1) Monk's, 264 S 16th St. Though they're mocked in commercials for Sam Adams, places with Beer Bibles are actually pretty cool. Monk's has an extensive Beer Bible, but all you really need to know about this dark, laberynthine Belgian restaurant's commitment to excellent suds is that they've got Chimay on tap. The food is excellent, too; the pomme frites with spicy mayo might just be the best finger food in the entire city. I always get the Monk's burger, served with bleu cheese and carmelized leeks.
2) The Smoked Joint, 1420 Locust St. Self-described "Rock and Roll Barbecue"; the "self" in "self-described" being the two Long Island Whartonite founders who turned their love of BBQ into what they hope will become a upscale chain. Now, most of the words I just typed - if not all of them - in all combinations of clauses and/or sentences you could possibly jumble them, would normally indicate off-the-scale stinkitude. But this place rocks. (Almost) everything on the menu is smoked, including the pizza and the Reuben. Pickle brine and house BBQ sauce at every table. Jalapeno cornbread. Smoked corn-on-the-cob. Sweet potato fries. Ice cold lager. I love love love this place. Go with the pulled pork platter.
3) El Vez, 121 S. 13th St. Stephen Starr is the fucking man. Yes, I am a little concerned that one day all restaurants in Philadelphia will be his (I'm envisioning Starr's "reimagining" of the McDonald's near Penn on 40th street, which would probably involve an homage to what 1960s Japanese designers and artists thought fast food would look like in 1997), but for now, eating at a Starr joint is a treat. El Vez, as his marketers apparently tell us, is "Mexican-American meets East L.A. in a Tijuana taxi." Specialty margharitas, fresh guac made in the dining area (you can watch them put everything into a charcoal bowl and grind it all into creamy bliss) and crispy mahi-mahi tacos are muy bueno (See? Spanish! Because it's a Mexican restaurant! I'm an awesome writer!!!).
4) Bistro La Baia, 1700 Lombard Street. I think my apartment might actually be bigger than this Italian BYO. The food, though, proves that good things come in small packages (Wow, more great writing! Did you see how I set that up, and then slammed it home?!? Damn!). A seemingly perpetual special is one of my favorite dishes, with three kinds of yummy pasta - lobster ravioli in cognac sauce, gnocchi in pesto sauce, and linguine in mushroom cream sauce. There's probably better Italian food out there, but nothing beats picking out a bottle of wine with someone you love, walking through Rittenhouse Square over to Lombard, literally rubbing elbows with the people at the table next to you, and trying to decipher the waiters' thick Italian accents. It's all very cozy and comfortable.
Kris and I dined there on Friday night, and we sat next to a Penn student (at least, I'm 99.9% sure he was a Penn student) who was trying to impress what must have been a first date. She was dressed like Amy Fisher-meets-Punky Brewster (not that that really has anything to do with anything; and not that Amy Fisher isn't really just an older Punky Brewster). When his companion left for the restroom, he began asking people how to get to Rittenhouse Square - presumably so he could start making some moves.
I love Philly.
- Honorable Mentions: Cuba Libre, Alma De Cuba, Ludwig's Garten, Mama Palma's and the White Dog Cafe, where I had the best eggs I've ever tasted.
- Honorable Mentions of Restaurants Near Philadelphia: Border Cafe, Wilmington, DE. A looping soundtrack of Johnny Cash music plays in my head whenever I'm there.
- Honorable Mentions of Sandwiches Not Technically Served in Restaurants: Pat's cheesesteak (provie - provy? - with), Tony Luke's cheesesteak (sharp provolone with), the Restaurant School Special at Koch's Deli, and the Schmitter at Citizens' Bank Park. All no-brainers.
- Honorable Mention of Restaurant Rendered Obsolete by West Philly Gentrification (second letter down): FWOT. You were barely a restaurant (you had tables and chairs, so I guess you qualified), but damn - I miss your greasy, kick-ass wings and your ghetto flava. Come back, FWOT.