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Experts Reflect on the 2016 Philly Food Scene

Here’s what the pros think

Wm. Mulherin’s Sons
Mulherin’s/Official

Eater asked a group of Philly journalists, bloggers and friends of the site to weigh in on the year in food. Here, they share their thoughts about Philadelphia’s dining scene today.

Top Restaurant Standbys of 2016

Organic Amish chicken at Vernick

Arthur Etchells, Foobooz founder, Manatawny Still Works regional manager: Serpico, Sbraga, Pub & Kitchen, Dim Sum Garden, Bing Bing Dim Sum, Stargazy, Zeppoli

Adam Erace, freelance writer: Most often, I'm ping-ponging between Stargazy and South Philly Barbacoa. Those are the two restaurants I probably ate at most this year, plus Santucci's, which has been my pizza delivery go-to since they opened in Bella Vista. Our order rarely changes: two Granny Smith apple salads, small pizza with mushrooms. For upscale, Zahav. It's where I take people over and over again.

Drew Lazor, freelance writer: American Sardine Bar has an awesome chef in Doreen DeMarco. You gotta check her stuff out! Vernick Food + Drink somehow gets better and better every time I go. Can't go wrong with Kanella or Kanella Grill. Pizzeria Beddia and Square Pie are just wonderful.

Fidel Gastro, food blogger: Double Knot all day every day. You can't beat the lunchtime banh mi special; also, Kashif's halal cart on 16th St midway between Market and JFK. And Schmitters. I've fallen back in love with them.

Caroline Russock, Zagat Philly editor, freelance writer: My standbys have been pretty solid for a while. Dante & Luigi’s need disappoints for old school Italian and Fountain Porter’s burger has a permanent place in my heart.

Emily Teel, freelance writer: Maybe this just means that I love breakfast, but this year I could regularly be found grabbing a counter seat at The Dutch, and haunting The Hungry Pigeon for breakfast, pastry-snacks, lunch, and even the occasional the mid-afternoon glass of wine. More than any other Philly restaurant has, The Hungry Pigeon for me has come to feel like a home away from home. It's beautiful, the staff is great, and the food is smart and confident.

What were the top restaurant newcomers of 2016?

Hungry Pigeon’s Scott Schroeder (left) and Pat O’Malley

Art Etchells: Wm. Mulherin's Sons, Hungry Pigeon, A Mano, the Dutch, South Helm

Adam Erace: I had a couple meals at ITV that just knocked me out. That beef fat biscuit is magic. It's great to see Nick in a space that more people have access to. Kanella Grill is also a favorite, I'd say the best opening in Center City this year. Punchy, brazen flavors, cheap and satisfying. And I can't say enough good things about Hungry Pigeon. I've been a big fan of Scott's cooking for a years and I'm so happy for him that he has a proper stage (and one that is so sunny and welcoming.) Having Pat O'Malley baking in Philly too is a damn treasure. His croissants are peerless.

Drew Lazor: I love that we have now have both Double Knot and Royal Sushi & Izakaya in town. Gotta love Hungry Pigeon. Stockyard is making some excellent sandwiches. Late entry: have only been in for dinner so far, but love what they're doing at Res Ipsa.

Fidel Gastro: Double Knot (again). [Kevin] Yanaga isn't fucking around; Went to Royal Izakaya last week and that was also pretty great. I think I may have eaten 80% of the menu by accident.

Caroline Russock: Royal Sushi & Izakaya is a twofer fave with an intimate omakase counter in the back and convivial izakaya up front. Res Ipsa is showing plenty of promise out of the gate with creative casual breakfast and lunch transitioning into an moody BYO for dinner featuring intriguing plates plucked from the Southern Italian cannon.

Emily Teel: I love what Sate Kampar is adding to the ongoing food conversation on East Passyunk Avenue, and I could eat at Double Knot every week and not get bored. I love that the place manages to be good at so many different things — lunch on the go, cocktails, coffee, robatoyaki, sushi, and plated dishes — all at once.

What was the best dining neighborhood in 2016?

ITV
Photo by Whitney Casal

Art Etchells: Fishtown. Mulherin's, Root, etc.

Adam Erace: I'm biased because I live there, but Passyunk is still king. Where else in the city can you get English meat pies, Malaysian sate (Kampar is another 2016 favorite), high-end Italian, red-gravy Italian, sushi (Izumi is criminally underrated), Filipino, a great pizza, a cutting-edge tasting menu, amazing tacos, an amazing $5 cheeseburger, some of the best gelato outside Italy, etc., etc. in about 3 square blocks?

Drew Lazor: I say Chinatown for this question every year, and I'm gonna say Chinatown again. Chinatown!

Fidel Gastro: Gotta be Fishtown.

Caroline Russock: Whether you’re going for black and white cookies at Essen, cocktails at ITV and Townsend or an evening of saté and BYO beers at Sate Kampar, East Passyunk continues to be an unstoppable force.

Emily Teel: Having celebrated my 10th year in South Philly, I have to claim loyalty to East Passyunk. I really do believe that this neighborhood offers something for everyone and at every price point by way of great food and drink.

What was the biggest dining surprise of 2016?

The Dutch
The Dutch/Official

Art Etchells: The Dutch. I had no idea I could crave "shit on a shingle" so much. But that savory waffle is wonderful.

Adam Erace: I never knew how much I needed chocolate rugelach in my life until Essen opened up; that place has become essential to my diet. Whatever Tova and her team turn out, it's the best possible version of that thing. Have you had the chocolate-chip cookies? They are ridiculous. The cheesecake has become my family's go-to celebration centerpiece. It's like $26. You'd pay that for a shitty cheesecake from Acme across the street.

Fidel Gastro: Here's a less popular opinion: Hungry Pigeon didn't really toot my horn, which is surprising because I love Scott's food almost as much as he hates me.

Caroline Russock: Between Royal Sushi & Izakaya and Double Knot, 2016 will forever be remembered as the year real deal Japanese (i.e. not just sushi and ramen) found its way to Philly.

Emily Teel: No lie, based on it's looks I was ready to write off Wm. Mulherin's Sons as nothing more than a pretty face for the audience of the upwardly mobile diners driving development in Fishtown. It wowed me with truly great flavors and an extremely knowledgable staff.

What was your single best meal in 2016?

Malbec Argentine Steakhouse
Malbec/Official

Art Etchells: South Helm. Ordered the whole menu for our table of four and it was ridiculously good.

Drew Lazor: I had many amazing meals in Philadelphia but in the interest of total honesty the legit best thing I had this year was this enormous dungeness crab at Sun Sui Wah in Vancouver.

Fidel Gastro: Will BYOB was a standout

Caroline Russock: This year’s most enjoyable meal an unexpected and incredibly enjoyable evening spent at the bar at Malbec, a warm Argentine steakhouse across from Headhouse Square. From Fernet cocktails to a paradilla of blood sausage and sweetbreads and countless glasses of South American still and sparkling wines, the vibe here is way more South American than South Street.

Emily Teel: It's a toss up. I recently went to Lacroix for Chef Jon Cichon's new five course dinner tasting menu. Though the dining room feels a little dated, the service was the most polished I've experienced in town within the last year. It feels grand there, which helps the beautifully built dishes seem even more elegant than they would without it. Even so, the intensity of flavors that Townsend Wentz and Michael Millon are packing into the restrained dishes at A Mano is almost impossible to beat. My mouth is watering remembering them.

What was the biggest restaurant grievance of 2016?

Art Etchells: Internet hazing of people over authenticity. Once a dish leaves its first kitchen, it goes forth into its life and is improved, bastardized, personalized and commoditized. Food doesn't have soul, the people who cook it do.

Adam Erace: A lot of people seem to really like Double Knot. I wish I could excise Kevin Yanaga and the sushi bar and drop them down in a normal space that doesn't require a bouncer to access.

Drew Lazor: This really isn't a "restaurant" grievance per se but I wish that more Royal Farms would open up in the city in lieu of new Wawa locations. The closest RoFo is in Ridley Park, but as a Maryland native who was raised on their fried chicken I NEED ONE CLOSER THAN THAT, EATER!

Fidel Gastro: Everyone is bonkers over Mulherin's, but I didn't have a great experience there. Not sure if this counts as a grievance, however. Since I'm also a basic bitch, I spend a lot of time at Iron Hill Brewery and this year both the service and food (especially the service) went to absolute shit, which sucks because it's a nice (albeit overpriced) place to go with the family. What I'm mostly bummed about is the fact that I predicted pho would be a thing like 4 years ago and it's only now showing up on the cover of Lucky Peach (that's a personal grievance).

Caroline Russock: I’m all for Philly born concepts getting national attention but there’s something about the fact that it took New York openings of High Street and Dizengoff for two incredible restaurant groups to truly step into the spotlight.

Emily Teel: Mishandling of wines. Honestly. If you're going to make the investment in offering great pours by the glass, make sure that you're doing the work to ensure that the final pour is as good as the first.

What are your headline predictions for 2017?

Art Etchells: “America runs out of old barns, new restaurant aesthetic demanded”, “What's for breakfast? All-day cafes are the answer”, “Drink Local Means Booze Too -- Local spirits lists become the norm”

Drew Lazor: "Crowd Nonplussed by On-Stage Wing Bowl Death; Officials Honestly Surprised It Took This Long"

Fidel Gastro: More "no tip" restaurants emerge. Philly's food bubble inflates to a precarious volume, but doesn’t yet pop. Craft beer's critical mass ruins craft beer and you see breweries start to fail or get gobbled up by big beer.

Caroline Russock: Every neighborhood in the city deserves a smart, all day concept like Res Ipsa and Hungry Pigeon. Fingers crossed.

Emily Teel: Royal Isakaya is already making waves (Get it? Because sushi?), so I won't be surprised if it winds up claiming a fair amount of airtime in the weeks and months to come.

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