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Philadelphia Gayborhood

by Rich Rubin

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They might be calling it "Midtown Village" now, but to Philadelphia's GLBT residents, the Washington Square West area will always be "The Gayborhood." The area, located roughly between Sansom and Spruce, from about 10th to 13th Street, has most of the city's bars and a plethora of gay-owned shops. More recently, it's also become a dining mecca, with the last five years seeing a major boom in gourmet choices. It's a still-developing scene, and as we go to press two promising places are joining the already-impressive lineup: Jamonera (the third restaurant project by Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, the lesbian couple who also owns Barbuzzo, Lolita, and several retail outlets on 13th Street), and gay-owned Walnut Street Supper Club, with a pleasantly retro atmosphere, talented singer/servers, and well-regarded Chef Anthony Mignona. Of course, you can always eat right at your watering hole. Tabu's ground-floor restaurant and Terra at Tavern on Camac are among the top spots for bar dining. As you explore the ever-expanding food scene here, prepare to get a day pass at the neighborhood's gay-popular 12th Street Gym—you'll need it after all this indulgence!­

A new entry into the neighborhood (it moved here from a former locale this past January), Fish is destined to be one of its stars. By its second day of operation (a Tuesday, no less) it was packed, and it's easy to see why. Mike Stollenwerk's cuisine is a great match for the stunning redesign of the former gay bar Q Lounge. Stollenwerk pairs fish and meat with seemingly effortless dazzle. Cod comes wrapped in serrano ham, while mahi mahi is swathed in a pastrami crust. And the amazing thing is, it works! Case in point: the octopus. We can hear your groaning now, but trust us this is one great dish. Braised to unbelievable tenderness and charred to a smoky depth, it's deepened in flavor by the addition of thin speck slices—octopus like you've never had it before. While you'll find the occasional dish for piscephobes, the stars here are exactly what the name implies, from a skate wing that's crispy/smooth and topped with incredible "melting leeks" to appetizers of oysters, salmon, shrimp, and even unique "skate chips" dusted with Parmesan. Dessert? Hands down the praline canelloni, which combines mascarpone-filled pastry tubes with hazelnuts, burned orange sauce, and gianduja (chocolate-hazelnut) sorbet. This is one spot the neighborhood's going to fall in love with. 1234 Locust St. Tel: 215-545-9600.

Billed as a wine/cheese/beer bar, it's the perfect place for a light bite or a full meal before or after barhopping. With a friendly and knowledgeable staff and a full selection of amazing little plates, it can be almost impossible to get into (no reservations taken), but there's a reason for that: it's just so damn good. Our suggestion: get several small plates and share. That way, no one misses out on the various bruschetta plates (feta and caramelized onion, smoky blue with bacon-chocolate jam, brie, and cherry), the perfectly prepared smoked duck salad, or the simple fennel-roasted almonds that will make you say "Why didn't I think of that?" Panini are just as varied, from tuna/black olive tapenade or truffled mushroom/spinach/brie to dessert panini such as nutella or banana/caramel/mascarpone. With two levels of casual, buzzy fun, remarkable food, and thoughtful wine list, this is one spot you should not miss. 1137 Spruce Street. Tel: 215-629-9200.

Chef Konstantinos Pitsillides' Cypriot cuisine is a winning combination of inventive and traditional. The décor evokes the Mediterranean in a low-key and soothing way, and the menu contains enough seasonal changes to keep its loyal customers returning. Start with the "dips of the day," three small dishes of ever-changing spreads served with grilled pita, before moving on to the bureki, (cigar-shaped rolls filled with feta and drizzled with honey) for a sweet/savory treat. The calamari stuffed with a creative combination of rice, pine nuts, feta, and leeks is a winner, as is the pouleriko (chicken flattened and cooked under a brick, served whole and livened by a tangy yogurt/tahini/sumac sauce). Carnivores love the lamb shank with bulgur and fava beans, while the vegetarian moussaka is also a pleaser. Try the pistachio/olive oil cake or the fig/rosemary cheesecake. Low-key and always surprising, Kanella has become a Philadelphia favorite. 1001 Spruce Street. Tel: 215-922-1773.

If you need a definition of paradise, a lifetime supply of Sampan's edamame dumplings (melt-in-the-mouth luscious and redolent with truffles) might fit the bill. It's typical of the delights that await at Chef Michael Schulson's pan-Asian restaurant, where worldwide cuisine is spun through an Asian filter to come up with a noteworthy dining experience. Crab wonton tacos, with the smoothness of avocado and tangy little slivers of pickled shallots, are a little piece of global perfection, while the cheese steak takeoff arrives on three little bao buns. The soy-glazed sea bass is a wonder, resting on a cauliflower bed and topped with a citrusy grapefruit/apple slaw. Even fried rice is given a distinctive spin here, with the spiciness of kim chee and softness of a sunnyside-up egg, while brussel sprouts are coated in fish sauce and charred, rendering this unfairly-despised vegetable into something intriguing. The mirror-image, semi-transparent tree photos that line the walls create a modern and soothing atmosphere, while the solicitous service makes dining here a pleasure. Want a pre- or post-prandial drink? Their private patio, Graffiti Bar, is a great all-weather prelude to a night of indulgence. 124 S. 13th St. Tel: 215-732-3501.

Chef Jose Garces can do no wrong, as thousands of Philadelphians will attest after dining at his various restaurants around the city. Garces Trading Company, his gayborhood establishment, is the first partnership between the state liquor board (which controls all booze sales in Pennsylvania) and a chef, creating a wine boutique/BYOB restaurant where you can buy a bottle to take home or to open with dinner. Most importantly, the food is divine. You might start with baby artichokes served with preserved lemons, dates, and walnuts. Cheese plates transcend the ordinary with such heavenly accompaniments as truffled lavender honey or cranberry-chile jam. House-made salami (orange coriander, fennel, or Tuscan style) heads up the varied charcuterie offerings. Main dishes range from succulent pan-roasted scallops to dense and meaty smoked pork chops. Pizza is like none you've ever seen, in varieties like chorizo/clam or lamb merguez. Do save room for dessert, though, as they are totally astounding here, from the light-as-a-feather assorted macaron selection to citron, bursting with the flavor of Meyer lemons. We'll be very surprised if you don't stop in the boutique to pick up a few take-home desserts for later indulgence! 1111 Locust St. Tel: 215-574-1099.

One of the newer entries to the neighborhood (it recently celebrated its first anniversary), Opa will turn you into an instant Greek food convert with its modern/traditional take on the cuisine. Bubbly wrought iron, a bar covered in stones and overhung by an awning of birch branches, and a deep-blue wall evoking the sea let you know you're in for an experience that mixes tradition with playfulness. The cuisine reflects this blend. The winter salad contains a kaleidoscope of taste and texture, combining the smoothness of butternut squash with the tang of sherry vinegar and smoked yogurt and the sweetness of dates and apricots. Perfectly roasted chicken comes with cauliflower and green tahini, while a Greek ceviche, cooked in lemon, pairs fluke with almonds and grapes. For prime dining, choose the four-course tasting menu, which might include one of these but is more likely to have some off-menu specials like lobster in a complex and dusky demíglace of the Greek spirit Metaxa. Great news for bar-hopping gourmets: they've just instituted a happy hour from 5-7 P.M. and after 11 P.M. on weeknights, so you can pair their signature drinks like the Antho (cucumber vodka/lemon/dill) with jaw-droppingly priced $1 skewers and $2 sliders. Really, though, every hour's a happy hour at Opa. The word "opa" is a Greek expression of joyfulness, and after a meal here, infused by the good spirits of brother/sister owners George and Vasiliki Tsiouris, you'll be as joyful as the name indicates. 1311 Sansom St. Tel: 215-545-0170.

Not in the mood for a full meal? The gayborhood is filled with lovely little spots where you can get coffee, dessert, or a light meal, and no report on dining in the 'hood would be complete without them. The most hopping coffee spot is Café Twelve (conveniently located next to 12 St. Gym for a post-workout splurge), offering a variety of coffee drinks, sweets, and sandwiches (the turkey/apple/brie is like a little piece of heaven). Around the corner and offering a more contemplative atmosphere (you're likely to find people reading or Internet-surfing) is the lovely Cake and the Beanstalk, overlooking a community garden and offering soup, sandwiches, and fabulous desserts like to-die-for strawberry pound cake and sinful M&M blondies, as well as the usual caffeinated selections. If you crave yet more sweets, don't pass up Capogiro, a 13th Street institution serving the best gelato this side of Italy in traditional flavors as well as outré choices like rosemary/goat's milk, quince, pineapple/sage, or avocado. Café Twelve, 215 S. 12th St. Tel: 215-893-5680. Cake and the Beanstalk, 1112 Locust St. Tel: 215-592-6205. Capogiro, 119 S. 13th St. Tel: 215-351-0900.

[Published: April, 2012]

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