Imagine that you fell into a coma 20 or 30 years ago and just woke up, or more plausibly that you’re an alum who hasn’t been back to University City since the Reagan administration. Either way, you’ve got the Rip Van Winkle thing going on, especially when your imaginary cab takes you to 40th and Chestnut streets. There, standing before a new nine-story, mixed-use apartment building whose decorative materials look a little like Legos, you find yourself staring at a place whose pink neon sign reads: DISTRITO.
Inside, you think you must have stumbled into some kind of hallucinatory Mexican film set—Pedro Almodóvar doing a high-spirited remake of Under the Volcano, maybe, or a mescal-tinged sequel to Y Tu Mama Tambien. It’s a raucous, muy moderno cacophony of pinks and lime-greens and oranges, magenta-cushioned plastic bar stools and woven vinyl-cord chairs and resin table tops inlaid with bright oil-cloth prints, not to mention a hundred or so luchador wrestling masks lining the stairway to the second-floor dining room.
But it’s not until you look at the menu—and get your order—that you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Huaraches with forest mushrooms. Octopus ceviche. Rabbit mole … This is not a restaurant review, so we won’t start tossing adjectives around, but there’s a reason that Jose Garces is the hottest restaurateur in Philadelphia these days (not to mention an Iron Chef), and it has a lot more to do with the artistry of his cooking than it does with the décor.
Distrito—Garces’ largest and most colorful restaurant yet—is just the latest exotic dish on the sprawling table of University City, which in the past decade or so has gone from culinary desert with a few oases to something like a Destination. It has an increasingly impressive mix of ethnic eateries (Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Japanese, Laotian, Korean, etc.), imaginative neighborhood places (Rx, Marigold Kitchen, Bubble House, the Gold Standard Café), serious taprooms (Dock Street Brewing Co., Local 44, the soon-to-open City Tap House), some very inviting cafes (Lovers & Madmen, Metropolitan Bakery), and several places that can rightfully be considered destination spots (Distrito, Pod, the White Dog Café) that lure diners from other parts of the city and the suburbs. Even the soulless Science Center on Market Street recently lured a serious, innovative restaurant (Daniel Stern’s MidAtlantic), and did we mention that Garces is opening yet another, still-unnamed restaurant in the Cira Centre next to 30th Street Station? There will be further bursts of gastronomical energy along Penn’s eastern border, as Penn Park and other parts of the Penn Connects vision become reality. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Twenty or 30 years may not be much in the life of an institution like Penn. But in terms of culinary evolution, the difference between the not-so-distant bad old days and the surprisingly savory present can be measured in “light years,” says Barry Grossbach, a longtime University City resident who chairs the Spruce Hill Zoning Committee and serves on the board of the University City District (UCD). “Originally—and this takes nothing away from Ethiopian cuisine—when you talked about dining in University City, the only thing people said was, ‘Great place to get Ethiopian food.’ If you wanted anything other than that, you had to leave University City. There’s been an incredible transformation of the restaurant scene out here.”
“It has a real restaurant culture now, whereas nine years ago, it did not,” says Greg Salisbury C’89, referring to the year that he opened Rx at 45th and Spruce streets. “It’s been pretty incremental. Every time somebody would open up [a new place], I’d say, ‘Wow—I hope we can all sustain this.’” Recently, he adds, “there’s been a really impressive development over a very short span of time, providing a lot of options. And it’s fantastic—I can walk with my kids to 40th Street and we can decide what to eat, instead of having to get in the car and drive somewhere.”
Much of the credit, of course, goes to the individual entrepreneurs and chefs who had the culinary talent and gumption to put their money where their customers’ mouths were. Without the efforts of people like Salisbury and earlier pioneers like Judy Wicks (White Dog Café) or Kamol Phutlek (Nan), the landscape would have been bleak indeed.
But Penn has also played a real part in the growth of University City’s dining (and other retail) options, and not just by providing a large and (mostly) discriminating audience. It has used its economic leverage and real-estate savvy to help make deals happen, monitored the pulses of restaurants with which it has a relationship, administered First Aid when needed, and, through the UCD, helped market and promote them.
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COVER STORY: The Omnivore’s New Dilemma (Which exotic University City restaurant should we try tonight?)
By Samuel Hughes
Plus: Four-Wheel Fare By Trey Popp
Photography by Greg Benson
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