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Food Writers Name Philly’s Biggest Dining Surprises of 2018

From non-alcoholic cocktails to matzo ball soup

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Loaded potato croquettes at American Sardine Bar, one restaurant chosen as the biggest surprise of 2018
American Sardine Bar/Facebook

As per tradition, Eater asked a group of restaurant journalists, bloggers, and friends of the site to weigh in on the year in food. Next up, the restaurants, dishes, and drinks that surprised those dining experts.

The question: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2018?

Joy Manning, editor of Edible Philly: The thing that utterly took my breath away was this non-alcoholic cocktail I had at Zahav, called “Juniper Lake.” It’s made from fermented juniper berries, verjus blanc, and orange bitters and it has all the fragrant, layered complexity you want in a cocktail. It was so good, it brought tears to my eyes. I hadn’t had a cocktail experience like that since I quit drinking alcohol.

Alex Tewfik, food editor at Philadelphia magazine: The chicken ballotine at Vernick Coffee Bar. The amount of work that goes into a ballotine…you’d never expect to see that kind of thing on a casual café menu.

Adam Erace, freelance writer and co-author of the upcoming Laurel cookbook: I recently started going to Creme Brulee Bistro in Pennsport. It’s been open a couple years, and I’ve driven by it a bunch but never went. Both the manifold pastries and the savory food are fantastic, and the prices are crazy low. Just a sweet place that shouldn’t be there and shouldn’t be great but totally is. So happy to put it into heavy rotation.

Another one: Doreen DeMarco’s cooking at American Sardine Bar has been so good lately! That’s a bar I kind of wrote off for food while ago, but the menu feels like it’s become so much more varied and quietly ambitious than in the past. I’ve loved so many of her little vegetable dishes. I can’t wait to eat the squash caesar again this summer.

Kae Lani Kennedy, food and travel editor for USA Today 10Best: The Rooster changed its menu which made me nervous for the little lunch counter, but when I tried the Yemenite matzo ball soup with the smoked meat sandwich, I was astounded. The menu change was a welcome evolution.

Drew Lazor, Philadelphia-based freelance writer and author of Session Cocktails (Ten Speed Press, May 2018): I’m so excited that Philadelphians are exploring and embracing Filipino food, as presented by the Pelago/LALO crews and chef Lou Boquila with Perla and Sarvida.

Regan Stephens, Philadelphia magazine managing editor and Food & Wine contributor: Hearthside. We don’t visit Jersey often (my parents live south of the city so we usually head in that direction when we leave) so it took a minute to get motivated to visit after they opened late last year. But it was easily one of our top meals this year. I’m only a little embarrassed to admit how much I think about the ceviche with potato chips and cilantro, the handmade pasta dishes, and this hot cornbread with honey butter that isn’t on the menu at the moment, but should be.


1535 South 11th Street, , PA 19147 (267) 273-0008 Visit Website

American Sardine Bar

1800 Federal Street, , PA 19146 (215) 334-2337 Visit Website


237 Saint James Place, , PA 19106 (215) 625-8800 Visit Website

Rooster Soup Company

1526 Sansom St, Philadelphia, PA 19102 (215) 454-6939


300 East Girard Avenue, , PA 19125 (267) 273-1234 Visit Website


801 Haddon Avenue, , NJ 08108 (856) 240-1164 Visit Website

Vernick Coffee Bar

1800 Arch Street, , PA 19103 (215) 419-5052 Visit Website