East Passyunk Avenue has turned into a white-hot dining destination — a collection of small, chef-run independent restaurants without a Starr, Vetri, or Garces in the bunch. The new kid on the block is a roomy, sexy Spanish wine bar called Barcelona from a Connecticut-based group that has a dozen other restaurants. Also this week, I have word on a new Indian BYOB in South Jersey (Aroma Indian Bistro), a moderate-price fish house in Washington Square West (Pinefish), and a rock-solid destination in Blue Bell (Blue Bell Inn). I also found a classic summer drink at the Center City hideaway Writer's Block Rehab. In his Q&A, critic Craig LaBan offers advice to an aspiring food writer. Which prompts this writer to ask: Need food news on the reg? Click here and follow me here and also here. I love hearing from you. Really. Email me tips, suggestions, etc. here. If someone forwarded this free newsletter to you and you like what you're reading, sign up here and you'll get it every week. Be sure to check your spam filter if you don't see that all-important confirmation email.
The marquee-topped building at the South Philly intersection of 12th, Morris, and Passyunk, for decades a clothing shop called A Man's Image, has been transformed into Barcelona, a wood- and curio-appointed Spanish wine bar with a transporting, landscaped patio. Where once you bought ties, you can tie one on — and the 400-bottle wine list is studded with gems. (Incidentally, just like the list at the new Walnut Street Cafe, Barcelona's roster takes a deep dive into the Pennsylvania LCB's "special liquor order" system for labels you just will not find at even better state stores.) Go romantic for two, but I like it best with friends as you run the table of tapas (most well under $10) or dig into a shared platter such as paella. This place, owned by a group with a dozen other restaurants, could be a game-changer for the Avenue. Competition is everywhere. Will it lure more diners to the area or eat up the existing business? At the very least, Barcelona will force its neighbors to step up.
Pimm's Cup at Writer's Block Rehab
Hidden in plain sight on a back street in the shadow of the Kimmel Center, Ram Krishnan's quirky, chill Writer's Block Rehab dispenses a refreshingly less-sweet version of the Pimm's Cup, that fruity, British summertime staple. Mixmaster Charles Griffin's uses Pimm's No. 1, lemonade, fruits and club soda, vs. the more familiar 7Up or ginger ale. It's $9. For a rundown of the bar, click here.
Your criteria: "Center City seafood specialist, with a bar, a bit of atmosphere, reasonable prices, and buck-a-shucks at happy hour." Unshellfishly, I offer three suggestions: the Rittenhouse Square-area stalwart Oyster House (for the business-casual polish and the cocktail scene), the cash-only Seafood Unlimited (for the value pricing and BYOB-friendly approach), and the dimly romantic and newer Pinefish at 12th and Pine Streets. Pinefish's happy hours (with dollar clams, oysters, and shrimp) are particularly attractive, as they're on from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. every day, so if you get too hungry for dinner at 8 … Chef Dave Corradetti's standouts include cioppino ($19) and whole fish (such as branzino, $25). The land portion includes a righteous, Jewish-style brisket-and-onion sandwich from owner Peter Dissin's past. Point of interest: Jay Caputo, who was chef at Stephen Starr's Tangerine back in the day, helps out in the kitchen.
Few restaurants in the Blue Bell area can handle brunch with Mom, lunch with colleagues, and date night as adroitly as the Blue Bell Inn. Three years since a top-to-bottom redo, it's shed the fusty "Blue Hair Inn" sobriquet, moving from 1743 to the 21st century. Patio and raw bar are draws, as is chef Eric Goods' straight-ahead American fare.
Wait till sleepy Merchantville wakes up to the brand new Aroma Indian Bistro. Case in point: the flaming-throwingly spicy Chicken 65 ($8.99), which here is pan-fried, not deep-fried. Highlights include the $11.99 daily lunch buffet. Don't miss the tandoor specials, and the full slate of breads. Naan better.
Mid-July means summer doldrums for many restaurants, so restaurant-week promotions are out there in a bid to get more bodies in seats.
Farm to Fork is the SJ Hot Chefs' annual promotion that pairs South Jersey farms and their restaurant clients — 27 this time out — through July 23.
Ardmore Restaurant Week runs through July 30, with happy-hour specials and $25/$35 dinner specials.
Farm Fresh Collingswood Restaurant Week runs from July 23-28. List is here.
Also keep in mind that Center City Sips, which has dozens of bars and restaurants selling $5 cocktails, $4 wines, $3 beers, and half-price apps, runs on Wednesdays through Aug. 30.
If you're looking for outdoor bars, including beer gardens, here's our resource.
Friday, July 21, is Day One for Shawn Darragh and chef Ben Puchowitz's Version 2.0 of their Chinese-ish bar, set up in a historic former police station at 1416 Frankford Ave. in Fishtown. I'll run this down next week, but for now, check this.
The menu at this high-polish chain bar/restaurant, on a pad near Shake Shack on the perimeter of King of Prussia Mall, is based on the nutrient-rich diet espoused by Andrew Weil. There's something for everyone: gluten-free, vegans.
Olivier Desaintmartin has shut down his Washington Square West prepared-foods shop, where rotisserie meats were the specialty. He wants to devote more time to Caribou Cafe and Zinc. Spot won't be vacant long. A breakfast-luncher called Middle Child is on the way to 248 S. 11th St.
Reader: I am just starting out in the food writing space and want to eventually freelance for publications such as Bon Appétit or Food & Wine. Could you offer any advice for a beginner on how get from point A to point B?
Craig LaBan: On one hand, it's hard to give specific advice, because the landscape has changed so dramatically since I started 25 years ago. (Hello, internet!) Anyone can write about food on Yelp. But if you want to build a career, some basic principles haven't changed. Write a lot to develop your voice, but you must eventually make the leap beyond a personal blog to seek professional assignments that pay, even a little. Don't be afraid to start at the bottom and begin building clips, which will lead to better opportunities. Bon Appétit won't just happen after a few articles — prove yourself over a period of time within your own community. And be motivated to work hard the right way. Write for the best editors, who will be demanding and hold you to the highest journalistic standards. Most important, think of yourself as a reporter first and a food writer second. You're not starting out in "the food writing space." You're entering journalism, period. You just happen to write about food. Learn the craft of building a good feature, a good news story, and becoming a good interviewer. Listen to your sources because they are the experts, and likely you aren't. I still learn something every day. In that spirit, the best pieces are always drawn from original reporting, not unverified secondhand observations recycled ("aggregated") off the internet. Once you get out into the world to visit the farms, distilleries, and restaurant kitchens and observe the makers and experience their world firsthand, that's when this job really gets rewarding, both for both and your readers. Good luck and, most important, have fun!