Get your hoisin sauce and pancakes — Chinatown is home to two new duck houses. Also this week, I find two new American bar-restaurants (one in Queen Village, the other on the Main Line) with one thing in common: Their menus are easy to understand. (This is not "tweezer" food that requires a Google session on your iPhone to decipher.)
Also: You'll see a few more closings than usual listed this week. Has "the bubble" burst? Doubtful, given how restaurant growth has been so steady for so long. I see dozens of newcomers gearing up to open by midsummer.
Chinatown's duck scene, launched nearly 40 years ago by way of Sang Kee Peking Duck House on Ninth Street below Vine, is starting to take wing.
For a few years, the options included only Ting Wong and Siu Kee on 10th Street, and M Kee on Race. Just like that, two newcomers have landed across the street from each other, so close that the guys wielding the cleavers can practically trade waves while they work amid the hanging birds.
They're Canto House (941 Race St., 267-881-8880), replacing Wong Wong at 10th and Race, and Lau Kee (934 Race St., 215-201-3511), filling a former grocery store. Canto, whose owner also has a piece of Ting Wong, has the brighter, more spacious digs.
Both open in midmorning with congee and other AM-friendly fare, and feature budget-priced, phone-book-size menus of Americanized Chinese as well as Hong Kong-style dishes.
In a battle of Peking duck, I'd give the edge to Lau Kee, whose price tag of $15 for a half and $28 for a whole is also $4 cheaper. Crispier skin, meatier duck. I also found a dish that is now among my Chinatown favorites (along with the old-school egg rolls from Nom Wah Dim Sum Parlor and the soup dumplings from Tom's Dim Sum): shredded duck meat with ground pork, stir-fried with XO sauce, onions, and green beans ($13.95).
Want more? I’ll steer you to Craig LaBan’s guide to Chinatown, which describes the old-guard duck houses among other great stops.
Charlie's Hamburgers | Folsom
The legendary Delco burger shop reopens April 18 in its new home, at 237 E. MacDade Blvd.
Kick Axe Throwing | Old City
April 22 is the expected soft opening of this ax parlor at 232 Market St.
Lovebird | Bryn Mawr
The chicken chain from the founder of Jules Thin Crust Pizza, launched in Doylestown, is new at 1086 E. Lancaster Ave. Gluten-free options abound.
Morgan's Pier | Delaware Riverfront
Season-opener for this outdoor destination beside the Ben Franklin Bridge is April 18.
Pho House | Kensington
The folks from Kensington's Cafe Thang Long, Inquirer critic Craig LaBan's favorite pho shop, have opened this offshoot at 165 W. Girard Ave., across the street from Northern Liberties.
PHS Pop-Up | South Street
Season-opener at 1438 South St. is April 18. The PHS pop-up in University City is TBA.
Vernalicious | Pennsport
Veteran food trucker Verna Swerdlow has gone brick-and-mortar with a BYO at 101 W. Ritner St. Open 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
EAT Cafe | West Philadelphia
The ambitious pay-what-you-wish restaurant operated by Drexel University has set April 19 as its last day.
Hai Street Kitchen | Multiple locations
The sushi-burrito specialist seems to have shuttered its Philadelphia-area locations. A company rep did not return a message for comment.
Station Bistro | Kimberton (temporary)
The lovely country bistro outside Phoenixville (Chester County) closes temporarily after service on April 21 as founder Nancy Dill Miller cedes the place to new owners Bill and Nancy Rutter. It is expected to be back in two weeks after renovation.
Teassert | Chinatown
One of the earlier rolled ice cream shops has rolled out of here after three years.
Trolley Car Station | West Philadelphia
The $2.5 million restaurant at the 40th Street trolley portal has shuttered after seven months.
Davio's, 111 S. 17th St.; 5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday
For going on 20 years, Davio's in Center City has looked and played the part of the upmarket Italian steakhouse destination.
It's also home to one of Center City's more civilized happy hours in its newly renovated lounge. The low tables and chairs have given way to more functional high-tops that blend more seamlessly into the dining room and allow a catbird's view of 17th and Chestnut Streets from the restaurant's second-floor perch.
Drink lineup includes a few cocktails discounted to $6, wines at $5, and $3 beer bottles. The food specials are outstanding, ranging from truffle fries ($5) and a huge soft pretzel seasoned with rosemary, other herbs, and smoked sea salt ($5) to more substantive fare such as fried calamari ($7), sausage and peppers on foccacia ($7), the signature cheesesteak spring rolls ($9), and flatbread topped with San Daniele prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula, and basil ($9).
A similar happy hour, with different specials and menu, is offered at the Davio’s location at King of Prussia Town Center.
Olly, 700 S. Fifth St.
Fifth and Bainbridge has seen a list of comings and goings in the last decade, including East of Amara, Coquette, Adsum, Tapestry, and most recently Whetstone Tavern.
Perhaps Chris D'Ambro and Marina De Oliveira, who own Southwark and Ambra a block away, have it figured out with Olly, their new bistro.
They’re aiming for the neighborhood (families as well as date-nighters) with a fresh-looking dining room (gray with pops of color), cozy bar, and a comprehendible menu that includes a cheeseburger and fries, lasagna, and fried chicken (albeit with house-made hot sauce). There's a kids' menu, too.
Pay special attention to the ricotta gnudi with asparagus, ramps, lemon, and Parmesan; the wild halibut with vegetable nage (one possibly unfamiliar food term); the Swiss chard pie with lamb and carrot salad; and a charred broccoli Caesar with smoked chicken.
From the bar's 15-tap draft system come beers, Appalachian Brewing root beer, wines, sherry, and Other Animal Coffee's cold brew. The taps also figure into cocktails such as an Arnold Palmer made with draft Riesling and Earl Grey tea, a sherry cobbler riff with rhubarb syrup, and a refreshing creation called Spend My Thrills made with gin, rosé, and rose syrup.
Next up: Brunch Friday to Sunday (starting in the next few weeks), outdoor dining, sound-proofing to dim the high-ceilinged din, and a pizzeria called Gigi opening soon on the Bainbridge Street side.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; bar will stay open depending on busyness.
Avalon Bistro, 818 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr
The idea, John Brandt-Lee said, is "we're not reinventing the wheel here."
Refreshing words from a chef/restaurateur, who as a group want you to believe that they are, in fact, committing acts akin to solving world crises.
Three years ago at his high-end Avalon restaurant in West Chester, Brandt-Lee was feeling an identity crisis. His solution: Take it down to "casual fun." He started advertising just the restaurant's name and logo with the slogan "It doesn't suck." And it doesn't. His menu is simple and approachable.
Now on board is a somewhat smaller, tastefully decorated spot on the Main Line, where Verdad and Marbles were next to the movie theater in downtown Bryn Mawr. Thirty bar and high-top seats are set in front for walk-ins, leading into a 40-seat dining room for reservations and walk-ins; a private room upstairs is on the way.
With the bar running along much of the dining room, there's a solid energy amid the Anthro-meets-Pottery Barn atmosphere. Highlights on the early menu, which will expand soon, include bacon-wrapped dates, a board with chicken liver mousse, burrata, garlicky grilled lamb chops, penne with crab, and a nifty special of seared scallops plated atop a creamy cauliflower purée besides a side of fried cauliflower.
Hours: Now in soft-opening mode, it’s open at 2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and goes till whenever. Closed Sunday and Monday. On May 1, weekend brunch starts at 11 a.m. and it will be closed Monday.
There's never a bad time for sushi and ramen, which makes our new guide to Philadelphia's Japanese food scene a must-read.
Recently, newspapers across the country have dropped their ratings systems in restaurant reviews, but not our Craig LaBan. You don't have to agree with them, but he has his reasons for keeping those Liberty Bells around.
Need Kosher wines for Passover? Let Zahav’s list lead the way.
Reader: When is your Brewvitational beer festival at Reading Terminal Market this year? It’s been such a blast I’m planning to bring a big group this time around.
Craig LaBan: I have good news, and disappointing news.
The good news is that the Inquirer’s annual Brewvitational competition for local beer is happening once again, and we are celebrating our 10th edition. It’s amazing how great ale can make time fly, and we’ve certainly documented a whirlwind decade for brewery growth, no doubt the biggest beer bump the Philadelphia region has seen since Prohibition.
To mark that maturing new wave, Brewvi X will put a special focus on barrel-aged beers as this year’s featured style category when the panel of expert judges convenes Monday, May 13, for a private blind-tasting at the Inquirer’s offices. We’ll also be seeking the region’s best “new” beer, so I’m hopeful that we’ll have as many local breweries represented on the tasting table as possible. To that end, any breweries that did not already receive an entry form with competition info should write to me right away at email@example.com. There is no cost to enter, and the blind-tasting format – already with some legendary judges committed this year - never plays favorites.
The bad news? Unfortunately, the public festival complement to the competition – Taste of the Brewvitational – will not happen this year due to logistical hurdles. I’m hopeful that this is just a one-year hiatus, because that event was in growth mode and the Terminal was a perfect spot to showcase the best of anything local – especially beer. It was particularly rewarding to watch members of the public get a chance to taste what we judges were raving about and connect directly with the brewers who are doing such good work to revive one of the region’s birthright industries.