersgardenphilly.com
The beer garden boom meets the stylish Rittenhouse restaurant scene in this unique hybrid, an indoor-outdoor concept that's brought new life to a long-dead office building terrace with a gorgeous al fresco dining trellis, bright summer cocktails, wines on draft, and an appealing small-plate menu from chef Benjamin Moore (ex-Wister, Lacroix) that's far more interesting than it has to be. Overmatched service and huge noise levels can be a drag. But Avram Hornik (Morgan's Pier, Parks on Tap) has created yet another magnetic public space that, with ambitious food and drink, is nonetheless a worthy warm-weather option. Reviewed July 22.
I Heart Cambodia
2207 S. Seventh St., Philadelphia; 215-468-2022
The lemongrass-scented kitchens of Cambodia Town in deep South Philly are serving some of the most vibrant — and underappreciated — international flavors in the city. This simple but welcoming BYOB along the Seventh Street corridor offers a heartfelt primer in a variety of homecooked classics, like ground pork crudité dips mixed with funky fermented spice, bitter flower salads, soulful noodle soups, aromatic coconut curries, and some of the best fried whole fish in town. Reviewed May 13.
1901 Chestnut St., Philadelphia; 215-982-1671, helmrittenhouse.com
The chef duo behind Kensington's Helm has opened a branch near Rittenhouse Square, taking over Aldine's second-floor perch, and has transformed it into a casual destination for interesting small plates, $16 or less, driven by seasonal produce and cheffy inspirations. Cauliflower-Époisses gratin with mini Parker House rolls? Sunchoke latkes? House duck sausage? Yes, yes, yes. Except when the spontaneous menu produces odd combos and concepts that need more work. Consistency here is not yet as solid as the original BYOB, and making good use of the group's first liquor license is also a work in progress. Reviewed Oct. 28.
1001 S. 17th St., Philadelphia; 215-595-2500, lanimaphilly.com
The family behind Melograno and Fraschetta has come to Graduate Hospital with a modern Italian BYOB, a much-needed amenity for a neighborhood whose gentrification has outpaced its dining options. The same authentic Roman touch that distinguishes their other projects applies here, but with an added seafood focus: uni-enriched carbonara with fresh pasta; garum-splashed Caprese laced with anchovies. Some inconsistent dishes and earsplitting noise in the contemporary L-shaped space hold it back from greater destination potential. But with a lovely al fresco patio and handmade food that remains affordable, different and fresh, L'Anima is an asset the locals should come to embrace. Reviewed Sept. 9
Fairfield Inn, 261 S. 13th St., Philadelphia; 215-398-5555, libertinephilly.com
Derek Davis is back, and he’s traded his onetime Manayunk empire for an unlikely Center City restaurant in a newly renovated hotel on a Gayborhood corner that’s making the gentrifying transition from seedy to scene-y. With solid craft cocktails, plush pink banquettes, warm service, and a wide-ranging American menu that hovers closer to updated comforts than trendy bites — think pastrami sliders, fresh pastas, and one of Philly’s best new burgers — Libertine qualifies as a pleasant surprise. It has the potential (and special menu deals) to become a neighborhood standby that also happens to be pre-theater convenient to the Avenue of the Arts. Reviewed Dec. 9.
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
1017 Arch St., Philadelphia; 215-923-9222, littlesheephotpot.com
The hot-pot trend has been simmering in Chinatown for years now, but this sleek branch of a popular chains in China is one of my favorites to date. Unlike other spots, Little Sheep doesn't offer sauces on the side. But with well-seasoned broths and a wide selection of high-quality meats, vegetables, and other add-ins served in impressively large portions, the usual saucy muddle of extra flavors isn't missed. As the name might indicate, the many varieties of lamb are among the best options here to anchor a long and leisurely meal with a group of friends gathered around the steamy communal pot. Reviewed April 8.
Marigold Kitchen(Downgraded from 3 bells)
501 S. 45th St., Philadelphia; 215-222-3699, marigoldkitchenbyob.com
Marigold Kitchen’s recent history as an ambitious BYOB incubator for chefs continues with its latest talent in Eric Leveillee. If you’re averse to long meals of esoteric bites, like tiny herb tacos and frozen squash blossoms over dotted sauces, Marigold’s $100 13-course affair is not for you. And it wasn’t consistent enough to retain the previous crew’s three bells. (Hinky HVAC in summer didn’t help, either.) But Leveillee is a refreshing free-thinker with one of the most artful plating styles in town, and he scored enough creative successes, like juniper-smoked scallops mircroplaned over corn custard, to show true promise. A shorter, less expensive weeknight menu option is a safer place to begin with this latest chapter in the storied townhouse kitchen’s history. Reviewed and downgraded to two bells in the Ultimate Dining Guide.
248 S. 11th St., Philadelphia; 267-930-8344, middlechildphilly.com
Grab a wooden stool at the counter, listen to Jefferson doctors gossip, and settle in for a fluffy egg sandwich, a Reuben with house-made corned beef, or an exceptionally tasty vegan "Phoagie" at this charmingly updated homage to the disappearing culture of the luncheonette. You'll taste echoes of Little Pete's, Salumeria and Hershel's East Side Deli, among other institutions that influenced owner Matt Cahn's vision for this tiny 18-seater with order-at-the-cashier service and competitive seating. But with Cahn and (ex-Marigold) chef Keith Krajewski behind the counter, a commitment to scratch cooking, and updated touches everywhere (blueberry masala jam, mmm...), the art of the diner sandwich has a new champion. Reviewed May 27.
1414 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia; 215-278-2804, nunuphilly.com
Hot yakitori skewers, fizzy whisky highballs and crisp katsu cutlets are at the core of this whimsical izakaya in Fishtown from the crew behind Cheu, which sits on the opposite side of a shared patio. Cozy booths and dangling lanterns keep the red-lit vibe intimate, while the affordable menu veers more traditional than this team’s usual Jewish-Asian fusions. The notable draw here is the distinctive bar program driven by Japanese spirits, sake and shochu, with well-crafted, on-theme cocktails and a personable staff that really knows and loves what it’s selling. Reviewed Dec. 23.
Porch & Proper
619 W. Collings Ave., Collingswood; 856-477-2105, porchandproper.com
Collingswood scores again with this charming BYOB debut from longtime former Starr veterans Jason and Casey Simkins, a husband-wife duo who've teamed with chef Ryan McQuillan (ex-Talula's Table, Mercato) for a sophisticated setting and modern American menu infused with seasonality, creative pastas and local ingredients. The professional service, prettily tiled dining room, and light-strung porch have laid the foundation for yet another worthy special-occasion dining option in this rising restaurant town. Some more consistency and finesse would benefit entrees that rise into the high $30s. But with time, a step up to a more elite rating is within its reach. Reviewed Nov. 4.
300 E. Girard Ave., Philadelphia; 267-273-1234, sarvidaphilly.com
Chef Lou Boquila has opened a second showcase in his quest to present Philadelphians an updated vision of Filipino cuisine with this sleek Fishtown corner BYOB. This follow-up to Perla, his first restaurant off East Passyunk, offers slightly edgier bagoong-powered flavors with more rustic, home-style inspirations that are then inevitably upscaled. This is fascinating, thought-provoking food with a story, and much of it is delicious. Relatively high prices and a limited menu, though, might prevent some from discovering the magic crunch that is a puffed beef tendon chicharron. Reviewed Nov. 18.
205 Race St., Philadelphia; 215-238-8862, tunabar.com
A sleek contemporary space of blond wood, steel, and stone frames this modern Asian restaurant and bar in Old City's new Bridge Building, where owner-chef Ken Sze focuses on sushi and Japanese-inspired flavors sprinkled with Chinese gems (dumplings, tiny wontons) from his family's Fujianese heritage. Sze has a knack for showcasing high-quality ingredients in satisfying, if not necessarily innovative, preparations. The biggest issue was service, which was always friendly but ranged from scattered to uninformed. Reviewed March 18.
2537 Kensington Ave., Philadelphia; 267-703-8199, vientianebistro.com
There's been a flavorful boomlet of Lao restaurants, and this cheerful new Kensington sibling to Vientiane Cafe, Philly's Lao pioneer in West Philadelphia, is one of the best. It features a wide range of vividly seasoned specialties, from crispy rice salad to garlicky housemade sausages and refreshing green papaya salads that bear the cuisine's signature blend of sour, spice, and fermented funk. The restaurant adds yet another bright destination (with Thai specialties, too) to a stretch of storefronts below the El on Kensington Avenue that already hosts two of the city's best pho shops. Reviewed Dec. 2.
Vista Peru(Upgraded from 1 bell)
20 S. Second St., Philadelphia; 215-398-5046, vistaperuphilly.com
The unique and exciting flavors of Peru, from ceviches to grilled beef-heart anticuchos, are on display at this ambitious Old City project from the family behind Northeast Philly's El Balconcito restaurants. The narrow bi-level space has a gorgeously evocative décor with an undulating wood ceiling and traditional fabrics, a bar focused on pisco sours, and a kitchen that delivers solid renditions of traditional dishes. Overwhelmed and amateur service held it back during the initial spring review, but a much smoother end-of-year revisit showed progress worthy of a rating upgrade. Reviewed May 20; upgraded to two bells in December.
Yards Brewing Co. Taproom
500 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia; 215-634-2600, yardsbrewing.com
One of Philly's craft-beer pioneers made a major statement with its move into a massive new Spring Garden facility: It's not just bigger, it's better, with an airy beer hall restaurant wrapped in glass walls that offer full view of the brewery in action, 20 taps, and a largely well-executed scratch menu of affordable updated comfort foods from chef Jim Burke, from great roast pork sandwiches to wings in spicy Eagles-green chile sauce. In a city of many beer wonders, spending some quality time at one of the community tables here with a Love Stout and a lamb arancino (or a Brawler and crispy chicken sandwich) is now an essential experience. Reviewed March 25.
These restaurants received multiple visits and a two-bell rating for the first time in Craig LaBan’s comprehensive survey of the growing Mexican restaurant scene in South Philadelphia on April 29.
Café y Chocolate
La Fonda De Teresita
Buddakan(Downgraded from 2 bells)
325 Chestnut St., Philadelphia; 215-574-9440, buddakan.com
The dramatic space and towering Buddha haven't changed. And it's still tough to snag a table 20 years after it opened. But this iconic Old City pioneer of Asian fusion dining — and the spark that set Stephen Starr's restaurant empire into high gear — has become tired and outdated in its reluctance to evolve with current trends in modern Asian cuisine. The devoted clientele apparently doesn't want that change, which is fine. But those regulars still deserve a better performance from the kitchen, whose perfunctory execution of the menu's standards has declined to the point where several dishes weren't good by even relative terms, especially at big-ticket prices. Reviewed and downgraded to one bell on Oct. 14.
3611 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 267-805-8585, louielouie.restaurant
An American brasserie with a French twist and a retro '70s vibe is how the Grims family, which owns the White Dog Cafes and Moshulu, describes its sprawling and boisterous restaurant and bar at the Inn at Penn. It's a handsome space with vintage touches and gracious sidewalk cafe seating that looks out onto Penn's campus. Unfortunately, it's so insanely noisy my head hurt. And the big menu of bistro-plus dishes (steak-frites and precooked chicken, dry stews and mayo-lathered salads) lacked the finesse and flavor required to make it a compelling draw, especially with upscale prices that hover in the low $30s. Reviewed Nov. 11.
M Restaurant at the Morris House
231 S. Eighth St., Philadelphia; 215-625-6666, mrestaurantphilly.com
A classically romantic dining room and bar with a Colonial-era garden — one of Philly's most beautiful but underused restaurant spaces — was given a fresh chance at relevance under a brief affiliation with consultant chef Joncarl Lachman. It underwhelmed. Lachman’s no longer involved and another reboot is underway, to be reassessed, perhaps, in the future. Reviewed March 11.
2121 Walnut St., Philadelphia
The team behind West Philly’s Marigold Kitchen attempted a full-service restaurant-bar in Center City. It closed after a very short run. Reviewed Oct. 21.
King of Prussia Town Center, 255 Main St., King of Prussia; 484-808-4008, wearefoundingfarmers.com
You can feel good about cutting out the middleman and maximizing potato profits for the North Dakota farmers who are majority owners in the first local branch of this popular mini-chain that feels like a woke Cheesecake Factory for the farm-to-table generation. Too bad the ingredients can't cook themselves, as this mega-size newcomer to King of Prussia consistently struggled to competently deliver its massive menu of American comforts. An outgoing staff and great local beer list are positive assets, but an end-of-the-year revisit showed little to no progress in the kitchen. For every good dish at the all-you-can-eat weekend buffet (cedar-planked salmon; legit-smoked brisket), there were multiple disasters, from impenetrably thick fried chicken to rubbery pancakes and a watery bananas Foster sauce that should never have been served. The farm couldn’t have felt more far away. Reviewed April 1. Revisited in December.
1708 Lombard St., Philadelphia; 215-515-5336, keenphilly.com
There is an element of quirky whimsy to the twisted wood accents inside this long-in-the-making replacement to Fish and Astral Plane. That friendly spirit can't overcome the inexperience and lack of skill that produced some of my most disappointing dinners in recent memory, from artless comfort food updates to sloppy cocktails and even the occasional lack of clean silverware. A year-end revisit to the near-empty dining room seemed to startle the kitchen, which promptly burnt the bar’s one memorable specialty (“pig candy”), then replaced it with half-raw bacon. The cool bar and upstairs lounge are Keen's best reason for being. As a restaurant, it may actually be Philly’s worst. Reviewed Feb. 18. Revisited in December.