Great gastropubs have played a key role in defining the character of Philly's dining scene over the last two decades, helping to anchor emerging neighborhoods with distinctive casual spaces that showcase both our growing craft-beer industry and handmade foods that go far beyond the old bar-food cliches. With Philly Beer Week revving up Friday, it's a perfect time to revisit and reconsider three gastropubs that recently underwent big changes in the kitchen. To my delight, each has continued to evolve without missing a beat. Pheasant roulade and homemade sausages? Perfectly crisped soft-shell crab over baby gem salad and avocado-ramp mousse? Asian salmon cakes and creative vegan sandwiches? Yeah, Philly's culinary gastropub train is still rolling strong. For the delicious details, read on.
Standard Tap, 901 N. Second St., 215-238-0630; standardtap.com
Most Philadelphians had never heard the word gastropub (originally a British concept) until the arrival of Standard Tap on the eve of Y2K, when Paul Kimport and William Reed converted a centuries-old Northern Liberties taproom into a moody haven for exclusively local beers on draft (a first) and a menu featuring chicken pies wrapped in puff-pastry domes, duck confit salad, and fried smelts. Carolynn Angle came on as chef shortly after, and, over the course of 16 years, helped elevate the ever-changing blackboard menu to three bells, with a talent for seafood and game.
So when Angle left in November, I had concerns. This influential pioneer was in danger of being overshadowed by the growing scene it helped foster, in no small part because Northern Liberties itself has recently been overshadowed by Fishtown and Kensington to its north. The arrival of new chef Joel Mazigian, however, should put any worries about the cooking to rest. Standard Tap's kitchen is as relevant as ever, diving deeper into its commitment to local ingredients and whole-animal cooking. Venison sausages, just one of several dishes Mazigian crafted from a whole red deer, came hickory-smoked Hungarian-style over a Castle Valley grit cake, pickled okra, and lightly creamed kale. Crispy housemade pancetta sparked a creamy chowder sauce that glazed meaty razor clams hot off the plancha. One of the most soulful Bolognese ragus I've had all year was served over airy potato gnocchi and made from ground Stryker Farm beef hearts. An amazingly tender heritage-breed pork chop was a celebration of spring over a tumble of sweet peas, morels, and fiddlehead ferns.
Another seasonal ode with maitakes and asparagus came over crispy puffs of semolina gnocchi sauced with English pea cream. I was equally impressed with a thick slice of juicy grilled swordfish over tender farro, fairly priced at $24. And that pheasant roulade? The deftly deboned game bird was rolled around a puree of its own legs greened with herbal lovage and lemon balm, a lusciously moist and tender seasonal take on the kind of ballotine you might find at a fancy French restaurant.
As expected, Standard Tap's draft list remains a prime showcase for great local beers, from such breweries as 2SP, Techne, Pizza Boy, Sly Fox, and Roy-Pitz. But the cocktail revolution has arrived at the Standard Tap, too, with sleeper options built on local ingredients, like the sparkling Old Cuban made with Cooper River's aged Petty Island rum, and the Tap's own Standard Amaro collaboration with Rowhouse Spirits. That one's best sipped neat at the end of your meal, as a heady reminder that this gastropub pioneer has grown up, stayed at the top of its genre, and never stopped evolving.
American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St., 215-334-2337, americansardinebar.com
Some gastropubs strive to impress with their culinary chops (see above: pheasant roulade, Standard Tap). But for American Sardine Bar, the fun factor has always been front and center as it trailblazed the way for the gentrifiers to northern Point Breeze with a giant sardine can dangling over its front door, an inventive all-sandwich menu, and one of cheeriest beer gardens in the city lighting up a stretch of South 18th Street. Its opening chef, Scott Schroeder, certainly set the tone as equal parts master of cheeky social media and wacky stoner-bar food (spaghetti on a sandwich?) before launching his own venture at Hungry Pigeon.
His successor at ASB, Doreen DeMarco, is a perfect fit. "I like silly food," says the Willingboro native, 30, who also runs the kitchen at owner John Longacre's Second District Brewing. That would explain the pile-it-on instincts that will occasionally put tater tots atop the vegan black bean sloppy joe; or scrapple, egg, and cheese on a pretzel bun; or "unicorn" funfetti in the churros. ("We don't do cupcakes at the Sardine Bar," says DeMarco. "We think outside of the box.")
Don't let the whimsy fool you, though. The ever-changing blackboard menu is full of hand-crafted (and sometimes surprisingly adventurous) flavors that almost always satisfy, from daily soups (Moroccan chicken was a favorite) to big sardines cooked three ways (get them grilled) and to what are still the city's best onion rings. DeMarco's spicy chili chicken wings also get my vote for Top 5 in Philly, the tender meat juicy from a star anise brine and its crackly crust shined with a sweet and spicy glaze infused with Sichuan peppercorns, sesame oil, and honey. A braised Korean short-rib sandwich amped with gochujang marinade stands in for any beefy cravings. But it is the nonmeat options where DeMarco's creativity really shines. Her Asian salmon burger, laced with sesame, soy, and Thai chili mayo, is a satisfying burger alternative. But so was her vegan "cauli-burger" — a variation served on her gluten-free pizza crust — made from mashed cauliflower and tofu glazed in a vegan balsamic mayo emulsified with aquafaba — chickpea water. And then there was the Burmese green tea salad, a colorful pinwheel of crunchies arrayed over greens — yellow lentils, sunflower seeds, sesame, peanuts, and jalapeño rings — that was mixed with tender threads of fermented tea leaves and a squeeze of lemon into one of the most refreshingly snappy salads of the spring.
To wash it down, ASB always has a great beer list of cans and drafts, featuring sometimes-hard-to-find local stars, like Saint Benjamin, Tired Hands, Sterling Pig, and a particularly great wild ale fermented with fruit, Mr. Blueberry, from Highway Manor in Camp Hill, Pa. If ever there was a perfect brew to sip from a lawn chair in South Philly's beer garden ode to seriously silly food, Mr. Blueberry is it.
Pub & Kitchen, 1946 Lombard St., 215-545-0350, thepubandkitchen.com
For some places, there is a thin line between being a gastropub with great food and a serious restaurant with a very good bar. And nowhere has nudged that hard-to-define distinction one way or the other quite as much as Pub & Kitchen, the wildly popular corner haunt in Graduate Hospital whose most ambitious kitchen talent to date, Eli Collins, recently departed for a.kitchen.
Collins' successor is certainly no slouch. Steven Eckerd, 31, has worked at Vetri and at Daniel in New York, and at Little Fish, Le Bec-Fin, and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. And his commitment to handcrafting seasonal plates here from top-notch local ingredients has not wavered in the transition over the last month. That's how you end up with smoked heirloom carrots over stracciatella cheese and charred eggplant puree, and a lamb neck terrine cured with chilies de arbol and green za'atar. But the clear message from managing partner Ed Hackett as the P&K heads into its ninth year is that it's dialing its tone back just one notch to be more neighborhood restaurant than special-occasion destination. A great happy hour — $20 bottles of rosé, $8 burgers, and $6 old-fashioneds — will go a long way to that end.
I've also noticed a slight easing in the intricacy of the food, without sacrificing good cooking, that feels a shade more relaxed. A gorgeous soft-shell crab fried in an airy light tempura is tossed with delicate lettuce greens over an avocado-ramp mousseline. A new pasta extruder has given the kitchen a new toy, and some toothy bucatini, to evoke the Mediterranean with tagliasca olives, toasted walnuts, and a bittersweet orange froth of Meyer lemon curd. A beautiful market catch slice of halibut came roasted over curried red lentils. And Eckerd goes full comfort kitchen for his meatballs "alla Galvano" (named in honor of the beverage manager's meatball hoagie habit) with tender pork and ricotta orbs that, once simmered in Jersey tomato sauce, hover over Castle Valley grilled baby Vidalias and clouds of smoked ricotta.
If ever there was a bellwether for the P&K's mercurial culinary identity, you might as well track its burger, which has cycled through such phases as the thick Windsor with homemade bacon, the marrow-glazed Churchill phase, the Parliament, the thin patty, another fat patty, and now, a return to the double-stacked Windsor that I love most: a juicy pair of 3.5-ounce Debragga rounds layered with iceberg crunch and a house sauce studded with grilled onions, capers, a jolt of sriracha, and house-pickled cornichons. I'll sip a perfectly blended Penicillin spritzed with smoky Laphraoig, or a Yards Love Stout, to go with that Double Winsdor, and enjoy this Pub & Kitchen phase it while it lasts.