Somehow we made it through this year of cancelled plans, Googling “Did that really happen to Princess Diana?” after watching The Crown, glorious air fryer purchases, and the reality of fan cardboard cutouts at the Linc. There’s been plenty of stuff that sustained us and put a smile on our faces in 2020 - one of the most exciting things being the resiliency, creativity, and heart we’ve seen from the entire food and beverage industry in the city. People put together amazing pop-ups, sidewalk greenhouses, much-needed community fridges, live cooking classes, the amazing Fuel The Polls gatherings, and restaurants raised awareness about social injustice. There were so many incredible events, collaborations, and restaurant openings this year that it’s hard to pick our favorites, but we tried. Here are 13 places that brought something adventurous, refreshing, and unique to Philly in 2020.
THE SPOTS, POP-UPS, & COLLABS
Zig Zag is far from a traditional BBQ spot - the collards are made with coconut milk, the cucumber salad is Sichuan-style, and the sandwiches look like Jenga games, piled high with brisket, pastrami, turkey, and tofu. Its neon sign and low-slung industrial bunker of a space only solidify the feeling that you’re in a futuristic version of a BBQ spot. And whether you’re getting just a bunch smoked meats and queso mac and cheese or going with the “TurkEY TEaseR” sandwich with juicy, smoky turkey breast, tangy slaw, pickles, and just enough chili oil to give it a kick, everything here makes for an excellent meal that’s quickly become our favorite new takeout option of the year.
-Carlo Mantuano, Staff Editor
When outdoor seating started in the summer and then got extended through 2021 in the city, several restaurants became creative with their streeteries and open-air setups. And Harper’s Garden really upped the ante with their twinkly-lit greenhouses. Coming in two sizes (fitting a table that can seat up to seven or nine people), these pods illustrate just how restaurants have experimented in an attempt to stay open. Plus, they’re also insanely cozy. You can make reservations online for these first-come, first-served greenhouses which require no additional fee to dine at.
-Candis R. McLean, Philadelphia Contributor
After ITV Philly and neighboring sister restaurant Laurel shut down earlier this year, the popular spot became home to a few pop-ups including Curiosity Doughnuts and Heavy Metal Sausages. Often blasting some Metallica while churning out his seasonally flavored sausages, Chef Patrick Alfiero pre-sells each batch through his Instagram each week. And for the donut lovers stopping by to try Curiosity, you’ll find flavors like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, pumpkin with eggnog glaze, and toffee crumbs for $3 a pop on Fridays (8am-sellout), and Saturday and Sundays (9am-sellout).
There’s no question what this year has meant to Black America. The names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sparked a movement that nourished a sense of a unified community as much as it highlighted cultural divides in this country. When Germantown-born Chef Omar Tate returned home, after the COVID-19 crisis shut down his Honeysuckle Project in NYC, he brought with him a desire to illustrate the Black experience in the Philadelphia food landscape. Tate started by creating and selling takeout boxes out of South Philly Barbacoa and hosting Black chef pop-ups in rotation. The menus have plenty of highlights ranging from okra and oysters fried in cornmeal, honey pie, to a smoked leg of lamb marinated in palm oil. Tate has launched a GoFundMe campaign to create a Honeysuckle Community Center in West Philly, too.
Down North Pizza
Down North Pizza isn’t just introducing amazing Detroit-style pizza to Lehigh Ave. Chef Kurt Evans is also bringing his mission to give the “unemployable” a new chance at life. Yes, you’ll find the makings of a standard slice shop - they sell buffalo chicken pizza, hot wings, and fries - but it’s also a bridge exclusively for formerly incarcerated individuals to break into the food industry. Paying fair wages ($14.50 an hour regardless of position), Down North Pizza also provides temporary housing units for employees, training, and mentorship programs. Evans also launched a GoFundMe campaign, where you can support Down North Pizza’s mission and initiatives. They haven’t officially opened yet, but they’ve been doing pop-ups selling jerk chicken sausage pie that you can order online while they last. Which we don’t think will be for very long.
When life gives you lemons, you make frozen Italian desserts. We know that’s not the saying, but we all know a spoonful of gelato is a lot better than any sip of lemonade. After opening in early 2019, Fiore made a name for itself serving up creamy tonnarelli, Pistachio cornetto, and wood-fired pizzas. When the pandemic closed their 80-plus-seat dining room, the all-day Italian spot started shelling out pints of gelati in mass. Earlier this year, I tried cookies and milk that was creamy, smooth, and flowing with bits of Oreo. With a weekly rotation of flavors, ranging from coquito to chocolate brownie meringue, check online for the current flavors of these sweet cups of magic.
If 2020 sparked anything, it was people’s wish to greatly improve their cooking skills and become the next Top Chef. But sometimes we didn’t know where to start slicing and how much to measure. Thankfully, restaurants bridged the gap with fun take-home kits all over the city. After social distancing protocols put a stop to Pizzeria Vetri’s popular in-restaurant cooking classes, they took their Pizza After Dark series to Instagram. Through delivery apps, you can order either a margherita ($14) or pepperoni pizza kit ($16) that comes with a ball of dough, house-made tomato sauce, and fresh toppings. Vetri chefs give step-by-step instructions that are easy and will result in a DIY project that will survive merely seconds on your plate.
Shortly after the pandemic hit, Chef Ana Caballero started the Philly tamale pop-up Proyecto Tamal (primarily operating out of Lost Bread Co.) to employ Latinx cooks impacted by the pandemic. Currently in week 34, the weekly-rotating pop-up has been helmed by over 50 people who otherwise would have been without work. All of the proceeds from the sales go to the cooks who design and prepare the menu each week, and all the tamales are made from fresh nixtamalized corn they mill in house.
Many spots in the city had to get inventive with the way they sold, packaged, and delivered food this year. And The Commons, a virtual food hall, really shows how some places achieved this. Operating out of Walnut Street Café and The Post, this collection of ghost kitchens offers up a diverse range of spots. On their website, you can order anything from savory lamb meatballs from Mediterranean spot Agea, mango habanero wings from Philadelphia Wing Shop, BBQ chicken nachos from The Post, and add a scoop of PB&J ice cream from Maude & Mabel.
It’s rare that a person will open a pizza box with no pizza in it and smile. But when South Philly Indonesian restaurant Hardena was faced with a closed dining room, chef Diana Widjojo transformed the cardboard container into a treasure. Widjojo’s rotating #NotPizza box would be posted each Monday morning on Instagram, featuring preparations cooked by Widjojo’s sisters and mom with each box containing tempeh goreng, banana leaves, rendang, their spicy shrimp udang, and other dishes. Selling for $85 each, the boxes are a creative way to pack bold flavors and spice (a.k.a. fiery sambal sauces) in some really cool packaging.
Two Locals Brewing
West Philadelphia brothers Brothers Rich and Mengistu Koilor hope to open Two Locals Brewing Company soon, which would be one of Pennsylvania’s first Black-owned breweries and Philadelphia’s first. But as a nod to their West African and West Indian roots plus The City of Brotherly Love, this year they introduced a new signature batch called Black is Beautiful. With subtle toasted coconut flavors, this imperial stout was the ultimate statewide collaboration. The brew was made in partnership with Black-owned Harris Family Brewery in Harrisburg, Love City Brewing, and Double Eagle Malting. Proceeds from each sale went to BLM Philly, the Philadelphia Bail Fund, and other initiatives.
When Pennsylvania finally relaxed some of its strict liquor laws in May, the switch up helped a lot of places bounce back from a few hard months. Soon spots started selling cups, bottles with fun labeling, and saved us from looking up how much olive juice goes into a standard martini. One of the places that constantly bails me out of that Google search is Friday Saturday Sunday. When they reopened after the pandemic stoppage, they started selling complex blends like “Velveteen Sour” (a scotch and mezcal mix with lemon, fig, and chocolate) and a scotch and sherry mash-up like “$413 Million Dollar Baby.” The to-go cocktails come in party-for-one style pouches, cups, and six-serving sizes quarts.
There are now four places around the city where you can get pizza from Dan Gutter, the guy behind Circles + Squares a.k.a. the best pizza in Philly. Besides his shop in Olde Richmond, you can now find these excellent pizzas at Pizza Plus, Bourbon & Branch, and most recently at The Commodore in Mt. Airy. The menus at these places offer more than just ridiculously delicious pies too, like tendies and burgers at Pizza Plus, chopped chicken parm sandwiches at Bourbon & Branch, and braised Guinness beef stew at The Commodore. In a year like 2020, having more access to pizzas that are this good is one hell of a silver lining.