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Apr 3, 2007 02:20 PM

Open letter to Philly's small restos: where do you get off?

Trey Popp has a great (negative) review of a place called ChriStevens in this week's Citypaper that touched a nerve with me. He makes some nice points about the confusingly high prices at this new BYO whose most successful entree is (apparently store-bought) orechiette with rabe and tomatoes - not exactly a thrill-ride of a dish.

Lately I've been feeling bent out of shape about the number of Philly restaurants that feel entitled to charge big $$ for unimaginative, amateurish cooking. It's kind of an odd phenomenon. Whenever my wife and I manage to go out (and it's rare lately) and decide to try some little place we haven't heard of, we end up paying $28/entree for food that's poorly plated, inexpertly cooked and seriously unexciting in concept. The prices are the oddest thing to me, since we've also eaten out at a couple of really special places in NYC in the last 6 months, where we've gotten incredible food for prices that are actually about the same as what run-of-the-mill BYOs are charging here. I don't get it - why do mediocre bistros run by amateur chefs in Philly feel ok about charging the same prices as stellar restaurants in one of the world's most expensive cities?

And just to be clear, I don't think I'm being a snob here. I'm not saying "Philly restaurants shouldn't be allowed to charge as much as New York restaurants." I'm just saying that since average incomes and the cost of living are higher in NYC than here, it seems like restaurant prices here should be at least a little bit lower. And by extension, if top-notch places in that very-expensive city are charging, say, $25-$30 an entree, it seems weird that middle-of-the-road places in this less-expensive city are also charging $25-$30 an entree.

It bugs me. We have such a limited budget for going out, and I feel like I ought to be able to either (a) find places where I can get a nice meal, prepared with a little bit of flair, for $15 or $16 per person, or (b) know that if I spend $40-$50 per person in Philadelphia, I'm going to get something really amazing for all that money. Instead I consistently get the worst of both worlds.

Is there some kind of specialized inflation going on in this city? I realize I sound like a grump, and I'm sure there are plenty of worthy places out there that either deserve the high prices they chrage or charge low prices for solid food. But at the very least, I can't seem to find many of those restaurants. And in the meantime I'm getting gunshy about trying new places.

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  1. I think this is a self-correcting problem. If this particular place is as overpriced and under-good as Mr. Popp makes it out to be, it won't be around for all that long. There are too many great restaurants charging fair prices for a crappy restaurant charging the same prices to survive. Also, if a place sucks, word usually gets around pretty quick, but not quick enough if you're trying places that are brand new. If you only go out rarely, I'm not sure why you'd risk going to a place totally blind. If you're looking for good eats at low prices, here's my short list:

    Alyan's (middle eastern)
    Cafe de Laos (Laotian/Thai)
    Taqueria de Puebla
    Mr. Martino's Trattoria
    La Viola
    Plaza Garibaldi (Mexican)
    Grace Tavern

    1 Reply
    1. re: Buckethead

      How ironic that just two weeks ago, my wife and I had dinner at a wonderful resturant in the financial district in NYC called Ill Giglio. It was as good as most of the Italian BYOB's in Phila. The only exception was price. The daily specials which are overpriced here in Phila (usually around 25-30) were all priced at $50.00. I thought that was typically NYC and a price that was beyond my range. Although I loved the meal, I thought how lucky I was to live in Phila where dining out was somewhat affordable.

    2. WhenI am on a budget and want my best Bang for the Buck, I Always check rviews, here and the menu before I go in. And it would not be unheard of (I work too hard for my bucks!) for me to leave if I think the prices are too high, the food I see in passing to other tables looks trivial or bad even. I vote with my feet, either not go in at all, or walk out before I order.

      Prices are ONE thing a person can check before they go in and certainly before they order, so complaining about high prices I think is a shame on you.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Quine

        ugh. i hate to say i agree with the original poster's thoughts more often than i'd like to. seems rarer by the day, the places i go where i look at the check and think "that's ALL?!" i said it in DC at a thai place i visited with a friend on friday night, but i haven't said it in philadelphia for a while. i've been fairly underwhelmed by several meals at nicer places - bar ferdinand, jones, amada, snack bar (none BYO, but most are smaller places) - i've dropped some serious cash at the last two on that list and i'm not sure if i would consider any one of those recent meals a good value. in the past few months i've been away from this phila board because i've been on travel - to NYC, chicago, seattle, portland, san francisco, some of my favorite chowhounding places - and traveling with the executive chef of a nice restaurant in chicago i've been spoiled with some seriously good cuisine along the way. i was a little sad coming home a couple of weeks ago because i can't personally think of a place here that could stack up to some of the best i've had in recent months (avec in chicago, tamarind tree in seattle topping the list).

        i am hoping to try out matyson this weekend in hopes of reversing the philadelphia curse. i hate complaining about my city.

        1. re: rabidog

          Hey rabidog,
          If you haven't already, try Sovalo in Northern Liberties. We've had some really great meals there, the prices are reasonable for the quality, it's a nice, cozy room, and the service is good. It's NOT a super-high-end place. It's a creative bistro that succeeds - and justifies its prices - where a lot of Philly spots I've tried seem (to me) to fail.
          They do great things with polenta and their mains have been terrific (and slightly more interesting, on average, than the pastas). If they have a chocolate tart on the dessert menu, get it (I think that's what it was called. It was a super-simple wedge of a chocolate tart with a pastry crust, about 2/3 of an inch thick, presented with zero fanfare but with an amazingly complex chocolate flavor. I've practically stopped ordering chocolate desserts in nice-ish restaurants as they all seem to taste the same, but this was really excellent).

          If you go, please report back - we haven't been in about six months, and my fingers are crossed that it hasn't fallen off.

          1. re: GDSwamp

            I went within six months of the opening and was underwhelmed, but it's been a while. The tart I had for desert was rough and chewy.

            1. re: saturninus

              Well, there you go. That's the problem with this entire endeavor (Chowhound, I mean). Personally, I've always been very happy at Sovalo, whereas, e.g., I've had two highly underwhelming meals at Le Bernardin, which was always the untouchable five-star ruler of the New York board.

              Once you factor in personal taste and the inconsistency that I think is present at even the most brilliant restaurants, it's pretty hard to praise anyplace without having someone else say they don't like it. Even still, I think my original comments are valid. But that may be an indefensible position.

      2. Got to agree with Buckethead, it's self correcting and basically a market issue. I also think you need to manage or adjust your expectations. Let's face it, $15 bucks a person probably doesn't get you dinner at Olive Garden much less at a place that has the luxury of introducing "flair" into the dish. I do some catering and good ingredients cost money. I don't disagree that your expectations should be high with a $30 entree but to expect to be able to regularly get inspired ones for $15 is unrealistic IMO.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Den

          lately i've been eating at ethnic restaurants for the original posters reasons. It seems like every new restaurant is identical and overpriced. i wouldnt mind paying big bucks if the food was exciting or fresh, but everything seems so gimmicky.

        2. Just read that ChriStevens is now closed, though I don't know exactly when it closed. The proprietor has moved on to Astral Plane Millennium, which is also charging too much for food that the City Paper doesn't like that much:

          1 Reply
          1. re: Buckethead

            hm. Sounds like a place worth passing over.