If there’s anyone who’s an authority on the ins and outs of Philadelphia’s food scene, it’s Alex Tewfik.
From his humble beginnings as an ice cream scooper at Friendly’s to his current role as food editor for Philadelphia magazine, Tewfik has tracked the local restaurant industry ever since the city’s monumental rise to the status of a foodie destination.
But despite the years of food–writing experience that Tewfik had under his belt by the start of 2020, nothing could have prepared him for the havoc that the COVID–19 pandemic would wreak on the restaurant industry. While stay–at–home orders and social distancing guidelines fundamentally altered the way that restaurants operated, the media’s coverage of the field was forced to adapt as well.
“Everything got weird. My job doesn’t feel the same as it used to,” Tewfik says. “The world changed; the world is different now.”
As the pandemic pulled back the curtain on the institutionalized injustices that plague our society, the biggest change that Tewfik has seen in the way that journalists cover food and drink has been the stories that they choose to spotlight.
“The pandemic exposed everything—it exposed all of the inequities, all of the injustices in the industry, but on top of that, the vulnerability of the industry itself. It was the great equalizer,” Tewfik says. “The restaurant world—as much fun as I had [working] in it—is just a tough world. I wrote a big piece, a feature, last summer about the future of the restaurant industry. Basically, I was saying that we can’t go back to the way that it was because we know too much now. It was my first time ever writing about the injustices and the hardships from the worker’s perspective—and not the employer’s perspective.”
The pandemic, in short, was a reckoning—both for the restaurant industry and those assigned to cover it. Major outlets have been forced to reconsider what stories they have an obligation to tell, as well as which voices they have a responsibility to amplify. Tewfik hopes that the resulting shift in outlook is here to stay.
“My whole job, I always thought, was about the owners and the chefs—the people in power. And then all of a sudden, the story became not about them anymore. It became about the workers who were experiencing this stuff. That is a whole new mindset.”
In terms of what the food industry itself will look like after COVID–19, Tewfik envisions a bright future for Philly’s eateries. With increasing vaccination rates paving the way for more local favorites to re–open their doors and welcome back diners at full capacity, Tewfik explains that there’s a newfound sense of optimism in the air.
“It feels like the restaurant scene in 2013—everything was very new and very collaborative. Everyone realized at the same time, ‘Oh my god, Philly has something,’” Tewfik says. “Now we’re back to 2013. Everyone is trying new things because they can now. There are no rules anymore because the pandemic took away all of our rules.”
“For example, now I’m seeing all these popups. There was a time where all of these popups and collaboration dinners died out in the early 2010s, but they’re back. It’s just cool to see that initiative. People are excited again about [food]. They’re excited because they don’t know what the future is.”
In addition to seeing more creative risk–taking on the menu the next time you venture into Center City for a meal out on the town, you can also—according to Tewfik—expect to witness a revival of the middle–class restaurant, a brand of eatery that has taken the back seat since Philly landed a place on the culinary map.
Nestled in between the fast–casual pizza joint and the high–class restaurant that you’d only be treated to when your parents come to town, the middle–class restaurant is one that you’d frequent once a week or pick for a low–key first date.
“I think we’re missing this middle class because basically all of our middle–class restaurants try to be high–end restaurants,” Tewfik says. “We have very few restaurants that are literally there for the middle, which has always been beneficial for the Philadelphia restaurant scene because if you have the people in the middle trying to emulate the people on top, it makes the middle better. But there's something special about that restaurant that is not pizza–place–casual but still casual and easy."
But perhaps the most exciting opportunity that the rebirth of the restaurant industry provides is the ability to once again relish in the unique ambiance that eating out creates—especially after months spent chowing down on microwave and take–out meals at home.
“I just went to this old–school Italian restaurant in South Philly on Porter Street called L’angolo,” Tewfik says. “It was my dad’s birthday, and they shut down all of the lights and had the whole restaurant sing happy birthday to my dad. There was something so magical about being in a space like that, and that was one of the things that really reminded me of the romance of restaurants and what people go out to eat for. There’s a feeling that you get from it that you can’t replicate anywhere else—no other parts of life bring you that.”
While the COVID–19 pandemic upended the restaurant industry as we knew it, its return is certainly something to celebrate. Philadelphia's food scene will never look the same as it did when businesses first closed their doors that fateful March 2020 day. However, its revival still promises a sense of comfort and normalcy that diners everywhere have been craving.
“I eat out at a bunch of restaurants, but I’m really chasing the feeling that we had pre–pandemic. And I’m getting tastes for it now.”