A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a dinner date with friends to James Beard award-winning Kalaya in Fishtown, and the experience was incredible. The venue was lovely, the Thai cuisine was divine, — and what made the atmosphere memorable was how everyone was there to simply dine without any other flashy draw. There was no need for a random band playing loudly in the background, or every dish coming out Instagram-worthy (while still tasting bland).
This experience was an exception; dining in Philly lately feels like a full-out concert. I love a great drag brunch during Pride month, but now it seems like every emerging restaurant trying to add flair to their marketing (versus their menu) are now doing it all year round. Our food scene has been hijacked with an overwhelming amount of networking mixers, performance shows without a stage, and over-the-top chills without the thrills. To be fair, some restaurants have been doing this for years because they know their audience (Johnny Brenda’s, Bob & Barbara’s, and South, to name a few). But the growing trend is getting out of control.
The quick rise and fall of Bankroll – a luxury sports bar in Center City that sold “Billionaire bacon” and thought they were “too good for nachos” – is a textbook example of what not to do. The ambitious venue that opened in March and began to fall apart in June (going to auction in August) attempted to create a high-end space for elite sports fans in the poorest major city in America. In a city known for its scrappiness and blue-collared sports fan base, it’s hard to imagine any of them wanting to watch an Eagles game while ordering a baked Alaska from Bankroll’s pricey menu.
The same can be said for Mad Rex, the now-closed post-apocalyptic themed restaurant that featured virtual-reality activities we really didn’t need. Or the massive spectacle that’s currently Liberty Point, a waterfront spot that boasts about being the biggest outdoor restaurant in Philly – but has been hyped up more by influencers than the general public and press. And who can forget the annual faux-elite (read as: nauseating and overrated) experience known as Dîner en Blanc, that gets even more whiny and cringy each year.
I’ve spoken to restaurant owners who I’ve noticed doing this. Some argue that it’s a way to keep their businesses alive in a still-impacting pandemic, while others see it as a way to spark up new interest in a restaurant they’ve had for a long time. For the new Black owners of Booker’s in West Philly, I get why they’re trying to experiment with more lively happy hours and evening events – even if I now only eat there on certain days to avoid all of the commotion.
If I want a gimmick, I would go to Hard Rock Cafe or Vegas. Perhaps with time, owners might realize that it’s always been the food itself that has kept residents in the area supporting it for nearly a decade.