Choice Chefs
In the kitchen with the men and women behind some of the region’s best restaurants
by Bill Donahue

From the suburbs to the city proper, Philadelphia has become one of the country’s best food towns. For proof, look to the number of highly acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs with famous last names who have opened successful restaurants here—Garces, Sbraga, Solomonov, Starr and Vetri, to name a handful. That number continues to multiply, quite thankfully, and many of these restaurateurs have expanded with new locations. On the following pages, meet the men and women behind some of the best restaurants in the city and suburbs. Equal parts artist and small-batch manufacturer, each chef possesses a mix of skill, determination and ingenuity, not to mention a healthy dose of wanderlust. We’re glad they wandered here.

Karen Nicolas
When Nicolas became head chef at Citron + Rose (370 Montgomery Ave., Merion, in mid-May, it was something of a homecoming. Originally from State College, she left home to earn a degree in the culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and then devoted herself to honing her skills in kitchens run by chefs she respected: Rockpool in Sydney, Australia; Aureole in Las Vegas; Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan. Most recently, she worked as executive chef at Equinox in Washington, D.C., where Food & Wine named her “Best New Chef” in 2012. When she accepted the job at Citron + Rose, she embraced the challenge of crafting a kosher menu, even though she specializes in modern American cuisine, with influences from Spanish, Italian and French culture. She understands it is a big responsibility, considering some regular customers travel from as far away as Baltimore to enjoy kosher cuisine with a level of sophistication they cannot find elsewhere. “We’re creating a menu niche that no one has touched upon: high-end kosher,” she says. “I think some people see kosher as a mystery, and I hope we can undo that mystery. I’m excited to see that happen, because we’re doing really good food here.”    

Rich Landau
Chef Landau has gotten used to breaking the mold. With his better half and co-owner Kate Jacoby, he used his first two restaurants—Horizons Café, in an unremarkable strip center in Willow Grove, and its successor Horizons, in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood—to prove that meatless cuisine should be taken seriously. They applied lessons from those first two locations, both of which have since closed, to their elegant and astoundingly creative Vedge (1221 Locust Street, Philadelphia,, which, in a way, has turned the world on its ear. Opened in 2011, Vedge has been hailed by many as not only the country’s best purveyor of vegetarian/vegan cuisine but also one of the best restaurants period. Press clippings from the likes of Cooking Light, Food & Wine and GQ have proclaimed Vedge an innovator, even “deceptively vegan.” (“We even got coverage in the London Guardian, but I yet haven’t noticed a lot of British accents in the dining room,” Jacoby jokes.) The husband-and-wife team had a banner year in 2013—publisher The Experiment printed their newest cookbook in September, and Landau prevailed in his first appearance on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” for starters—and 2014 looks equally promising. Although they had considered cross-country expansion in Los Angeles, they opted instead to open a second restaurant in Philadelphia, this time in Rittenhouse. “We’re shooting for a March opening,” says Jacoby, adding that it won’t be named Vedge. “Whether that’s March 1 or 31, that’s to be determined.”

Kevin Sbraga
One doesn’t acquire the accolades that have been heaped upon Chef Sbraga by sitting still. He opened Sbraga (440 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts in 2011, so it was only a matter of time before he would break out and embrace a new challenge. The Willingboro, N.J., native and winner of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” seventh season will open the doors to a second restaurant—The Fat Ham on Walnut Street in University City—later this month. “My goal is to bring a little taste of the South to Philadelphia,” says Sbraga, who cut his teeth in kitchens bearing the fingerprints of culinary kingpins Garces and Starr. “I want something that will be genuine, real and delicious. … It’s going to be Southern food served family style, like going to supper at someone’s house.” Of course, he’s still finding new ways to push his first, eponymous restaurant to “the next level,” including by changing the structure of the four-course menu. When he’s not refining his own cuisine, he makes a point of going out to taste the work of other chefs. “I rarely cook at home,” he says. “I ate out three times this week—once at Vernick in Philadelphia and twice at restaurants in Atlantic City. … I have favorite restaurants all over.”

Martin Heierling
Heierling has found a job that perfectly suits his nomadic lifestyle. As executive chef and culinary director of Starr Restaurants (, Chef Heierling oversees Stephen Starr’s empire of 25 restaurants, from New York City to Miami, in an organization he describes as “high octane” and “growing nonstop.” Of course, he spends a lot of time in his home base of Philadelphia, which boasts more than 20 Starr properties. Although asking him to single out one Starr restaurant is akin to asking a parent to pick a favorite child, he is particularly fond of The Dandelion, Frankford Hall, Il Pittore, Parc and Serpico. Heierling is used to moving around. Born in Germany, he became curious about travel early on and became a chef in part because he knew it could help satisfy his wanderlust. He made stops in New Zealand and Switzerland, as well as Las Vegas, where he was executive chef of Sensi at the Bellagio; he even worked as a chef on the Lady Moura, one of the world’s largest privately owned yachts. “There comes a time when you figure out what makes you tick as an individual,” he says. “Routines get really boring for me, so the greater the challenges ahead, the more I thrive. Pressure puts me into a rhythm. I like the excitement of the job and everything that comes with it. Not many people can say that about their job.”  

Michael Solomonov
Chef Solomonov is nothing if not diverse. Whether it’s fried chicken and doughnuts, Texas-style barbecue or the best hummus this side of Jerusalem, he has conjured serious cuisine bordering on addictive. CookNSolo Restaurants (, the hospitality group he owns with business partner Steven Cook, has breathed life into Percy Street Barbecue in Bella Vista, two Federal Donuts locations and, perhaps most notably, Zahav in Old City. “I genuinely love being here [at Zahav],” he says. “It’s a very personal restaurant to me. … It’s the first major restaurant we’ve had to run, so it’s sort of like falling in love for the first time. You learn a lot about yourself.” Zahav, which has earned extraordinary reviews since opening its doors in 2008, helped Solomonov earn Best Mid-Atlantic Chef honors at the 2011 James Beard Awards, often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world.” “I like the feeling I get when I’m here, being covered in flour,” he says. “I don’t like it when things go wrong, but I feel very comfortable in the chaos here.” In early 2014, Solomonov will have more “chaos” in which to get comfortable. On the docket are two more Federal Donuts and two new restaurants: Dizengoff, a casual eatery starring different kinds of hummus; and Abe Fisher, with a menu inspired by the cuisine of the Jewish Diaspora, from Montreal to Hungary. “These are projects no one is really doing, and that means the risk is a little greater and higher,” he says. “With Federal, we thought it would be cool to do a coffee and doughnut shop, so we closed our eyes and went for it. There’s a very good chance it could have not worked.”

Photograph by Michael Persico