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Why is there such a lack of great (or even good) restaurants in the 'burbs?

We have this discussion everytime we go out. Why do we have to go to center city to have a great meal? Why is there such a difference in the quality of the food and the service between the city and the burbs? We live in the Chestnut Hill area. I"m not just talking about fine dines, I include casual and ethnic places, too.

It is one reason why I really miss living in center city.

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  1. I have been asking myself that question for years.

    1. I'm on the other side of that fence. I'd much rather dine close to home in the "burbs" than travel an hour or so into Philly, pay exorbitant prices for parking, and overpay for so-so meals. Certainly there are exceptions, and I'm not saying that center city doesn't have wonderful restaurant choices. But I must say, we dine fairly well out here in Chester County without all the city hassles. I wonder... could it be that Chestnut Hill is so close to Philly that it's more difficult for good restaurants to compete with the city venues?

      5 Replies
      1. re: CindyJ

        I honestly don't know the reason! And believe me, I have to think twice about going to center city on a Saturday night. It isn't the cost of parking....it is driving on the Schuylkill....really hate it even during the day!

        1. re: DaisyM

          That is why they call it the "sure kill". It's been bad for a very long time.

        2. re: CindyJ

          I have to disagree with the "overpay for so-so meals" part of your post. Many suburban restaurants (many of which indeed provide so-so meals) or just as or more expensive than center city restaurants. I often feel that they are taking advantage of all of those people who don't want to travel into the city.

          1. re: JanR


            Just as expensive when you take into account $20+ to park (or public transit plus cab), not to mention the time to get downtown? Going downtown versus eating locally adds a minimum of 90 minutes to an evening out (and that's living relatively close to downtown in Blue Bell so you can add more to that for anyone living past Conshy going west).

            I certainly won't argue that there are more good restaurants downtown than there are in the burbs because, just by the numbers, there are. However, when I go out to dinner after a tough week at work, I'd like the evening to be stress free and getting to/from downtown is rarely stress free.

            1. re: mitchh

              I hear you Mitch. I guess I'm lucky because I'm a bit closer to center city than you and I usually find free or metered parking. I admit this is easier near graduate hospital, center city east, and south philadelphia than it is near Rittenhouse Square - although I did park only a few blocks from Meme last time we were there. That said, if I had to drive 45 minutes to get into the city, I would dine in the suburbs more often.

        3. The burbs has its share of chain restaurants for sure, but there are more and more independents popping up all the time; Phoenixville, Wayne/Paoli, and Conshohocken come to mind as places where there are a good number of non-chain, very good eating establishments.

          11 Replies
          1. re: 94Bravo

            I agree in that the burbs have alot of "go to" places that the city doesn't have. Overall, the city is the better place to go for great food, but there are a ton of places outside of philly where you won't be disappointed.

            1. re: paychecktoday

              I am totally in agreement with Cindy, Bravo and Paycheck. Going into the city is just such a freaking ordeal. You never know what you will get with traffic. It could take 30 minutes or it could take 60 minutes plus (and that's both ways). Add on top of that the cost to park and the premium city prices and I'll stick with the burbs.

              I also think there are plenty of good independent eateries in the suburbs of any kind of food you could possibly want as well.

              Are there great restaurants in the city? No question about it. Is it worth the time, hassle and cost to go to them? Not in my opinion.

              1. re: mitchh

                I don't really worry about parking, since I usually take the train in. People whine too much about parking, it gets old.

                as for the OP's question...
                I don't think that there is much in teh C-Hill/Mt. Airy that's 'great,' I do think that we have a good amount of 'good' options - Earth, Avienda, Tavern on the HIll and Baccio all pop to mind. Oh, as does Tiffin. I'm NOT trying to say that they're as good as center city, but for where we are, they're good options.
                DOesn't make me not miss downtown. I love being down there, it's part of the great part of going into center city for dinner!

                1. re: Bob Loblaw

                  "Training in" is easy from some parts of the 'burbs - not from others. I recently moved from Center City to South Jersey (Mullica Hill area) - and the only semi-direct, regular public transportation from around here to Philly are the NJ Transit buses, which first I have to drive 20 minutes into Woodbury to catch, then if I'm lucky catch an express to Center City (30 minutes instead of 50-60 if it goes through Camden)... Driving (45 minutes each way) is really the only option for an evening meal out in Philly and parking IS a pain in the butt.

                  I'm slowly exploring my neighborhood dining out options but there seriously is no comparison to Center City Philly. I miss good Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese being a short walk away. The Italian food out here is mostly all sloppy red gravy or places trying hard to be fancy but failing, putting quantity over quality. Granted I enjoy my now close-to-home "Jersey diners" for comfort food, but for the most part I stay at home and cook now. Of course, finally having the monster kitchen of my dreams compared to the tiny one I suffered with in my old rowhome makes that no hardship at all... :)

                  Since I still work a day or two a week in Philly, I just try to treat myself to a nice lunch out once a week to enjoy the meals I simply can't get close to home.

                  1. re: Bob Loblaw

                    You're lucky that you have a train that's convenient; I'd have to drive at least 25 minutes to the nearest SEPTA station, and then spend the better part of an hour on the train into the city. As for "whining" about parking -- in my book, $25 to park for a couple of hours is whine-worthy. When I crave the sights, sounds and culinary offerings of a big city, I'm MUCH more likely to head to NYC than I am to Philly. Parking costs me $6.50 and that includes the bus that drops me off in the theater district.

                    1. re: CindyJ

                      It's not a matter of luck, it's a matter of priorities. well, luck that i can afford to live where i do, but I wouldn't have lived anywhere that didn't have a train line. I didn't want to live in center city any more, but wanted to maintain access - for restaurants, for stores (food and otherwise) and for the excitement of downtown on a weekend evening, when the weather's good and there's just that energy in the air.
                      we actually went back and forth btwn whether we should get a smaller house and use the remaining money for a studio condo. training back out you don't have to worry about driving drunk, but you don't get to pee, either. :-)

                      1. re: Bob Loblaw

                        True enough! Our choices are generally driven by our priorities. 34 years ago we chose to live in what was then the "boonies." Train access into Philly was never even a consideration. Having been born and raised in NYC, an escape to the quiet life was compelling. As they say, different strokes... :-)

                        1. re: CindyJ

                          I moved here when I got married, but I kept my little house in the city and rent it out. Everytime we go to center city for dinner, I keep wishing we could just walk home to that little house. (but I shouldn't complain about anything....husband is great and truly I would have moved anywhere to be with him.) I guess that is the compromise thing that we hear so much about!

                        2. re: Bob Loblaw

                          True. And my priority had to be finding a home close to my SO's long-established medical practice and his family with a mother in failing health. That took priority over easy/fast access to Philly restaurants - which now that I'm in the burbs is about the *only* thing I miss about Center City life! :)

                    2. re: mitchh

                      I completely agree with Mitch, it is an ordeal to go into center city between parking, traffic, congestion. There are a few great restaurants where I will happily trek into center city to try, but then it becomes an event. On an average night ought, I want a simple hassle free meal. Maybe that makes me biased towards local restaurants but I actually feel really fortunate that we have the restaurants we do in Eastern Montco - Bridget's, Yalda, Arpeggio, Honey, Mina Cucina, the list goes on and on. I never feel like I am lacking options. That said, I do feel like there are some not-so-good places in the burbs that are overpriced and overhyped and I simply avoid them.

                  2. re: 94Bravo

                    Add West Chester and Kennett Square to that mix of dine-worthy destinations.

                  3. I'm with DaisyM. It's not that I love going into Center City, but it's just not possible to get the same quality of food in the 'burbs. I'm in eastern Montco and it's pretty desolate. Sure, there are plenty of places to go, but none of them are better than acceptable, and I'm just not going to spend the $ and calories on a mediocre meal. There are some ethnic places I like - Tiffin, Yalda Grill, Pho 75, Picanha (not the burbs, but a short drive from here) - but they are few and far between.

                    I wish I knew why.there weren't better places. Given the numbers of people that flock to the chains and average places, you'd think the economy could support a better class of restaurants. Sigh. . .

                    1. I am torn as I live in Montco and really want to like the restaurants here. But, my most memorable meals have been in the city.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: crazyspice

                        But what is the reason for the huge difference?

                        1. re: DaisyM

                          While I respect the efforts of our local chefs to source locally and create imaginative dishes, the translation often falls flat. I eat lunch out every day and dinner out regularly. I read the reviews from my fellow hounds and never hesitate to try the new options. I am not saying there are no decent restaurants in the 'burbs. I do enjoy Honey, Bridget's, Arpeggio, Domani Star, Slate Bleu and we are planning to re-visit Freight House, after having a less than enjoyable experience the last time. It always makes me crazy when a steak house can't cook a steak rare. Then there is the service part. With few exceptions, service does not seem to be a priority and that can completely ruin a dining experience.

                          I read all the comments about the cost of dining out locally versus Center City. As far as I am concerned, if the food is exceptional I have no problem paying for it. Everyone has different tastes and expectations, right?

                          1. re: DaisyM

                            One reason might be the lack of competition. Also, many people (as you can see above) want to avoid driving into the city at all costs. Finally, if you were a great chef, would you want to hide your light under a barrel in the suburbs?

                            Having said all this, I want to mention that I had my third great meal at No. 9 in Lambertville last weekend. Not exactly the suburbs, but still...

                            No. 9 Restaurant
                            9 Kline's Court, Lambertville, NJ

                            1. re: JanR

                              No. 9 is on my list to try.

                              No. 9 Restaurant
                              9 Kline's Court, Lambertville, NJ

                              1. re: crazyspice

                                I really think a great restaurant would clean up here. I'm waiting for Cantina Feliz to open.

                                1. re: DaisyM

                                  We are too! I hear there is yet another effort going into the former Domenico/Blue Horse space.

                              2. re: JanR

                                Some of those suburban lights shine brighter, even, than the city's stars. Think Talula's Table -- which STILL shines, despite the changes of the past year.

                          2. funny, i was just griping about how you guys have allllll the good indian restaurants out in the suburbs! we were on our way to fox & hound KoP (don't judge me! we were meeting friends there to watch the steelers game :) and i was almost sidetracked by a taste of india just an exit away. i miss working out that way...

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: rabidog

                              KOP is unique as far as Indian selecitons in the burbs because of the large Indian population. We live in KOP and there must be at least 5 w/in say a 3-4 mile radius. That said, the area is still overwhelmingly 'chain' oriented.

                              1. re: chele78

                                chele, is that really surprising given that the KOP area is dominated by retail "chain" stores?

                                On the other hand, go to a small towns like Skippack, Phoenxville, Doylestown and New Hope with virtually no "chain" stores and you find no "chain" restaurants.

                                Rabidog, I find your post somewhat amusing. Do you expect to be judged because you, GASP, went to a chain? I know you used a smiley face, but something had to have crossed your mind to even write such a sentence. I've eaten at the F&H numerous times. It's a good sports bar atmosphere with a decent beer selection and the food is just fine.

                                1. re: mitchh

                                  Mitch, I agree, I feel like sometimes people on these boards are afraid to admit they have eaten and/or enjoyed a meal at a chain. I think some chains are more than serviceable, some, not all. Just as the hole-in-the-wall gastropubs can be hit or miss. It's more a matter of circumstance, taste, budget and time as to what you eat and what you eat often. Chains can be more than good enough.

                                  I will speak up to defend the burbs here. While I've experienced many great meals within the confines of the city, so too have I had great meals in Blue Bell, Gwynedd Township, Lafayette Hill or Conshohocken. Some are overpriced, but I almost find that many of the city spots get overhyped and under deliver when I finally give in and commit to the trek that it can be to get in there.

                                  1. re: mkertello

                                    Trinacria, San Marco, Spring Mill Cafe (never been to but want to visit... Talulah's Table!) What about West Chester? I know I"ve been to at least one restaurant (ok, a long time ago) that was excellent out in West Chester!
                                    Radice in Blue Bell... (haven't tried yet, I may have shot myself in the foot with that one)

                                    Is the main-line considered "suburbs"?

                                    @truffles2's point is also correct, people expect to pay more at a nice place in Manayunk or Center City, but offer the same fare in the burbs and people think it's too expensive... and therefore don't go, and these types of restaurants have a hard time staying afloat

                            2. In my opinion, there exists a bit of a catch 22 here. There are great dining experiences in the burbs, take Trinacria in Montco for example. Food, wine, and service are off the charts. However, it gets little mention on this board - mostly along the lines of "yeah, but it's too expensive." So folks seem to expect to pay less in the burbs, which probably contributes to fewer great dining choices. That same meal in the city would accepted at a higher price point, plus all the addtional hassles of transit and parking costs. Hence the catch 22.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: truffles2

                                Agree about Trinacria. It would be nice to have a few more choices.

                              2. I'd think it really boils down to density, diversity/demographics, and connectivity. The reason that some suburban communities don't have train stations is the same reason that the Philly restaurant scene will never be New York's restaurant scene. Not that it means that any one place (or "scene") suburban/city/mega-city is better than the rest, it's just about density. A population of people can only support so many restaurants, Center City has a large population/market to draw from to survive, in the suburbs, a restaurant needs a much bigger physical area to draw from to get the same number of people. A suburban restaurant can also not necessarily count on being accessible to people through more than one mode of transportation, whereas a Center City restaurant will likely depend on location and foot traffic to attract customers. So, suburban restaurants must rely a lot on marketing, word of mouth, a visible location... chains are appealing to people because they are predictable. You don't have to walk past an Applebees to know whether or not you should check it out some time.

                                Clearly, the suburban folks on this board represent an adventurous, risk-taking, good food seeking crew that might not be representative of the larger suburban demographic. If people didn't eat at chains and only flooded their locally owned restaurants, that's all there would be. And, while I live in Center City, I'm not going to argue that we don't have a parking price problem, I mean, there's only so many cars that will fit on 76, anyway, so lowering the cost of an evening's worth of parking in a garage is not going to create anymore congestion than the existing gridlock... if anything it will reduce the number of people who circle the block for 45 minutes looking for a metered spot. The solution in my opinion is connectivity. If transit was reliable, convenient, and affordable, everyone would benefit, not just the chowhounds of the world.

                                1 Reply
                                1. I'd like to add, that center city also has a lot of "hyped" restaurants. Hyped meaning, for the price, the quanity and the quality...its nothing to write home about.... The burbs have a few hidden neighborhood treasures that offer decent food and don't cost an arm and leg. If you think things are no so good in "our" burbs, put yourself in Cheyenne, Lincoln, Neb or St Paul burb and you will feel very blessed here near the city of brotherly love...... The east and west coasts are abundant in fooderies....sometimes I think we Philadelphians are just a little spoiled! And from what I can tell, new restaurants seem to be popping up everyday..even in this slumping economy.