What’s Hot For Fall: $20 and Under

It's all about the Jacksons
It’s all about the Jacksons Photo:

With the pricey steakhouses of last year stumbling to find their footing, the gastropub humming along at a steady clip, the BYOB receding as Philly’s signature dining quirk and the burger hysteria of summer 2009 beginning to subside, we’re ready to name the next big trend. Is it barbecue (Percy Street, RUBB)? Asian (Kong, Sampan, Chew Man Chu, Zama)? Pizza? (Stephen Starr’s Stella, Zavino)? It’s all of those things, but the really notable trend is that dirty, delicious word no one wants to say but everyone wants to hear: cheap.

Several restaurants that have recently opened or are about to open are proudly announcing their plans to keep menu items at $20 or under. Everything on Kong’s opening menu is $16 or less. Zavino’s entire menu will max out at $20, with pizzas topping out at $12. Percy Street Barbecue, the Texas-style bbq spot opening in October, has also confirmed their menu prices will be under $20, as has Mount Airy’s Avenida.

Even big-name restaurateurs and chefs, who just a year or two ago were charging upwards of $30 an entree are now introducing concepts where check averages come in significantly lower than their previous restaurants. Michael Schulson, who owns Izakaya at the Borgata, where entrees average in the mid-to-high $20 range, plans on a check average of $35 to $40 per person at his upcoming Asian spot Sampan. Daniel Stern, is closing Gayle, where entrees ran into the $30s, and concentrating on a more low-key tavern concept, MidAtlantic, in University City; although prices haven’t been released, it’s hard to imagine a tavern with $30 entrees. Jose Garces just revealed that he is transforming the first floor of Distrito into a less expensive ‘cantina,’ where dishes will run from $3 to $10. Even former Lacroix executive chef Matthew Levin is ditching the swank and heading to Manayunk to open a “punk rock” barbecue joint.

It’s also worth noticing that all of these spots — as well as the majority of the other fall openings have liquor licenses. BYOBs, the signature Philly dining trend of just a few years ago, are taking a backseat. Restaurateurs now appear to be more willing (or more able, thanks to partnering with deep-pocketed developers) to spring for the $55,000 to $65,000 for a liquor license upfront for the hopes of big profits that can be reaped from future liquor sales. With diners balking at entree prices that creep too high into the $20s, selling alcohol, where markups are often 300 percent or more, allows restaurateurs to keep their food prices down below the magic $20 number.

Of course, if you really want to see a bellwether of the Philly dining scene, look no further than Stephen Starr. In the past few months he’s opened a burger shack in a public park, closed his high-end restaurant Tangerine, dropped the price on the burger at his steakhouse Butcher and Singer from $16 to $5.95 and is selling 24-ounce ribeyes for $18. If Starr is trending towards pizza, burgers and very public price-slashing, it’s a safe bet that the rest of the city will be following in his footsteps.

What else can we expect in the coming months? Plan your meals with our Fall Preview.

What’s Hot For Fall: $20 and Under