Enter in the dark, leave enlightened
232 Market St.
Tangerine is dark. That is the first thought that will hit you when you travel through a short, dark tunnel into Stephen Starr’s Mediterranean restaurant.
Upon entrance to the dining room, dark becomes light with cream-colored tablecloths, menus and comfortable high-backed chairs that you will sink right into. Soft light emits from white candles that cover the walls.
Be sure to order some wine from the extensive list and sampling an appetizer is also a must.
The lobster risotto, made of lobster tail and claw on a bed of risotto rice, tastes of so many flavors that you won’t want to swallow for several minutes.
The beef spanakopita has a strong, beefy musk that your nose enjoys long before your tongue even gets a chance to taste. When the main course arrives, take time to enjoy the presentation. The pan roasted chicken looks like it is out of a fashionable cookbook.
Everything will be well prepared and attractive. While still tasty, the chicken pales in comparison to the delectable appetizers I enjoyed. The grilled fish al limone may also lack pizzazz.
When the bill comes, brace yourself. The price to dine at Tangerine is a downside. Entrees range from $22 to $32. After the tip, a $100 bill for two people is about average.
Shared dining for varied tastes
The Continental Mid-town
1801 Chestnut St.
Tofu chive dumplings, lobster Mac n’ cheese and Chilean sea bass. Sound like some of mom’s home cooked specialties? Sadly no, but they are only some of the delectable entrees found at Starr’s Continental Mid-town restaurant.
The central lounge area on the first floor catches your attention immediately. On the second floor hanging wicker chairs dangle from the ceiling where diners can enjoy more intimate seating for two.
The Continental Mid-town is nothing like your mama’s kitchen. Its sophisticated simplicity of soft lighting, some friends, your favorite drink and interesting conversation set the mood for a successful evening out.
The restaurant follows a “tapis” way of dining. Tapis is the idea that everyone shares his or her meals with one another. It’s very busy on Friday and Saturday evenings, but the waiters are approachable and know the menu well. All the dishes are made with a creative twist to the original and have larger-than-usual portion sizes for easy sharing.
People go to the restaurant for both the atmosphere and the food. Starr has created a successful combination of classy dining, innovative architectural design and casual socializing all in one. The pricing is affordable without being overbearing.
And the best part about this restaurant? My waiter Mark said, “Sharing. Being in each other’s company, it’s a very social thing. It’s about being with your friends.”
Homecooking at its best at Jones
American Style Comfort Food
700 Chestnut St.
Succumb to your need for all-American comfort food and get to Seventh and Chestnut streets into Jones Restaurant. Jones brings us back to the simplicity of the 1950s with its retro-decor and a splash of modern detail that catches your eye, along with your taste buds.
The main floor of the restaurant is split-level, similar to old split-level homes popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Four large stone venire pillars stand strong in the room’s center and rectangular lights hang in their midsections.
You feel like you’re eating at home as you dive into a meal that could have been cooked by your mother – but better. The kitchen is within viewing distance and you can watch as the chefs prepare your meal.
According to my waiter, one of the most popular dishes is the macaroni and cheese made with real sharp cheddar, melted to perfection with breadcrumbs toasted on top.
Entrees like meatloaf with whipped potatoes and buttered peas and fried chicken with waffles bring diners back to their kitchen at home where mom created their favorite scrumptious dishes. For dessert, apple pie with wet walnuts and vanilla bean ice cream is the perfect ending to your classic dining experience.
Yet another one of Starr’s masterpieces, Jones tickles your taste buds and hits a soft spot with its American classic comfort food that you thought you could only get at home.
Get a spicy taste of modern Cuba
Alma de Cuba
1623 Walnut St.
Smashed between identical cooperate buildings on Walnut Street is a cozy little yellow and white house that resembles the spice and culture of Cuba.
Beyond the door, nothing is lost in appearance.
Wood floors cover the spacious room and portraits of Cuban life line the walls.
Being in Alma de Cuba is like sitting outside on a porch, but, with its intimate lighting, the restaurant is nothing less than sophistication.
From the minute we walked in we received five-star service, including a coat check and waiters pulling out our chairs and putting napkins on our laps.
If your taste buds aren’t too open-minded, then this is not the place for you.
The menu featured modern cuisine with a variety of meat from roasted duck to steak, all served with the typical Cuban fare of beans and rice. I ordered a chicken dish that just about melted in my mouth.
It was a good-sized portion and a true bang for your buck.
As for the dessert, let’s just say it contributed to my falling in love with Alma de Cuba.
While I loved the restaurant’s atmosphere and food, my wallet resisted a little.
With a $50 bill at the end of the night, it’s not the new spot to chill on a weekly basis.
Regardless, the experience as a whole was worth the dent in the pocket. And I’ll be going back for another taste of Cuba.
A faux Mexican eating experience
121 S. 13th St.
El Vez, Starr’s Mexican-themed restaurant, isn’t the best place for the college student looking to have a nice meal in Center City.
While the restaurant offers a unique charm and sophisticated atmosphere, for those of us who are used to eating at Johnson and Hardwick dining hall and the Student Center, where we can fill up for $6 or $7, the portions at El Vez seem almost laughably small.
Still, there is much to be said for the El Vez experience. Although the decor doesn’t scream Mexican (when I first walked by last year I thought it was Middle Eastern), the bright, warm color booths are actually wraparound sofas and the glass mosaic bar in the center of the restaurant all make dining at El Vez an aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly social experience.
Almost every booth and table face the central bar, which is crowded with diners and baristas chatting while margaritas flow. Other interesting features include a retro photo booth and a wall covered with hundreds of handmade Day of the Dead figurines.
The photo booth seems to be one of the restaurant’s most popular attractions. Diners squeeze into the booth with their dates, or even entire parties, and smile for four shots that print onto a strip of black and white frames.
As charming as the environment was, the food didn’t really measure up. The dishes were well garnished and visually gratifying, but the food didn’t really taste Mexican. It was more like a spiced, dressed up American take on Mexican food. The only real difference between a meal at El Vez and a meal at Q’doba is that you could finish the El Vez meal in about three bites and you’d pay more than twice as much for it.
And, unlike many restaurants where small portions pose a problem, at El Vez there are no bread or chips to munch before the meal. Our party ordered chips with salsa and guacamole as we perused our menus to appease our rumbling stomachs. But we didn’t check prices and when the bill came we found out that we had spent almost $30 on chips and dips.
Even if you don’t have a practically non-existent appetite or a thick roll of bills in your pocket, you might want to check out El Vez for its charming and original atmosphere. But maybe you should visit J&H beforehand.
‘Steak’ this one as a prime spot
Luxury Boutique Steakhouse
237 S. 18th St.
With the air of a modern yet highly sophisticated gentleman’s library, Stephen Starr’s newest endeavor, Barclay Prime, takes the traditional steakhouse to a level of its own.
Dimmed lights and rich wood panels line the floor and ceiling. It’s Starr’s modern touches that make his restaurants so distinct, like Barclay Prime’s lime-green accents that adorn a vibrant black and white tiled floor.
The bar’s rich leather chairs give diners a sense of importance while waiting for their tables and pre-order drinks. The dining room feels like a swanky, highbrow library with wooden bookshelves and glitzy chandeliers.
The menu offers a range of seafood and meats, in addition to the restaurant’s raw bar with a variety of caviar and shellfish and succulent appetizers like crab cake or tuna tartare. Keep in mind, however, that the portions are best ordered for one.
The tuna tartare was full of flavor and came with handmade potato chips that added just the right amount of salt and crunch to the tuna. Barclay Prime also offers a range of salads to choose from, like your traditional Caesar, warm spinach salad or the tomato and mozzarella salad.
For the main course there’s a list of steaks to make any mouth water, like the featured Gachot and Gachot 21-day, dry-aged 24-ounce porterhouse, which was a little tough to cut, but still had a succulent taste.
There’s also a variety of fish and chicken to choose from for your meal. Finish your entree with classic sweets like chocolate cake or creme brulee.
You’ll feel pretty special when the waiter presents you with your choice of steak knives and special sauces for an additional $3.
If you’re not scared to go all out and rack up your bill to a typical $50 or more per person, then enjoy a night of refinement and good eating at Starr’s latest.