Here's a by-cuisine rundown of some of 2008's biggest, most meaningful openings.
Michael T. Regan
The amount of Indian restaurants that opened this year is truly astounding. Sneaking into '08 consideration with a December '07 opening was Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran's Bindi (pictured), their Indian-"inspired" answer to their Mexican-"inspired" BYO Lolita. The spot received great acclaim, thanks to Turney's use of classic Indian spices and very un-classic preparations (jaggery-braised beef short ribs!). But let's not discount the surge of more traditional Indian restaurants that joined the papadum parade. Boasting a polished upscale interior, Minar Palace finally reoapened on Walnut Street in early September after a two-year absence. Mohammed Islam's King of Tandoor brought coal-fired panache to Fairmount in June. Ashoka Palace, boasting cheap dinner specials and the pinkest interior this side of Strawberry Shortcake's bedroom, opened near 19th and Chestnut. Munish Narula, owner of Tiffin, expanded into Mount Airy with the second location of his Fishtown eatery, while his former exec chef, Raju Bhattarai, earned instantaneous raves for Ekta, a tiny Girard Avenue takeaway.
Shirley Nicole Fonner
For awhile I wrestled with the notion that Philly had reached critical mass when it came to good Mexican destinations. What was I thinking?
The crown jewel of the category is chef Jose Garces' Distrito (pictured). News that the jovial Iron Chef winner would be opening a location of his lucha-masked sugar rush of a restaurant in Atlantic City in 2010 solidifies it as a fast success, as does the fact that my girlfriend's mother, by all accounts a cautious eater, needed just one bite of octopus ceviche to decide she had a thing for cephalopod.
There was plenty of non-Garcesfied news around the tortilla press, too: Walnut Street's El Fuego expanded its operation to a sleek storefront at 21st and Chestnut. Azul Cantina opened at 10th and Spruce, granting midtown a viable late-night tequila 'n' taco stop. Dave Frank and Stephen Simons doubled down on their popular Cantina Los Caballitos with Cantina Dos Segundos in NoLibs. Paxia, co-owned by Xochitl's Dionicio Jimenez, replaced Molcajete Mixto at Eighth and Christian. Due south, the second location of Roxborough's Adobe Café popped up on Passyunk. Lastly, we got a worthy newcomer in Owen Kamihira's El Camino Real, where chef Jen Zavala juggles gringo barbecue with fare from the southern side of the Tex-Mex border.
Michael T. Regan
As with Mexican, it’s easy to assume that the brilliant craft beer scene in Philadelphia has reached its saturation point. How much Russian River Blind Pig can one city chug? A lot, apparently — 2008 was full up with notable bar openings. Kenzo's Memphis Taproom and South Philly's Devil's Den started things off right, offering diverse on-tap selections beautiful enough to make a Trappist monk take the lord's name in vain. Pub & Kitchen (pictured) hit Lombard Street running with its polished atmosphere and expert drinker's grub from chef Jonathan McDonald. The Institute and Prohibition Taproom opened in the up-and-coming Loft District 'hood. Rehabbed neighborhood tappie Station Bar & Grill and P’unk Avenue stop Lucky 13 Pub hunkered down in the south. The transcendently named Kung Fu Necktie set up shop under the El. Kite and Key sailed its way into Fairmount's heart. And don't forget the people responsible for providing many of these draught systems with sweet ammunition — in October, Bella Vista Beer Distributors unveiled its new 38,000-square-foot store at the corner of 11th and Fitzwater.
In May, Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio opened the opulent Table 31 (pictured) in the Comcast Center. In the same month, Brazilian steakhouse chain Chima debuted on the Parkway. Stephen Starr rejiggered Striped Bass at 15th and Walnut into Butcher & Singer, where the cheapest hunk of beef is $40. The 450-seat Del Frisco's Double Eagle, a national chain, popped up a block away in late November.
The high-end chop shop has caught massive flak in a year characterized more by belt-tightening than belt-loosening. Naysayers feel that their excessive nature reflects the very take-on-more-than-you-can-handle mentality that put us in this financial mess. A fair assessment, but consider this: How much has the American steakhouse changed in the last century? Not at all. The concept is based around a simple (and economically friendly) truism: Big fat steaks put big fat asses in big fat plush-leather seats. Is the concept itself uninspired? In many cases, yes. But try laying off the anti-prime rib rabblerousing long enough to realize that the only thing people love more than bloody, expensive cuts of meat is going out to eat bloody, expensive cuts of meat.
Michael T. Regan
If 2007 was the year of the tinyindiecute French bistro — Cochon, Coquette and Zinc all joined the party — then 2008 was the year the big kids started to play in public. In April, Perrier announced that he would be surrendering Le Bec-Fin's five Mobil Travel Guide stars in the interest of attracting a younger, more casual crowd. Three months later, Starr jumped into the Gallic fray with Parc, his Rittenhouse Parisian bistro. One charming smaller-scale entry: chef Peter Woolsey's Bistrot La Minette (pictured) which excels at feeding diners timeless classics like pâté de campagne and mustard-braised rabbit and transcendent desserts.
Michael T. Regan
Steve Cook and chef Michael Solomonov lived up to the expectations that followed Zahav (pictured) like contrails behind a supersonic jet. While some critics (our Trey Popp included) felt that the menu was too pricey for what was essentially masterfully prepared Israeli street food, Zahav still qualifies as one of the most vital additions to our dining scene. Where else can one get house-made merguez sausage and pomegranate-glazed salmon kebabs? We got some more downscale Middle Eastern spots, as well, from Hamifgash near Jeweler's Row and Walnut Street location of Maoz Falafel to the delightful Hummus up by UPenn.
These Est. 2008 places are definitely noteworthy, but don't quite fall into any of the aforementioned categories. APO Bar + Lounge brought clever cocktailing to 13th Street. Konstantinos Pitsillides' Kanella, at 10th and Spruce, introduced Philly BYOers to the multi-traditional cuisine of Cyprus. Mount Airy's Earth Bread + Brewery fired up our brewpub scene. Down Pennsport way, cheffing Nicholases Sweeney and Matteo are keeping locals full of local ingredients at Nicholas. Celeb chef Eric Ripert set up 10 Arts in the Ritz-Carlton, sticking local gal Jennifer Carroll behind the wheel. Last but not least, chef David Katz has made a major splash at 22nd and Spruce thanks to the deceptively simple grub at Mémé.
Check out Meal Ticket (citypaper.net/mealticket) next week for a rundown of what to look forward to in 2009.