One thing that disappoints me whenever reviewers (or Philadelphia Magazine) come out with their Best Restaurants lists is how weighted they are toward high-end places. As if the only way to give people an outstanding eating experience is with the kind of meal that costs >$50 per person. Which is just wrong. Smarter: the way rating sites like Yelp offer the $, $$, $$$, $$$$ categorization (same goes for something like the NYTimes’s $25 and Under category). It doesn’t just tell you how much places cost, it sorts them into categories that mean something. At any of those levels there are restaurants ranging from lousy to outstanding, and it’s a pyramid – lots more bad and so-so places at the bottom, a very few at the top that do what they do brilliantly. Most of the qualities that make the best places the best are the same at each price level: caring about the quality of every plate of food, and having the skills to convert caring into great food. The proportion of griddle-based joints that are amazing at what they do is as small as the proportion of high-concept restaurants that earn their price point.
So my question is: what are folks’ picks for the top 5% of places in this city where there’s just one cook or maybe two at the most, (s)he’s mainly working a griddle or some other tiny space, and the check comes hand-written on a little green pad with a double-digit price at most?
As an example, I nominate McNally’s in Chestnut Hill. They’re slightly famous as the home of the Schmitter, Philly’s other, other (, other?) signature sandwich (yes they have a spot in Citizen’s Bank Park. Haven’t been and can’t comment). Besides being a great invention, the Schmitter is a good example of why McNally’s gets my vote: a cheesesteak with the addition of grilled salami and onions, a slice of tomato, and Russian dressing, it could be too much, too sloppy, just gross. But the roll is always fresh and toasted perfectly on the griddle; the meat and onions are always grilled to order and never come from some steaming pile like at so many of our well-known cheesesteak spots; and everything gets put together carefully. It’s still a cholesterol bomb that will kill me one day, but it’s extremely tasty and totally worthwhile.
The same attention to detail makes everything on their small-but-complete grill menu top notch: crisp bacon and fresh lettuce on the burger, hand-carved turkey in the club sandwich, hot dogs that are split and griddled. Beyond the proficient, consistent, careful way that they make their short-order standards, a few special details put McNally’s in top-5% contention. The soups of the day change all the time, are made by a family member, and are ambitious and delicious: last Friday they had beautiful, densely flavored cream of mushroom, and turkey orzo generously stocked with good dark meat. The cakes are made by (I think) one of the owners. Best carrot cake I’ve had, with the best cream cheese frosting I’ve had on top. Excellent chocolate bundt, sometimes coconut, sometimes something special. All among the best bakery cakes in the city. On the service end: I come in semi-regularly with my son. They set us up with a beer for me and a juicebox for him, service is always friendly and gracious (and patient when I try to get him to do his own ordering and remember his please and thank you). They never rush us, no matter how crowded the place gets, even when my son is dawdling over his grilled cheese. They make the meal a pleasure, which is what a top-5% spot should do.
So that’s the kind of place I mean.
What else is out there?