Philadelphia’s high-end restaurant battle
The suburb of Fairmount is home to some of Philadelphia’s top new eating establishments. (Richard Cummins/LPI)
The battle over dining domination in Philadelphia has headed north, as local restaurateur Stephen Starr opens an establishment in Marc Vetri’s fortified Fairmount neighbourhood, and Vetri counters by opening a new bar next door. Starr has strength in numbers, owning nearly 20 restaurants in Philadelphia alone. Vetri’s success comes from high-quality dining.
These two, along with a few other restaurateurs, are bringing new weapons to the battle over Philadelphia’s dining scene.
Starr, the most recognized name in the Philadelphia restaurant scene, opened his latest culinary destination, Route 6, in mid-November. The theme is Cape Cod, whose highway is the Route 6’s namesake. Tributes to the area can be found throughout the menu, with items such as “today’s market fish”, steamed lobster and New England clam chowder.
Diners step into a shore-town atmosphere, where sailboat sails double as curtains, sailors’ knots decorate the walls and a skylight opens up the ceiling. A double-sided fireplace warms the dining room, and a wood-burning oven smokes the food. Starr pays homage to the newest neighbourhood in his kingdom with a platter called The Fairmount (complete with oysters, littlenecks, crab, shrimp and lobster). The Wilkie (double the size of The Fairmount) honours the Wilkie auto showroom, which previously stood at Route 6’s location.
Opening next door in February will be Vetri’s Italian bar, Alla Spina. Vetri, another local culinary superstar, does not have the long list of eateries that Starr has, but he has found success with his unique twist on Italian dining at Vetri, Osteria and Amis. Osteria, located next door to Alla Spina and Route 6, was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for best new restaurant in 2008.
At Alla Spina, Vetri wants to put a table for six on top of the walk-in fridge. Diners will scale a ladder to their table, from which they will be able to look out over the restaurant. Like Route 6, Alla Spina will honour the Wilkie auto showroom by keeping the existing skylights and creating an industrial feel.
Philadelphia’s other restaurateur powerhouse, Jose Garces, owns seven restaurants in the city. The Ecuadorian Iron Chef has staked claim over local Spanish and Latin cuisine with Old City’s Amada, Rittenhouse Square’s Tinto and University City’s Disitro. And though he has not held a ribbon-cutting ceremony recently, he plans to open three copies of successful Philadelphia restaurants in Atlantic City in May 2012. Amada, Village Whiskey and Distrito will all be housed in the Revel Beach Casino on the Boardwalk.
Philadelphia’s fastest rising chef/restaurateur is Chip Roman, whose popularity soared after Blackfish in the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken was named best restaurant by Philadelphia Magazine in 2010. Last month he opened Ela in Queens Village with up-and-coming chef Jason Cichonski.
Roman, who studied under Vetri and Le Bec-Fin’s Georges Perrier, shows off creativity and flair with his new venture. The menu includes diver scallop noodles with root vegetables and blood orange, and duck magret with pretzel spaetzle, Brussels sprouts and butternut squash. The co-owners have fun with the drinks menu, offering cocktails with names like “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad”, “Jaws Theme Swimming” and “Okay I Believe You but my Tommy Gun Don’t”.
In the war over high-end dining, Starr, Garces, Vetri and Roman continue to claim different neighbourhoods and culinary themes. But as Philadelphians’ palates continue to improve, the demand for new and more creative restaurants will grow, making room for young and energetic chefs to jump into the spotlight. In this war, the real victors are the diners.