The Philadelphia dining scene is as vibrant and as varied as it’s ever been in my lifetime. In fact, I don’t recall restaurants ever having been as viscerally rewarding as they are right now, and not just in Philadelphia: Everywhere I travel, it seems, there’s an increasing sense of attention being paid to both the local food traditions as well as the global influences that, with the rise of social media and the ease of travel, are adding ever more texture to what people all over the world eat.
Here at home, our best chefs and restaurateurs are keeping an increasingly close and attentive eye on what’s happening inside and out of the 2-1-5. From fine dining to more casual spots, Philly restaurants have entered what might be called a global culinary jet stream, inside of which trends from all over the world—and very much including our own proverbial backyard—are being internalized and reinterpreted in ways both original and smart.
With that in mind, I reached out to a number of Philadelphia’s top talents to ask them to read the tea leaves and offer some insight into what sort of eating and drinking trends we should look for in this newly-minted 2013.
Kevin Sbraga thinks that we will see “more Nordic cooking influence on high-end restaurants.” This makes sense: While the foods of Northern Europe haven’t traditionally had much of a following on this side of the Atlantic, the rise of the great restaurant Noma in Copenhagen—named the best restaurant in the world for the past three years in a row—has made this cuisine ripe for its star turn here. He also expects to see a “continued growth in Filipino cuisine” and more of a focus on roasted meats, game birds and hand-made pastas.
Food trends, like so much else in our national life, are beholden to external factors, the economic climate perhaps chief among them. Patrice Rames, of Bistro St. Tropez, suggests, “Because of the economy, rustic food will be the trend. Satisfying, not too complicated—back to old traditions. Dishes like Swiss chard gratin, braised kale, sautéed beet greens, calves liver, braised lamb shank.” In other words: foods that are cost-effective for the restaurant and high-impact and comforting for the guest.
In terms of how we’ll likely be drinking in the new year, an ever greater focus on both the components and underpinning philosophy of cocktails will continue to grow. Lêe, of Hop Sing Laundromat, hopes to see more emphasis placed on the quality of ingredients: “Just like you can’t open a steakhouse then serve the cheapest cut of meat, I’d like to see cocktail bars start serving better [spirits].” He hopes mixologists in 2013 will back off the practice of using two or three different kinds of bitters in one drink—an approach he calls “cocktails’ MSG.”
Vincent Stipo, beverage manager and bartender at Vernick Food & Drink, is excited about the potential for how age can affect a cocktail. He notes that “experimenting with aged cocktails has been going on for a few years, but as the pioneers perfect the process, we will find this trend start to trickle down. A cocktail is thought of as being done in the moment, served fast and fresh. It is great to appreciate flavors that have developed over time like we do at Vernick with cured meats and cellared wines.” Stipo notes that he’s starting to develop infrastructure for vertical tastings: essentially, the same drink offering at a variety of vintages.
Many of the professionals I consulted say they expect some sort of increased intimacy in, or connection to, the dining experience—the restaurant, perhaps, as a salve for these intractably troubled times. Daniel Stern, of R2L, believes that “we will continue to see the growth of the independent small(er) places in Philly that are driven by the creativity of the chefs and owners. More personal places.” Eli Kulp, executive chef at Old City’s Fork, predicts that “family-style eating will continue to become more popular in high-end restaurants, because guests feel a real connection to each other as they share the food on the table.” He also thinks that “more chefs will hone in on regional traditions and styles, focusing on food that ‘connects’ the diner to the experience.”
He’s not alone in those expectations: The sense of comfort that a great restaurant can engender is a facet of the dining experience that’s becoming a prime focus all over the city. Michael Santoro, chef and co-owner of The Mildred, notes that “higher guest interaction” is a key to success. “Personally, we speak to several guests a week either on the phone, in the kitchen, or on the floor ... Every time I hang up the phone with a guest, they feel reassured in the pride that we are showing them. In the end,” he adds, “the trend we are seeing, and hopefully contributing to, is higher satisfaction by re-evaluating the meaning of hospitality.” His partner at the restaurant, general manager and co-owner Michael Dorris, notes: “When you serve a product like food and wine, that creates emotion, [and] you have to be very careful. It’s always important to think about the guest. The guest is coming to your establishment to spend time with someone else or a group of people. During that time, they have expectations. The restaurant has to meet those expectations ... Trust, now more than ever, is an important trend.”
And when a restaurant or bar earns that trust, their guests are more likely to remain open to the journey that a great, inspired meal or drinking experience will take them on.