by Geno Thackara
It’s really not fair. Dozens of restaurants, pubs, bars, sandwich shops and barbecue joints with wares to sample, almost as many wineries and craft brewers on top of that, plus a generous helping of desserts? The smorgasbord on offer at the Philadelphia Restaurant Festival was simply an embarrassment of riches. No, I’m not complaining about any of that, just the fact that we only had three or four hours to take it all in. Give us three evenings and maybe we can do it proper justice.
Since one night was it, though, everyone did their best to enjoy as much of the menu as possible during the second annual event (presented again by Upcoming Events and Philly2Night). By any standard it looked like a smashing success. The endless-seeming buffet spread around every room and hall throughout all four floors of Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences, and Thursday’s voracious crowd, happily packed the whole place to the rafters. I say there’s hardly any better greeting anywhere than a wine-sampling table just inside the door (Cardinal Hollow’s strawberry table wine was particularly zesty), and reaching the rum-and-vodka room tucked away on the top story felt like the end of an epic trip. Each well-stuffed space in between offered some new delight for diners of any stripe – hardcore connoisseurs, curious foodies or just anyone who can appreciate a mean barbecue brisket.
If there’s one thing that can make any food tasting more exciting, it’s sharing space with wildlife dioramas and dinosaur fossils. That marble intro hall sits under a hanging Elasmosaurus skeleton (ha – I knew learning so much about dinosaurs as a kid might come in vaguely useful someday) and of course the first-floor exhibit hall is still watched over by Philly’s famous T-Rex. Almost every section of the building had other wildlife displays to provide some picturesque backdrops you don’t get in just any pub.
The twisty hallways also allowed for a nice variety of entertainment. The dance mixes of DJ Joe Broscoe faded away after you moved down a passage or two, so Red Hotts was able to do their party-band thing and get the North American Hall hopping without any clashing. They couldn’t be heard from the next floor up either, which let Tim Williams do some quieter strumming and singing in his own corner of the Africa Hall. It just wouldn’t be fair not to offer something for all five senses.
Fun as those perks were, though, nothing could eclipse the city’s wonderful range of foods and flavors. There were highlights aplenty – Moonshine’s black-chicken pesto, a sweet sangria offered by CBL Wine Company or the sumptuous spices of Devil’s Alley and Percy Street BBQ, to name only a handful. The colorful cupcakes by Hilary Banks made sweet dessert bites to complement some Insomnia Cookies snickerdoodles. For my part, even though the plan was not to indulge too much in any one spot, JJ Bootleggers’ creamy mac & cheese was just too tasty to pass up for a repeat on the way out.
With this many new leads on places to dine, it would take another year to work through the list and properly sample them all – maybe just in time for the next Restaurant Fest to add even more to it again. It would be a tall order, but a delicious challenge worth taking for years to come.