Chef’s homecoming

Jennifer Carroll, the Northeast Philly-raised chef who made a national name for herself a few years ago on Top Chef and its spin-offs, just opened her own restaurant in Rittenhouse. Also this week, I share word of a West African/Caribbean BYOB in Montco, a new casual spin-off from the city's oldest Italian restaurant, and a farm-to-table wine bar with plenty of seasonal choices. Craig LaBan lists  his food/drink favorites around the new Rail Park in the city's Callowhill neighborhood. And since July 11 is National Mojito Day, I drop by an Old City mainstay for happy hour. If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this free newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it every week.

Jen Carroll is back, with Spice Finch

For years, since she was the sassy, hoagie-mouthed chef on Top Chef and its spin-offs, we've been waiting for a solo restaurant from Northeast Philly native Jennifer Carroll, who had hit the dining radar a decade ago at the old 10 Arts with mentor Eric Ripert. Thursday, July 12, is the premiere of Spice Finch, a casually stylish Middle Eastern-slash-Mediterranean bistro at the Warwick Hotel (220 S. 17th St.) — plopping a grown-up Carroll and her fiance, chef Billy Riddle, in the thick of the Rittenhouse dining fray. On the menu, you'll see charred carrot hummus; stuffed grape leaves; tortilla with baked egg and potato manchego as starters; grain, seafood, and meat dishes such as broccoli tabbouleh, lamb ribs, and merguez kebab; and larger shared plates such as shakshuka, salt-baked eggplant, and whole chicken. Most dishes are $6 to $16, with shared plates from $22 to $36. Well-stocked bar. It's open for dinner; lunch, brunch, and breakfast are pending. More details and photos are here.

Where we’re enjoying happy hour

Malanga fritters at Cuba Libre.
Malanga fritters at Cuba Libre.

Cuba Libre
10 S. Second St., 5-7 p.m. weekdays at the bar.

With all the newcomers in Old City, you may forget Cuba Libre (which opened in 2000). But don't ignore a spectacular happy hour in a festive atmosphere: $5 mojitos and caipirinhas, $4 house wine, sangria, and one beer plus nine snacks priced at $5, including a tamal, empanadas, tostones, and the addictive churrasco slider (a Black Angus skirt steak burger).

Where we’re eating: Buutchiis Grille, Harvest Seasonal Grill, Ralph’s Grab & Go 

Curry goat with cabbage at Buutchiis Grille.
Curry goat with cabbage at Buutchiis Grille.

Chef Kwabena Buatchi has turned his food truck into a humble West African/Caribbean restaurant, taking over a pizzeria at 35 E. Butler Pike in Ambler (215-643-2400) with Buutchiis Grille. Why the dual focus? "A lot of people don't get 'African food,' but there are a lot of similarities to Caribbean food," said Buatchi, who emigrated from Ghana 17 years ago. Menu includes hearty okra stews with banku; fufu; kenkey; jollof rice and jerk chicken; and Jamaican beef patties — all at wallet-friendly prices (e.g. most platters are $13 and under). It's BYOB (beer is a good option) and closed Sunday.

Nutty Watermelon Salad at Harvest Seasonal Grill.
Nutty Watermelon Salad at Harvest Seasonal Grill.

The chic Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar, now in a half-dozen locations in this area, rocks two themes: farm-to-table sourcing, and a menu denoting dishes with fewer than 500 calories. I say "denoting," because fewer than half of the main courses qualify. Still, the kitchen does take nutrition to account in the prep, leading to creative combos. This Nutty Watermelon Salad, built on watercress, screamed summer with its blueberries, strawberries, almonds, and splash of lime vinaigrette. Count on a decent wine list and chipper, knowledgeable staff.

Roast pork sandwich at Ralph’s Grab & Go.
Roast pork sandwich at Ralph’s Grab & Go.

Ralph's Restaurant has been a fixture on Ninth Street in Bella Vista for 118 years. The world moves much faster nowadays, and Rubino family has gone two doors away to add Ralph's Grab & Go (764 S. Ninth St., 215-627-6011). The name tells the story: Refrigerator cases hold Italian specialties (chicken and eggplant Parm, meatballs and gravy, various sauces), and you can get a square pizza or a South Philly-style sandwich. Though it's mostly takeout,  a small seating area allows for easy drop-in. It's open Tuesday to Sunday.

Dining Notes

Hale & True, the cidery at 613 S. Seventh St. shut down for nearly a week by a fire next door, reopens at 5 p.m. July 11.

The old Irish Mile in Haddon Township is expected to become Central Taco & Tequila sometime later this summer. PJW, the new owner, will offer a preview from 3-10 p.m. Friday, July 13, at Haddon Square. They'll offer al pastor, carne asada, and chicken tinga tacos ($2 each), churros ($3), and strawberry ice pops ($2), plus drinks.

Saturday, July 14, is Bastille Day. Biggest celebration is expected to be at 18th and Locust Streets at Rittenhouse Square, where Parc will host an all-day block party to also mark its 10th anniversary.

Saturday, July 14, is also the inaugural Pizzadelphia festival at the Navy Yard. Details are here.

Ardmore Restaurant Week, with dozens of options (including the new Bercy), runs July 16-29.

This week’s openings

Boxcar Beer Garden | Callowhill

Beers and BBQ by the Rail Park at 12th and Callowhill Streets.

Elixr Coffee | Callowhill

Evan Inatome's roastery/tasting room could open as soon as this weekend at 315 N. 12th St.

Louie Louie | University City

Ralph's Grab & Go | South Philadelphia

The Rubino family opens a quickie-serve spot two doors south of the landmark restaurant, to sell pizzas, sandwiches, and prepared foods.

Spice Finch | Rittenhouse

Jennifer Carroll and fiance Billy Riddle theme their newcomer, inside the Warwick Hotel, to the Middle East.

This week’s closings

Dos Rosas | Old City

Michael O'Halloran says he could not absorb a rent rise for his taqueria at 7 N. Third St. He is hoping to relocate nearby.

Garces Trading Co. | Washington Square West

Jose Garces' Euro restaurant at the Western Union Building (1111 Locust St.) will wrap after brunch Sunday, July 15, as part of the bankruptcy sale of his company.

10 Below | Rittenhouse

NYC-based rolled ice cream shop came and went in nine months.

24 Wood-Fired Grill | Center City

Jose Garces' Italian concept at 2410 Walnut St. will shut down after business Saturday, July 14, as part of the bankruptcy sale.

Craig LaBan answers your dining questions

Reader: I'm thinking of going to visit the new Rail Park, but there's not much around there to eat … or is there?

Craig LaBan: Considering the opening section of the new Rail Park is only a couple of blocks long, building some activities around a visit is a smart idea. And a few years ago, when The Inquirer's offices were still across the street, I would have agreed. There was not a whole lot there beside the promise of an industrial neighborhood in transition. However, this area — known as the Loft District, the Eraserhood and, more recently, Spring Arts — has finally begun to bloom with some exciting options that are beginning to show its real potential.

First off, some props must be paid to the 13th Street Kitchens restaurant group that first invested in the future there 15 years ago with its hidden gem, the hip bruncherie Café Lift tucked beneath the rails at 428 N. 13th St. (Lift, by the way, soon will open a branch in Narberth), followed by a gastropub at Prohibition Taproom (501 N. 13th St.), and a wood-fired pizza place called Bufad (1240 Spring Garden St.) that serves the neighborhood well.

Many other places have also come online. From the bend of the park at 12th Street, you can look down and see Parada Maimon (345 N. 12th St.), a casual Dominican restaurant serving Caribbean comfort foods like pollo asado, pasteles, seafood, and stewed oxtails.

Just a few steps south in the Goldtex building, you'll be able to caffeinate in Third Wave-style at the new roastery and coffee bar location for Elixr (315 N. 12th St.), which hopes to open this weekend (pending inspections) with Philly's first-ever "coffee omakase," a six-cup tasting of various house roasts and styles for $15. That should be a perky wake-up for anyone who's gotten a little sleepy on the park's big iron swings.

While you're alert, this is an especially good moment to remember to reserve your deep-dish, Detroit-style pizza from Pizza Gutt, the Instagram-based pizzeria that bakes out of the funky W/N W/N Coffee Bar (931 Spring Garden St.), which has its own draws of good coffee, cocktails  (hello, Limón Pepino!), and bar snacks. (Note: Pizza Gutt reliably sells out online days in advance — and all, in fact, already are spoken for this week — but 24 pies are also usually available for walk-ins when pie master Daniel Gutter is baking, so you never know!)

Alternatively, some tacos might be in order, so head over to the tiny corner taqueria El Purepecha (469 N. 10th St.) to fill your belly with al pastor sopes before sliding next door for a quenching lager session at Love City Brewing (1023 Hamilton), a handsome retrofit of a 19th-century warehouse that is the latest piece of the impressive new beer district that's been rising on Spring Garden Street over the past year. The Rail Park, no doubt, is as good an excuse as any for a beer crawl, beginning at the new Boxcar Beer Garden, a picnic-style clearing at the 12th and Callowhill entrance to the park, set to open July 11 by the crew behind Morgan's Pier (they're donating a portion of the proceeds from beer and the BBQ menu to Friends of the Rail Park).

Also worth checking out nearby are the Roy-Pitz Barrel House (990 Spring Garden St.) and the vast, new Yards Brewery (500 Spring Garden) a little farther east. There are plans for yet another brewery (Triple Bottom) at 915 Spring Garden in the former Reading Railroad Building, which directly abuts the viaduct portion of the Rail Park (which has yet to be built). It's far more likely Triple Bottom will be open well before this second, longer section of the Rail Park is ever completed, based on this overview of the significant challenges by my colleague Inga Saffron.

But once you're up on even that small existing snippet of former tracks, swinging in the summer breeze with a view of a neighborhood primed for progress and pushing forward below you, the imagination easily kicks in, and the leap from vision to reality no longer feels like such a grand gamble to make, so much as a necessity.

Email Craig here.