Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia – A Review

by artfuldiner on October 22, 2018

in Artful Diner Review, Opinion, Pennsylvania, Review, Wining and Dining

FROM THE BOOKSHELF: Irene Levy Baker, Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia (Reedy Press, 2018, 212 Pages)

Unique Eats and Eateries of PhillyIrene Levy Baker, you may recall, is also the author of 100 Things to Do in Philadelphia Before you Die, which was reviewed in the March 2017. Originally from Ohio, she has spent the last 25 plus years exploring the various interesting aspects of life in the City of Brotherly Love. After working for almost a decade at the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, she opened Spotlight Public Relations, a public relations firm specializing in restaurants and hospitality. She has worked with various tourist bureaus in Philadelphia and South Jersey, boutique hotels, celebrity chefs, the nation’s first environmentally-smart hotel, and one of the nation’s largest malls.

Her current book, Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia, delves into the intriguing stories behind 90 Philadelphia restaurants, as well as acquainting readers with other foodie destinations and neighborhoods along the way.  There’s the story of the Gran Caffè L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy that was completely destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in Philadelphia, home to one of the largest Abruzzese populations in the world outside of Abruzzo… Or the marvelous tale of a retired opera singer who won the hearts of both owners and patrons at Portabellos in Kennett Square… There are the romances… the divorces… and the stories of restaurants that have survived mob hits, fires, and Prohibition.

Then there’s the Hop Sing Laundromat, the Chinatown speakeasy that Condé Nast Traveler called “one of the best bars in the world.” It doesn’t have a sign… but it does have a ton of rules… no photos… no flip-flops… no shorts… no baseball caps. In 2017, however, it was announced that sneakers, which had previously been forbidden, would now be permitted. On the other hand, pull out your cell phone while you’re inside and you’ll immediately be shown the door and promptly added to the list – along with 16,000 others – of those who have been banned for life. Sound like fun?

From the sublime to the ridiculous… Well, you get the idea; there’s a bit of something for everybody. From Fante’s Kitchen Shop, the oldest cookware store in the United States… to Chef’s Counters, where cooking has become theater… to Farmer’s Keep and Sweet Freedom, allergy-free restaurants… to the Culinary Literacy Center at the Free Library of Philadelphia… to a captivating Japanese Tea Ceremony at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden… to South Philadelphia from the Italian Market to East Passyunk’s Restaurant Row… to Pizza Brain & Museum, the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia… to Magpie, Holly Ricciardi’s fabulous pie shop… to Miss Rachel’s Pantry, a charming vegan BYO.

Ms. Baker, of course, does not fail to mention some of the more famous Philly-area restaurants that have their own unique stories. There’s Talula’s Table, for example, the charming country chic eatery located in Kennett Square. To reserve the farmhouse table, diners must call one year in advance to the day, at 7:00 a.m., and book the entire table, which seats eight to twelve people. Condé Nast Traveler dubbed it “The world’s toughest restaurant reservation” and the New York Times called the experience a “spiritual retreat.” The restaurant is a BYOB and does provide recommended wine pairings.

Then there’s Fork… When the restaurant opened its doors in 1997, Le Bec Fin, Bookbinders, and Striped Bass were among the city’s most popular restaurants. They’re all gone. But even after a number of setbacks – including the May 12, 2015, Amtrak train derailment that tragically paralyzed then executive chef Eli Kulp – Fork is still going strong. Other stories from top-of-the-line eateries include Vernick Food & Drink, Chef Michael Solomonov’s Zahav, and Vedge, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s incredible vegetarian establishment.

One final word… In the introduction to the book, Ms. Baker writes: “To be included in this book, the restaurants needed not only a good story but also good food. So readers who eat up the stories will also be eating well.”

My response to this statement is that it is a tad misleading, as good stories do not necessarily mean good cuisine. Over the years, I have dined at a number of restaurants mentioned in the book and found them to be excellent… But I have also dined at other restaurants mentioned and found them wanting.

In an interview on KYW Radio, Ms. Baker freely admitted that she was not a food critic. She considered herself a “food detective” and a “storyteller.” She mentioned that she told the stories, talked about the restaurants and the cuisine so that people could make their own decision as to whether or not they wished to try them.

Baker, Irene Levy 2Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia is an invaluable resource, and I highly recommend it. My only caveat would be that if you are contemplating a visit to a restaurant (especially one in the pricey upper echelons) mentioned by Ms. Baker – since she is neither a food critic nor a restaurant reviewer – is to seek out opinions from other sources, namely professional restaurant critics and the various social media, Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc., before rushing to make a reservation.  This is the very same advice I give to readers with regard to restaurants that are written up in other guidebooks or periodicals such as the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine or Bon Appètit. And, over the years, it has stood me (and them) in good stead… as there is nothing more frustrating than throwing good money after bad food.

Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia is available at http://www.uniqueeatsphilly.com/, other sources online, and from your local Barnes & Noble.

Bon Appétit!


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