But sublime food was not limited to those rarefied few. There were seven restaurants that smacked the bell three times, proving excellence in every area of the dining experience. Some, like Deux Cheminees and Dilworthtown Inn, were local classics that are still holding their own. But perhaps more impressive were the new restaurants such as Vetri, Pasion and Philippe's, that debuted at such a high level, boding well for the city's dining future.
More good news is the high number of restaurants, 24, that garnered two-bell reviews, galvanizing a rock-solid middle tier with assessments that mean what they say - "very good." This category is the widest of them all, encompassing everything from high-quality neighborhood and ethnic restaurants to fine-dining establishments that, perhaps, fell a little short on service to make the next tier. But I would return happily to each and every one.
Of course the bells did not always ring so loudly. In one case, they did not even ring at all. But, while my ratings are more subjective than scientific, they are frank and honest. They are also rooted in authentic dining experiences at which I was unannounced and, to the best of my ability, unrecognized.
Many restaurants have made significant changes since the reviews, from chefs and menus to pricing. I've done my best to note them in the following summaries, although no ratings have been changed yet. That will begin to occur next year as I revisit some of the 75 restaurants that have already been reviewed for an occasional update. These visits will keep the ratings fresh, offering a second chance for those that have made real improvements, and a good reason for no one to coast on the sweet sound of ringing bells.
(FOUR BELLS) SUPERIOR
Four Seasons Hotel, 1 Logan Square, Philadelphia; 215-963-1500.
Step into a temple of luxury dining where extraordinary food is paired with impeccable service and the sumptuous setting of a great hotel. The Fountain's one-of-a-kind experience redefines what hotel dining can be. It may be $100 for dinner, but it will be worth every dime. Reviewed June 13.
1523 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 215-567-1000.
George Perrier's landmark jewel is a fantasy land of quiet gastronomic luxury, where the silver glows iridescent, ubiquitous servers pamper every whim, and the contemporary French cuisine is refined to a high polish. Not for those shy about fuss or prices. But what may be America's most expensive fixed-price menu offers real value, an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Reviewed Dec. 5.
(THREE BELLS) EXCELLENT
1312 Spruce St., Philadelphia; 215-732-3478.
In the legendary townhouse that nurtured such culinary lights as Le Bec-Fin, Ciboulette and Chanterelles, Marc Vetri draws sophistication and elegance from the rustic flavors of authentic Italian country fare. Though a newcomer, Vetri is already one of the city's finest restaurants. Reviewed Jan. 3.
Philippe's on Locust
1614 Locust St., Philadelphia; 215-735-7551.
Philippe Chin has transplanted his Asian-French cuisine from cozy Chanterelles to the immense and plush confines of the former Locust Club. The ChinChin bar in front has a cold modern design and occasionally raucous weekend crowds that clash with the dining rom. But innovative food and classy service give the restaurant real interest. Reviewed Jan. 31.
1221 Locust St., Philadelphia; 215-790-0200.
After two decades, Fritz Blank's Deux Cheminees remains one of the city's best destinations for special-occasion French dining, with six blazing fireplaces to warm an atmosphere of sumptuous elegance. The $75 fixed-price menu would be easier to take if it weren't scattered with supplemental charges for specialties of the house. Reviewed March 28.
211 S. 15th St., Philadelphia; 215-875-9895.
Chef Guillermo Pernot brings the sexy syncopation of nuevo Latino food to Restaurant Row in one of the city's most new exciting restaurants. Exotic ingredients from Cuba to Argentina are woven with culinary skill and inspiration, then served in a seductively designed room that captures the warmth of a Latino haven, from the palms and tented ceiling to the exclamation point on the door. Reviewed April 11.
1500 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 215-732-4444
After five years, the expensive all-seafood jewel in Neil Stein's crown is still the city's most spectacular dining room. New chef Terence Feury is occasionally spectacular, but more imporant, has brought a higher level of consistency to the kitchen. Reviewed Aug. 15.
1390 Old Wilmington Pike, West Chester; 610-399-1390.
Dilworthtown Inn is everything a country inn should be, with a first-class menu that melds classic and contemporary, a superb wine cellar, and gracious, understated service to match the romantic intimacy of its candlelit colonial setting. Reviewed Oct. 24.
Fuji Japanese Restaurant
404 Route 130 North, Cinnaminson; 856-829-5211.
Gritty Route 130 is an unlikely setting. The restaurant itself is humble. But chef Masaharu "Matt" Ito's "kaiseki" tasting dinners offer some of the most exquisite and creative cooking around, Japanese or otherwise. Celebrating his 20th anniversary with Fuji, Ito is one of the region's great unsung chefs. Reviewed Nov. 7.
(TWO BELLS) VERY GOOD
114 Market St., Philadelphia; 215-733-0545.
Chef Salvatore Di Palma turns in a promising debut with his new Old City restaurant with creatively upscale Italian cooking. The smartly rehabbed space, with its sleek, cherry-wood dining room, has a somewhat corporate feel that could use a personal touch. The menu has lots of bright ideas, but for the prices, needed to improve consistency. Reviewed Feb. 7.
1601 Chapel Ave., Cherry Hill; 856-663-7339.
In a modest dining room decked with colorful prints and festive garden lattice, chef Joe Brown draws inspiration from Louisiana and Italian cooking for bountiful portions of hearty food. A casual and diverse crowd keeps the room lively, although it easily becomes loud. Reviewed Feb. 14.
1407 Locust St., Philadelphia; 215-546-2000.
The former DiLullo Centro has a new name, a bright new look for its grand dining rooms, and a new "cichetti" menu of small plates available at the bar. The delicious food and swank ambience can add up to a special experience. But service problems can add stress, especially during the pre-theater rush. Reviewed Feb. 28.
1127 Pine St., Philadelphia; 215-592-8333.
Effie Bouikidis and her mother, chef Loula, bring Greek home cooking alive in their casual, affordable restaurant. No reservations usually means a wait, but it's worth it, especially for a seat in the cute back cottage warmed by a cast-iron stove. Reviewed March 14.
238 N. Ninth St., Philadelphia; 215-925-7532.
Long a favorite for Peking duck, this humble Chinatown institution has undergone an ambitious transformation, doubling in size, renovating its dining room into a bright, cheery place with cafe windows and sidewalk seating. Reviewed March 21.
2519 Huntingdon Pike, Huntingdon Valley; 215-914-1224.
The two-month wait for weekend reservations may be a reflection on the fine-dining competition in lower Montgomery County. Then again, Stefano's, the latest Italian from the Terra family (which helped run San Marco) has a lot to offer - good food and a warm but fussily decorated dining room. Occasionally brusque service is a turnoff. Reviewed April 4.
Pompeii Cucina d'Italia
121 S. Broad St., Philadelphia; 215-735-8400.
Chef Joseph Tucker has returned to the Avenue of the Arts with gusto, upscaling his downtown Italian cooking in the former Tony Clark's space. Since the review, the decor has been pleasantly redone, and Frankie Chiavaroli (formerly of Frankie's Seafood Italiano) has taken over the kitchen. Reviewed April 18.
Ardmore Plaza, 12 Greenfield Ave., Ardmore; 610-896-7200.
The ancient arts of exotic food and sensuality are tastefully linked at this popular Main Line ethnic, where some of the region's finest Indian cuisine is served in copper pots under the gaze of erotic sculptures from the Hindu temples of Khajuraho. A few too many tables can make busy weekends unbearably cramped. Reviewed May 9.
3600 Lancaster Ave. (at 36th St.), Philadelphia; 215-895-0139.
After a two-year hiatus, chef Jackie Pestka has returned to the ambitious Mexican restaurant she helped launch 10 years ago. Fresh tortillas and authentically inspired dishes give this colorful space a sophisticated, upscale edge over most other local Mexicans. For the prices, though, it could be more consistent. Reviewed May 16.
700 W. Dekalb Pike, King of Prussia; 610-878-9025.
With the clubby look of a handsome '40s steakhouse, Sullivan's has the warm wood, white tablecloth glow, good live jazz, a superb wine cellar, and a very competent kitchen. You'd never guess this was a mall restaurant, let alone an upscale cousin of the lowbrow Lone Star Steakhouse chain. Reviewed June 20.
Pier 3, Penn's Landing, Philadelphia; 215-351-1898.
With a peaceful pier-side view of the Delaware River and a dining room scented by the rustic, wood-fired grill, La Veranda offers a deftly prepared Italian menu and a dose of old-world favoritism for its regulars. Avoid tables near the refrigerated antipasti case. Reviewed June 27.
Sheraton Rittenhouse Hotel, 18th at Locust Street, Philadelphia; 215-546-9400.
When star chef Tony Clark made an early exit from the chic park-side cafe in Rittenhouse Square's newest hotel, they found a good replacement in chef Chris Hubert from Cape May's Ebbitt Room. But will the constantly morphing restaurant/lounge get its amateur service act together? Reviewed July 18.
East of Amara
700 S. Fifth St., Philadelphia; 215-627-4200.
This bright new Thai in Queen Village may be cozy, but it is downright spacious compared to its older sister, tiny Amara Cafe in West Center City. Luckily, the food is just as good as the original - Thai classics infused with dynamic flavors at affordable prices. Reviewed July 25.
6417 Rising Sun Ave., Philadelphia; 215-342-1500.
With its funky open kitchen and bustling little dining room, Kristopher's brings fresh and creative cooking to Rising Sun Avenue. The affordable and often adventurous Italianesque menu (the octopus actually sold out!) offers a worthy model for the neighborhood restaurant. Reviewed Aug. 1.
18 Witherspoon St., Princeton; 609-683-4771.
Princeton was once starved for decent fine dining. But with promising new restaurants such as Harriette's, an intimate French BYOB with warm woods, mirrored walls and sophisticated food, the restaurant boomlet in this Ivied town seems for real. Reviewed Aug. 8.
1254 Haddon Ave., Camden; 856-541-4894.
The homey pink dining room at Corinne's Place comes alive at Sunday brunch with some of the best soul food around, not to mention an impressive array of church hats. Incredible bargains aside, Corinne's food offers a very good reason to visit an otherwise bleak South Camden neighborhood. Reviewed Aug. 29.
276 S. 20th St., Philadelphia; 215-731-1222.
Audrey Taichman's tiny corner hot spot embodies the hip young energy that fuels Center City's restaurant boom. Affordable and stylishly minimalist, it draws the neighborhood and beyond with its sidewalk seats, and appealingly simple neo-Med comfort food. Reviewed Sept. 12.
1518 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 215-545-6800.
Circa has upped the ante since former Opus 251 chef Alfonso Contrisciani took over, offering sophisticated eclectic dining at fair prices for Walnut Street. The former bank's downstairs vault is cool, but the cavernous upstairs dining room - better suited for dance parties than fine dining - does little justice to the improved menu. Reviewed Oct. 3.
612-32 Washington Ave., Philadelphia; 215-271-8838
This massive new dim sum palace brings the polished marble grandeur of a Hong Kong banquet hall to Washington Avenue's growing Asian corridor. With parking, proximity to markets and good dim sum, New Century can give Chinatown competition, except for its disappointing non-dim sum menu. Reviewed Oct. 10.
Black Trumpet Bistro
1828 W. 11th St., Wilmington; 302-777-0454.
In an intimate Wilmington townhouse, Karen Boyd offers creative new American cooking infused with natural flavors and quality ingredients. The wild mushroom gets its due. But desserts and service still need polish. Reviewed Oct. 17.
Devon Seafood Grill
225 S. 18th St., Philadelphia; 215-546-5940.
This former Houlihan's has been transformed into a classy and comfortable seafood house with vaulted ceilings, a lively bar, and sidewalk seating. The quality menu is fairly priced for Rittenhouse Square, and the relaxed atmosphere is a welcome break from its hyper-chic neighbors. Service still needed work. Reviewed Nov. 21.
The Station Restaurant
4401 Cresson St., Manayunk; 215-482-6030.
After a rough chef transition last summer, this Italian in the renovated Manayunk SEPTA station has made an impressive turnaround with food, service and scaled-down (but still upscale) prices. The noisy rooms are attractive, but would benefit from more of a connection to the train-side location. Reviewed Nov. 28.
4535 N. Fifth St., Philadelphia; 215-324-6086.
Mambo up to North Philly, where this lively destination lights up Fifth Street with authentic Latino cooking, an attractive dining room, and good values. Dance off your tamales at the nightclub upstairs. Reviewed Dec. 12.
Brew Moon Restaurant
1001 Mall Blvd., King of Prussia; 610-230-2739.
This lunar-themed microbrewery brings new interest to mall dining with its high-design space decor, great beers, and an eclectic menu that melds adventurous good cooking with casual ambiance. Young service staff is friendly but inexperienced. Reviewed Dec. 19.
(ONE BELL) AVERAGE
20 S. Second St., Philadelphia; 215-928-0770.
With one of the best folk clubs in Philadelphia upstairs and a recent makeover for its invitingly warm downstairs dining room, Serrano is poised to offer an affordable evening of Old City entertainment. The wildly eclectic around-the-world menu, though, was served up with disappointing inconsistency. Reviewed Jan. 10.
Venus & the Cowboy
Two years in the works following her departure from Striped Bass, Alison Barshak's new restaurant on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway opened and shut within the year. Her "Mesti-Soul" fusion cuisine was too contrived for an inconsistent kitchen. Reviewed Jan. 17.
261 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd; 610-664-3000.
The space formerly known as the Tavern has been transformed into a handsomely upscale steak house that bubbles with a chic Main Line clientele. Downsides were an often numbing noise level and an overpriced menu of austere a la carte entrees prepared with hit-or-miss results. Reviewed Feb. 21.
1617 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia; 215-755-1498.
Partners Jean Sarne and Natalie Queenan have aimed high with their charming 40-seat French bistro in the heart of South Philadelphia. Warm purple walls and Edith Piaf set the mood, but the Gallic-inspired menu was not consistent enough to merit entree prices in the mid-$20s. Reviewed March 7.
246 Market St., Philadelphia; 215-625-4888.
The restaurant's second chef gave a boost to this trendy Old City newcomer with Asian-style contemporary food. But the inexperienced owners of this $2 million gamble had other problems to correct: lackluster service and weird restaurant design. Reviewed May 23.
110 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne; 610-687-8333.
Wayne's classic French restaurant has been tranformed by new owners into a brighter, more casual space that aims for a younger crowd. But there' was nothing casual about the prices of this contemporary menu. Given the shaky service and inconsistent menu, the new Fourchette experience did not merit the expense. Reviewed May 30.
Scargo on Main
65 E. Main St., Marlton; 856-985-5585.
In a quaintly refurbished South Jersey Victorian home, Scargo offered fine-dining classics and tableside service that were awkward and over-priced. They have lowered prices considerably since the review, and, with new chefs, gravitated away from classics toward contemporary Asian-fusion cooking. Reviewed June 6.
Bookbinders 15th Street
215 S. 15th St., Philadelphia; 215-545-1137.
The Bookbinder family's institution is frumpily steadfast with fish-house classics - better for food and value than its Society Hill counterpart. Still, considering the city's improving restaurant scene, the prices here are high and the old building has become shabby. Reviewed Sept. 5.
231 S. Broad St., Philadelphia;
All stares are on the giant squid that floats above the bar at Sotto, the new seafooder below Upstares at Varalli. The tongue-in-cheek theatrics and marine theme are apt for this pleasant and affordable pre-theater destination, but the menu too often fell short of its potential. Reviewed Sept. 26.
Morton of Chicago
1411 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 215-557-0724.
Morton's new homage to meat on Walnut Street is prime for spotting power players in a manly cigar haze. But the 14-year-old relocated institution seemed to be making rookie mistakes with ragged service and spotty cooking that are disappointing at porterhouse prices. Reviewed Nov. 14.
NO BELLS (POOR)
Old Original Bookbinder's
125 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 215-925-7027.
The historic restaurant has a pretty old-world dining room, but the outrageously priced menu was disappointing from the oyster crackers to the coffee (dessert being the only exception). A mostly tourist clientele doesn't seem to mind. A new, more casual oyster bar has been opened since the review, and a recent meal there showed stirrings of improvement, both in food and service. Reviewed Sept. 5.