A good restaurant doesn’t simply serve food. It tells a story.
Like a well-told tale, a restaurant has a theme (its décor and personality), a plot (its menu, broken out by course) and a rich cast of characters (cocktails, appetizers, entrées and desserts). And, if done well, the story ends with a satisfying sigh that comes only from the enjoyment of a well-curated meal.
The restaurants on the following pages have gotten exceptionally good at “telling stories” their patrons crave. From Chester County’s westernmost rim to the easternmost edge of Bucks County, from the neighborhoods of Philadelphia to the quaint towns along the seam of the Delaware River, these restaurants are among the best we’ve enjoyed over the past year. Sure, there are some incredible restaurants we just haven’t gotten to—yet—but we’re confident the places on this list will have you hungering for an encore, eager to return to the well again and again.
This Old City stalwart—Chef Jose Garces’ introduction to Philadelphia—feels as fresh and exciting as it did the day it opened its door in 2005. The inventive menu of authentic Andalusian tapas, cured meats and artisanal cheeses, as well as Spanish specialties such as paella and, of course, roasted suckling pig, offers an experience that is, in a word, amazing. Just a couple of suggestions: Go the “Chef’s Tasting” route, which guarantees more than a few surprises; and indulge in one of the housemade sangrias. 215-625-2450, philadelphia.amadarestaurant.com
Panache Wood Fire Grill
Blue Bell’s dining scene is enjoying something of a moment, with thanks due largely to a man named Habib Troudi. Troudi, the restaurateur behind the excellent Ristorante Castello, has given locals yet another reason to stay in town for dinner: Panache Wood Fire Grill. Brought to life within the building formerly occupied by L’Angolo Blue (right across from another gem, the Blue Bell Inn), Panache has been packing the house since opening its doors earlier this year. It’s no surprise, given the stunning design, with two gorgeous bars—including one with its own mosaic-tiled wood-fired oven for turning out some truly inspired Neapolitan pizzas. Those pizzas aside, Panache offers a wide-ranging menu of thoughtfully curated pastas, seafood and land-based fare of the steak, chicken and veal sort. In other words, while Panache has quickly become a destination for sharing a drink or two, not staying for dinner is inexcusable. 215-641-9000, panachewoodfiregrill.com
Welcome to Bowman’s Tavern, home of locally sourced, wonderfully flavored and artfully plated dishes, served up in a setting big on rustic-tavern chic. This roadside hot spot is technically in New Hope, though it’s ideally located a ways down the road from the borough’s main drag. Its warmth and seclusion somehow make this place seem like you’ve stumbled into a part of the world that belongs solely to you, but it’s the selection of thoughtfully conceived dishes—American comfort food, more or less—are what make the BT a weekly, if not daily, indulgence for many patrons. Can’t-miss dishes include Bowman’s signature seared scallops, wild boar meatballs and your choice of butcher’s cut steaks. Bonus: Jazz and other live music from local talents is a nightly occurrence. 215-862-2972, bowmanstavernrestaurant.com
Bud & Marilyn’s
This Midtown Village hot spot is executive chef Marcie Turney’s salute to a bygone era—somewhere in time between the start of the Atomic Age and the end of the shag-carpeted ’70s. It also pays tribute to the Wisconsin restaurant owned by her grandparents (the aforementioned Bud and Marilyn). The menu abounds with delights influenced by Turney’s Midwestern upbringing: hot buttered buns, fried chicken, kielbasa and pierogies, etc. With a place that offers a starter named “pork ‘n’ pickles” and its own private-label bourbon, you know you’re in for an unusual treat. 215-546-2220, budandmarilyns.com
Charlie was a sinner.
One might be tempted to label this stunner a “bar,” but few bars are turning out such thoughtfully conceived fare, which, by the way, is 100 percent friendly to vegetarians. The cocktails are strong, the space is slick, and the small plates are a big deal: avocado toast; potato gnocchi, smoked cauliflower. Consider us some of Charlie’s biggest fans, no matter what he does with his free time. 267-758-5372, charliewasasinner.com
Fermentaria comes from the good folks who brought you Tired Hands Brew Café. Like the brew café, Fermentaria places an emphasis on housemade beers inspired by the “farmhouse brewers” of Belgium and France; the space itself—a nearly century-old spot roughly the size of an airplane hangar, once used as a shop for repairing trolleys—overlooks a field of vats and other brewing equipment. That having been said, there’s an equal emphasis on great food. Menu highlights include the pork carnitas, veggie bánh mì and, last but not least, blackened shishito peppers served with a generous portion of buttery grits. 484-413-2983, tiredhands.com/fermentaria
From the Boot
The dining scene in downtown Ambler has been riding a wave for a few years now, with a surfeit of notable bars and restaurants, including this lovely ristorante. From the Boot has two other locations, in Lafayette Hill and Blue Bell, and it has flourished since coming to Ambler in ’09. It’s no surprise why: straightforward Italian dishes, served up in an atmosphere that will make you want to linger. (Complimentary garlic knots!) Customers swear by the chicken Marsala and shrimp scampi, but the thin-crust pizzas are among our favorite things on the menu. 215-646-0123, fromtheboot.com
Golden Pheasant Inn
Depending on which direction you’re coming from, getting to the Pheasant can take some doing, but the journey has a distinctly satisfying end. Classical French cuisine in the Philadelphia suburbs is a rarity, and they’re doing it right here, with a gentle “new American” touch, in an understatedly sophisticated space along scenic River Road. From the honey on the cheese plate to the greens in the pickled fiddlehead-fern salad to the mushrooms in the Lancaster County “cowboy steak,” the kitchen utilizes locally based farmers, artisans and other suppliers to bring in freshly harvested, high-quality ingredients. As you’ll discover when the plate reaches the table, such devotion pays tremendous dividends. 610-294-9595, goldenpheasant.com
The Hattery Stove and Still
This gem in the belly of the Doylestown Inn on State Street offers modern American cuisine in a comfortable space that effectively blends rustic with industrial. The menu is unpretentious, even simple (chicken potpie, stuffed pork chops, etc.), but the results are spectacularly satisfying. It’s the kind of place the borough has been craving for some time. 215-345-1527, hatterydoylestown.com
Considering its signature crab cakes, amazing bruschetta and a raft of excellent pastas, among other Italian-inspired dishes, the Jarrettown Hotel Italian Restaurant offers many reasons to make it a favorite dining destination. (Also, for oenophiles, it boasts a righteous wine list, with some nice Italian and California reds and whites.) The Jarrettown’s spacious alfresco patio, canopy included, has us missing summer already ... and praying for a short winter. 215-654-6880, jarrettownrestaurant.com
Representing Bucks County at its finest, La Stalla was crafted from the bones of a restored barn dating back to the 1920s. The menu has more than its share of personality, too, studded with antipasti, pastas and other traditional Italian favorites made for sharing. The hustle-and-bustle of the open kitchen adds elements of intimacy and theater, further connecting guests with the food that can’t reach the table quick enough. At meal’s end, be sure to retreat to the lively bar area for a digestif. 215-579-8301, lastallarestaurant.com
Chalfont and Horsham
No matter which location you step into—the more “festive” original in Chalfont, or the more intimate follow-up in Horsham—you’re sure to benefit from the talent of a confident kitchen. Los Sarapes’ guacamole has long been making headlines, and deservedly so, but that’s merely a fitting first taste of the authentic Mexican fare to come. No matter which direction you let the menu take you, be sure to have your culinary journey end with the flan, which is among the best (if not the best) the suburbs have to offer. Chalfont: 215-822-8858, lossarapes.com | Horsham: 215-654-5002, lossarapeshorsham.com
Although it made an appearance on an early episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the Pineville Tavern is none of the three. It is, however, the kind of place where locals from this stretch of Bucks County will remark to a new neighbor, “Have you been to the Pineville yet?” Inevitably, what begins with an exploratory visit quickly becomes a tradition. There’s so much history here—the building dates back to the 18th century—that you can almost feel it the moment you step through the door. The menu abounds with distinctive American favorites, including the signature dish that brought it to the “DDD” dance: snapper soup. 215-598-3890, pinevilletavern.com
Sure you can describe an evening at 28-seat elements (note the lower case “E”) as, simply, a meal, but that’s not quite accurate. Rather, it is an experience. Each dish arriving at the table is guaranteed to be the most visually stunning dish ever placed in front of you, with an almost overwhelming attention to detail. Example: During a recent meal there, the starter of quail eggs was “plated” in an intricately crafted bird’s nest that would make the most conscientious sparrow green with envy. Although a night at elements is not an inexpensive venture—a weeknight four-course dinner runs $79 per person—it’s likely to be an event you will remember for a long, long time. 609-924-0078, elementsprinceton.com
Long considered one of the Main Line’s elite dining destinations, Nectar continues to impress. Guests realize they have arrived someplace unique the moment they step through the restaurant’s oversized front door, but it’s at the table where Patrick Feury and his team get the biggest reaction. Feury’s penchant for travel has resulted in a rich menu that some might be tempted to describe as Asian fusion, but that’s doing him a disservice. Yes, sushi, sashimi and other Asian-influenced dishes abound on Nectar’s menu, but a closer look reveals influences ranging from French and Mediterranean to British and Scandinavian. As much as we love Nectar, we’re giddily awaiting Chef Feury’s next project: Danlu, a gastropub serving Asian street food sure to surprise Americans with even the most adventurous palates, coming soon to Philadelphia’s University City. 610-725-9000, tastenectar.com
Ristorante San Marco
Calling Ristorante San Marco a restaurant seems unfair, as it is more akin to a rite of passage to celebrate a special occasion, inevitably becoming a way of life. San Marco is perhaps best known for its copious seafood options, including masterful tableside fish preparations such as branzino and Dover sole. Even so, the restaurant’s many excellent Italian dishes—lobster-stuffed black ravioli!—have a way of embedding themselves in one’s long-term memory. 215-654-5000, sanmarcopa.com
Meatless or plant-based food has been steadily gaining popularity throughout the Greater Philadelphia Area, and Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby—the duo behind the stunning institution that is Vedge—deserve much of the credit. Like their excellent follow-up, V Street, Vedge offers some truly impressive dishes—taste and presentation alike—that will delight even the most die-hard omnivore. Brussels sprouts, beets and radishes have never been so exciting. 215-320-7500, vedgerestaurant.com
It’s been quite a year for Marc Vetri. Last November he sold off most of his empire to Urban Outfitters, save his cherished namesake restaurant in Midtown Village. It’s easy to see why. Vetri (the restaurant, not the man) offers the kind of intimate, deeply personal experience one might enjoy in the dining room of a close friend (a friend with exceptional taste and pasta-making abilities, mind you), with a menu to match the refined space. Here, pasta has been raised to an art form—no surprise considering the devotion the restaurant’s owner has paid to his craft. 215-732-3478, vetriristorante.com
This Chef Garces showstopper doesn’t create dishes; rather, it offers curated works of art for the eyes as much as for the palate. The menu changes seasonally, and one rather artful dish we enjoyed from several months ago was the Chawanmushi, a Zen garden of umami—savory Japanese egg custard dotted with puffed nori, shiitake mushrooms and flavorful bits of teriyaki-glazed short rib. No matter which route a guest takes—eight courses or 12—one thing is for certain: Volvér offers an experience that will be hard to shake and even more difficult to duplicate. 215-670-2303, philadelphia.volverrestaurant.com
Yanako is the latest example of the “moment” currently being enjoyed by the Manayunk dining scene. It’s an elegant BYOB from the team behind popular Chabaa Thai Bistro, offering one of the most accomplished Japanese meals in the city or its outskirts. Although the menu is devoted mostly to sushi and rolls, it offers plenty of culinary room to roam. Some of the more notable territory to explore includes the octopus-laden takoyaki and the rich broth of the tempura udon. 267-297-8151, theyanako.com
Michael Solomonov’s Society Hill masterwork hasn’t lost a step. Zahav’s consistency in turning out the best “modern Israeli cuisine” in Philadelphia, or perhaps anywhere outside of Tel Aviv, is even more impressive considering the further expansion of Solomonov’s empire, which now includes Abe Fisher and Dizengoff. Whether you opt for Zahav’s duck kebabs, beef-and-lamb kofte or some other coal-grilled entrée, any meal here must begin with your choice of hummus and oven-baked laffa. Consider it a rule. 215-625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com
Hungry for more? You’re in luck. Following are some of our readers’ favorite restaurants—based on their online votes—to dine in the Greater Philadelphia Area. We can’t agree more.
Alessio’s Seafood Grille
Azie on Main
Bacco Bistro and Bacco Italian Restaurant
Doylestown and North Wales
Buona Via Italian Seafood and Grill
Bing Bing Dim Sum
West Chester and Chester Springs
Conshohocken, Havertown and Phoenixville
610-941-7783, 484-454-5995, 484-924-8429
Newtown and Pennington, N.J.
Ron’s Original Bar and Grille
Split Rail Tavern
Washington Crossing Inn
The Yardley Inn
Panache photograph by Rob Hall