Restaurants belonging to a chain sometimes benefit, sometimes suffer, from their association with the larger group. During our undergrad years, we frequented Marathon- a cornerstone to the northwest corner of campus and a good spot to get brunch, a "fancier" sit-down dinner, or a place to take your parents. Since then, we've tried to shed our college eating habits, and since Marathon is distinctly associated with those years, we tend to avoid it's other outposts. Somewhat unfortunately, a Marathon is the only restaurant that inhabits our block.
A few months ago, a fellow Philly blogger reported on some new changes to the Marathon menu, and they looked right up our alley-- shrinking the vast menu and focusing on fresh, simpler dishes using lots of local, seasonal ingredients. I've had the pleasure of dining at "our" neighborhood Marathon twice in the past several weeks, and was overall quite happy with how the "new" menu fit in with the comfortable "old" setting.
Both dinners have started with an order of Crispy Shrimp and Calamari ($10) for the table. Most of the appetizers are reasonably priced ($6-8), but the calamari seemed oddly expensive for what you receive. A little light to split among four hungry stomachs, a small bowl of cornmeal crusted baby shrimp and squid rings is served on a bed of lettuce, with a side of delightful smoked paprika aioli (perhaps my favorite part of the dish!). I sometimes judge restaurants based on their fried calamari- it's on seemingly every menu so it can serve as a sentinel dish- and Marathon scores somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The menu boasts several mouthwateringly complex salads, and I've sampled two of them. On my initial visit, I went with what anyone might argue is the healthiest choice on the menu- the Grilled Vegetable and Grain salad ($9.5). A monster bowl of mixed greens is topped with no fewer than eight items- grilled asparagus, chunky squash, portobellos, onions, and tomatoes (roasted, not grilled), as well as barley, couscous, and wheat berries. The grilled vegetables offer enough depth of flavor to cover the whole salad, but its also served with a creamy lemon dressing- bringing a bit of sharpness to the bottomless bowl of greens. Even the inner salad monster in me couldn't finish this beast. Great bang for your buck, too.
My second foray into the salad selection was definitely less healthy, but still fulfilled my need for an indulgent but nutritious dinner. The Crispy Chicken and Sesame Salad ($11.5) tried to bring a little Asian flair to the neighborhood. A similar base of mixed greens was tossed with shredded carrots, edamame, cucumber, radish and red onions, and then topped with a flattened, crispy battered chicken breast, huge chunks of fried wonton, sliced almonds and toasted sesame seeds. That's a lot of ingredients. Somehow, they all seemed slightly bland, even with the addition of a citrus-based sesame dressing. The winners were definitely the fried bits- the crunchy, greasy wonton chips and the spiced, juicy chicken.
J helped us branch out to try some non-vegetable options and ordered the 18-hour Braised Brisket Sandwich ($10.5). A perfectly round, toasted brioche bun is smothered in shredded brisket and sauce. Those 18 hours were much appreciated- the slow cooked meat was tender and very flavorful, and with melted Swiss, caramelized onions, and a barbecue glaze, was a delicious mix. The flavor reminded us somewhat of a classic sloppy Joe- a bit heavier on the tomato-based sauce than we would have liked.
Overall, I've had two solid meals here- and the distinct pleasure of meandering just a few steps down the block to get to it is priceless. Marathon's goal has always been to provide a neighborhood restaurant with a focus on local goods, but recently they've really emphasized this goal, going above and beyond by revamping their menu, keeping their prices quite reasonable, and even introducing an urban farm to the city (www.marathonfarm.com for details). I'm excited to see where the coming years take this team, and am definitely adding the Marathon spots to my "frequent often" list.
19th and Spruce (with other locations)