East Passyunk seems to tally the most votes as Philadelphia's nouveau Restaurant Row, but another unexpected competitor has emerged over the the last few years: Fairmount.
Well-reviewed new restaurants such as La Calaca Feliz, Lemon Hill, and Hickory Lane, along with reenergized old stalwarts including McCrossen's Tavern, Bridgid's, Rembrandt's, and London Grill, have changed the dynamic of the neighborhood. A few blocks east on North Broad are Marc Vetri's Osteria and Alla Spina and Stephen Starr's Route 6, and there's another string of spots on Callowhill Street, including Doma, Sabrina's, and Kite and Key.
Just last week Vetri signed a lease for a new pizzeria on Callowhill, and plans were recently announced for a combination grocery/cafe at 19th and Fairmount with former Garces Group chef Chad Williams cooking.
For the first time in years, the neighborhood near the museums has a dining scene that doesn't belong in one.
The relocation of the Barnes Foundation to the Parkway and the new residential buildings have increased the appeal of Fairmount for restaurateurs already charmed by the neighborhood's tidy rowhouses and proximity to culture, water, and green space.
"What separates Fairmount is the idea that it is separated," said Ryan Pollock, who opened his sandwich shop, Rybread, in the neighborhood nearly three years ago. With the Parkway providing a Center City buffer, "you get this feeling of being tucked away," he said.
There's room to stretch, too. "Fairmount is a little bit more spread out," said Tim Spinner, who owns the year-old La Calaca Feliz with partner Brian Sirhal. "In South Philly, everything's on top of each other."
Once a revolving door for young professionals, Fairmount's evolving family-friendly vibe has also been a draw, said Luli Canuso, who has lived in Fairmount since 1981. Last spring, she and husband Guy Shapiro opened BlueCat, a pan-Latin BYOB, on Fairmount Avenue.
"One of the first things I was told when we were opening was you better get some high chairs," she said.
A September 2011 report by the Center City District notes a 6 percent population increase in Fairmount and its surrounding neighborhoods between 2000 and 2010, with a particular jump in the number of 25-to-34-year-olds.
"Folks a little bit removed from college who have some disposable income, or couples with younger children - those are the types of customers that are attracted to these new restaurants," said developer Daniel Greenberg, who's building the Fairmount Grocery.
The influx of new energy has inspired the old standbys to reinvent themselves. "For the longest time, it was the same old story," said Rebecca Johnson, executive director of the Fairmount Community Development Corporation. "The new businesses injected a sense of enthusiasm, even to the ones that have been here for the past 10 to 15 years."
A year back, London Grill added the attached Paris Wine Bar, specializing in Pennsylvania wine. Bridgid's, one of the city's first craft-beer bars, brought in chef Peter McAndrews (Modo Mio, Monsu, Paesano's) to revamp the menu. Over the summer, Rembrandt's hired chef Nick Cassidy, a Stephen Starr vet who also ran his own place (Sauté, in Queen Village) to overhaul the kitchen.
"When I came in to eat the first time before I took the job, I noticed it was mainly burgers and fries," said Cassidy. "I said, is this the direction you want to continue going? If so, you're looking for the wrong person." Cassidy has introduced a prominent house-made focus, pickling his own vegetables and curing his own charcuterie.
Chef Townsend Wentz, who revamped McCrossen's bar on 20th Street into a more ambitious restaurant 2 1/2 years ago, lived in the area during his time working at Lacroix from 2002 to 2005. "The options were all relatively the same 10 years ago: The Fairmount Menu," he called it. "The same nine sandwiches and a couple salads and that's it."
Now, there's Mexican/Latin (BlueCat, Isabel, La Calaca Feliz) and a wide range of American cooking (Fare, Hickory Lane, Lemon Hill) included in the new batch, with more concepts on the way. The chefs at these restaurants, all recent veterans of upscale dining, are introducing Center City ambition and refinement at a neighborhood pace.
The hope was that the May 2012 opening of the Barnes Foundation at its Parkway location would boost the new energy in Fairmount, though the consensus among restaurateurs seems to be that it has not yet, in terms of drawing diners deeper into the neighborhood. "It's done practically nothing for any of us," said Terry Berch McNally, who has owned Fairmount Avenue's London Grill with chef Michael McNally, her former husband, since 1991. "We get dribs and drabs."
Wentz, whose McCrossen's is far closer to the Barnes than any of his further-north neighbors, does get occasional group dining business, but he still doesn't "see the kind of increased traffic that I thought we would see," he said. "I thought it would be exponentially busier." He looks forward to the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association's planned "museum push," in which the Barnes will factor greatly.
"There's a lot of people in Fairmount that dine in Center City and dine well, spend a lot of money," Wentz said. "Our goal was to give them options here."