Amy Strauss is the Editor in Chief of TheTownDish.com, a network of sites focusing on the food and dining scene in the greater Philadelphia area including its sumptuous suburbs — and beyond! An OpenTable member since 2008, she lives in Downington, Pennsylvania, where she can enjoy the best of Philadelphia proper as well the amazing hyper-local fare being served in surrounding towns. You can share in her eating experiences by following her on Twitter at @amy_strauss.
1. What are some of the best qualities of the Philadelphia dining scene? Living in the Philly suburbs, I’m fork-deep between quick-tripping into my local (and booming!) food city to experience the newest restaurant or escaping into my immediate backyard to discover the next well-deserving-of-the-spotlight chef. There’s potential everywhere, and where the Philly food scene stands, it’s eclectic and bold; it’s welcoming and honest. I’ve been around the nation and, although I may be biased, Philly is the best food city.
2. Any restaurants at which you’re something of a regular? For a casual weeknight, I’m hitting the bar. In the suburbs at Station Taproom for first-rate pulled pork sandwiches and craft beer or Tired Hands Brewing Co. for a cheese plate and one-off sour beer, and in Philadelphia, Starr’s Fette Sau for smoky, tender brisket and sharp bourbon drinks. For a “special” occasion (can’t that count as every day?), BARSAVONA or Zahav.
3. If I come to the PHL, where must I dine? In the Philly suburbs, any of these will rock your palate and provide an unforgettable dining experience: Junto (elevated PA Dutch BYOB), Nectar (Asian fusion with locally sourced sensibilities), Avalon (rustic Italian), Majolica (inventive, modernized American BYOB), Restaurant Alba (refined Northern Italian), Amani’s BYOB (local-focused), Taqueria Feliz (hip Mexican), and Bolete Restaurant (farmhouse-inspired). In Philly city proper, Serpico, Sbraga (eat the fried game hen!), High Street on Market, Vernick Food & Drink, Petruce et al., Avance, and Stock.
4. Last best restaurant you dined at? Just last night, I visited Fitler Dining Room, the newest concept from the talented gang at Pub & Kitchen. The happy hour was exceptional, with small bites like a vertical heirloom tomato salad constructed on buttery brioche and dressed with Rogue Creamery Blue. Being a bar that’s strictly beer and wine, they get impressively creative with their limited cocktails. For example, the Campobello Retreat features white wine that’s infused to taste like gin (it does!) and is finished with a fragrant splash of elderflower liqueur. It’s sharp and fun; I immediately wanted another.
6. Favorite city for dining outside your own? Since part of what we do is travel for food, here are my favorite Town Dish trip destinations: Austin, Texas for Qui, Olivia, and Franklin Barbecue; San Francisco, California for Mission Street Chinese and Saison; Chicago, Illinois for Blackbird, Girl & the Goat, Publican, Publican Quality Meats, and Pequod’s Pizza; Portland, Maine (especially in summer!) for Central Provisions, Eventide Oyster Co., Pai Men Miyake, and David’s Opus 10; Atlanta, Georgia for Abattoir, West Egg Cafe, and Cakes & Ale; and New York City (of course) for The Breslin, Momofuku, and Alder.
8. What’s your overall favorite type of cuisine? There’s nothing more wholesome than rustic Italian, and few and far between are doing it by the book and significantly well. I’m also always surprised with what newcomer chefs are doing with mod-American cuisine, particularly those who are scouting local gardens and throwing together fresh ideas and compositions unlike those seen before (example: Ella’s American Bistro, Majolica).
9. Small shared plates, tasting menu or app/entrée dessert? Tasting menus — always a home run! It’s the best avenue to fully experience a chef’s skill sets and where they execute their most creative dishes.
10. Dish you can’t resist ordering when you see it on a menu? I’m 100% Pennsylvania Dutch, so its in my blood to never resist regionalized, classic foods of my heritage. If I spy elevated soft pretzels, house-made pickles, hand-cut egg noodles — I got to stick to my stick-to-your-ribs gun and consider them mine! Fork and Junto put forth killer interpretations of the classics. Snack-wise, you know if a chef’s throwing deviled eggs on their menu, they’re going to be good. Same goes for hand-cut pappardelle — I usually need that.
11. Have you ever done a bang bang (a la Louis C.K.)? If not, what’s the greatest # of courses you’ve eaten in one restaurant siting? Working as a food writer and reviewer, bang bangs are a regular part of your week! My current course max (at one restaurant) is 14 — but that’s not to say I threw in the napkin. I’d adventure into the 20s. Dare me!
12. What’s your go-to drink? Any stiff — yet unique — drink built on a base of bourbon or whiskey. (Loving the Ginger Ape at Sovana Bistro!) Never also turn down a juicy, citrusy IPA. (Currently loving: Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant’s Rising Sun crafted with 100% Japanese Sorachi Ace hops.)
13. Favorite dining partners? Anyone that can politely humor me taking pictures of my food or lets me eat off their plate.
14. Name five people, dead or alive, with whom you’d like to dine. April Bloomfield — Her snug pub (Spotted Pig) has done so much for the nation’s food scene and has effortlessly led the nose-to-tail movement years before it was “cool.” I’m itching for some art of butchery conversations from the butcher queen herself; Ruth Reichl — There has been no better a magazine than Gourmet (still mourning that death). I’m forever impressed by what she has done for the food writing industry; Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi — Have you had this pastry genius’s sweets? Enough said; Stone Brewing Company’s Greg Koch — I respect what he’s done for the craft beer industry and obsess over his sharp-witted attitude; and Macklemore — He’d make for interesting dinner conversation.
Because I can’t pick just five, here’s a few additional wild cards I’d like to see at the table: Danny Bowien, David Chang, Abraham Lincoln, and Anthony Bourdain (even though he’d probably hate me).
15. Dining pet peeve? Unattentive service. I’m the most low-maintenance diner, but when I have to hunt down a server or practically put on a show just to get another drink at bar, I’m not having any of that.
16. Any ongoing dining dilemmas? I’m ultra indecisive when it comes to making menu decisions, only because I fear I’m going to miss the “best thing” on the menu. So, I’d rather recommend the chef decide or even request the server “surprise me.” Life’s an adventure — make eating part of it!
17. Any special requests to the maître’d? I’m not super particular when it comes to atmosphere, but I must have outdoor seating all summer long. Gotta get that vitamin D!
18. Split the check or itemize the bill? Split the check — always! Nothing makes me cringe more than watching friends whip out their phone calculators and tally the total of what they ordered.
19. If I won Powerball, I’d hire _____ as my personal chef. Michael Voltaggio.
20. Trends you love or loathe? The greater Philadelphia region is in the swing of a high-end pizza renaissance, with brand-new — always incredible — pies flying out of new kitchens left and right. Later, cheesesteaks — it’s all about the ‘za! Hot tips include: Pizzeria Vetri, Bufad, In Riva, and Pizzeria DiMeo’s. I’m also obsessing over the wave of veggie-only restaurants. First there was the uber-inspiring Vedge, and now there’s the ultra-hip Charlie Was a sinner. If hitting the former, please give the stiff Bullseye a whirl (built on a farro-infused Woodford Reserve base). The Korean-style fried tofu speckled with black sesame seeds is also an equally smart decision. And, I have no problem at all with the popularity of ramen and noodle bars. Keep ‘em coming, and, in the meantime, visit coZara and Cheu Noodle Bar.