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Why We Need To Talk More About Philadelphia’s Food Scene

Saunter through the sweeping scope of Philadelphia’s dining culture, where each neighbourhood is suffused with unique draws. Stop for award-winning pomegranate lamb in Old City, local classics at Reading Terminal Market, and South Philly rooftop feasts that drink in the city’s skyline.

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Philadelphia’s culiary scene offers strong competition to its neighbouring New York City and Washington D.C. Photo by: J. Fusco

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If you’re an America-bound tourist with an interest in food, skipping Philadelphia’s culinary scene would be a big mistake. I would know, I did it for ages. For a long time, I only had eyes for New York City’s bright lights. But over the last few years, it’s been impossible not to notice what locals have known for a long time: Philly’s food can’t be missed.

Location plays a prime role in Philadelphia’s draw as a dining destination, its longtime cosmopolitan roots mirrored by its convenient East Coast proximity to New York City (1.5 hours) and Washington D.C. (2 hours). But only once you alight downtown does the full scope of the city’s accessibility reveal itself. The easy to navigate grid system makes it the fourth-most walkable city in the USA, seamlessly stitching together the many diverse neighbourhoods that form ideal grazing grounds for eager eaters on the move. The city centre alone features over 1,000 restaurants and 400 outdoor cafes, a network of nuanced eateries that make Philadelphia one of the strongest destinations for James Beard Award-Winning food—an extensive acknowledgement of the distinct personalities and residents that form Philadelphia’s discerning palate.

Philadelphia offers, arguably, the best Middle-Eastern food in America, an Italian food scene that rivals New York City’s, and hometown gems, both hidden and hallowed—serving local favourites, from roast pork and cheesesteaks to Amish pies and pretzels, which set the city apart. But even in these plentiful parameters, the city refuses to be boxed in, the welly of its well-layered bedrock bolstered by the likes of hidden basement izakayas and travelling beer gardens set up across the city’s flourishing park system. Here, applauded Thai and Mexican outposts have pulled the world’s eyes and stomachs to a culinarily free-handed South Philly street steeped in fervent flavour; and brasserie classics brighten the bistro tables of Center City’s boulevards that make the exploration of Philadelphia’s eateries a knockout experience that any foodie would be remiss to miss.

 

Why We Need To Talk More About Philadelphia’s Food Scene

When at Zahav’s, dig into hummus and salatin with laffa. Photo by: Alexandra Hawkins

 

Old City and Society Hill

International flavours abound across Philadelphia’s venerable and adjacent Old City and Society Hill neighborhoods that hug the banks of the Delaware River. Happy hour is ushered in by sipping on smooth rioja and nose-tickling cava alongside the elegant tapas menu at Jose Garces’ Amada, and curated sake flights go down easy with morsels of Shanghai-style lobster at Stephen Starr’s Buddakan. The nosh-up continues down cobbled streets leading to Cuban classics at Cuba Libre—prettily patterned after an al fresco Havana avenue, complete with minty mojitos and tender ropa vieja—while Positano Coast brings breezy Mediterranean flair and fare to the table, serving up Southern Italian classics like succulent diver scallops to tender saltimbocca. The crown jewel of this varied spectrum, best booked in advance, is the zesty Middle Eastern affair at Zahav—a James Beard Award-winner for Outstanding Restaurant in 2019—rightly considered one of the most distinguished restaurants in all of America, replete with pomegranate lamb shanks and swirls of creamy in-house hummus.

And, of course, superlative North American cooking slakes the supper scene. At Xochitl you’ll find a gaggle of refreshing ceviches, chamuscado (pistachio-crusted seared tuna), and mezcal-based cocktails. Cajun and Creole cooking—picture piquant jambalaya and gorge-worthy gumbo—graces the kitchen of Khyber Pass Pub, and haute new American specialties, such as spatchcocked quail and duck sausage, are to be dug into at Restaurateur Ellen Yin and Executive Chef Eli Kulp’s Market Street institution, Fork Restaurant.

To sweeten the deal, delve into the area’s traditional dessert scene. Old-school hot fudge sundaes, banana splits, and peach melbas make Franklin Fountain feel like a portal to 1904, as does its neighbor Shane’s Confectionery—one of the oldest candy stores in the nation—where guests can learn how to make bean-to-bar chocolate and feast on buttercream eggs and old-fashioned clear toy candy.

Wash down all your treats and eats at any one of Philadelphia’s pop-up beer gardens. Sip on beer and cocktails amongst the shaded hammocks and suspended net lounges hanging along and over the Delaware River at Spruce Street Harbor Park. Take advantage of the 10,000 plus acres of Philadelphia’s green space at Parks on Tap, a traveling beer garden that highlights a variety of parks throughout the city in the spring, summer and fall. And let your green thumb clasp a cold one at either of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s two Pop-Up Gardens, which turn vacant lots into luscious outdoor dining and drinking areas, in particular, filling their location on the corner of 15th and South Street with over 2,200 types of plants and trees.

 

Why We Need To Talk More About Philadelphia’s Food Scene

Clockwise from top left: Campo’s cheesesteaks, Zahav’s middle-eastern offerings and Laser Wolf’s chicken shishlik. Photos by: Kyle Huff; Michael Persico (Zahav, Laser Wolf)

 

Fishtown

The best way to baptize yourself into the edible enchantress that is Fishtown is by biting into malty, small-batch bagels decked out in delicious cured lox at Philly Style Bagels—heralded as one of the premier bagel shops of the USA by Food & Wine magazine in 2021. Pair them with exceptional coffee at La Colombe’s flagship location on Frankford Avenue or Càphê Roasters, who dole out their craft caffeine fix with a dollop of condensed milk at Philadelphia’s literal and figurative singular, Vietnamese specialty coffee roastery.

Another enticing introduction to the quirky genius of Fishtown’s alternative eateries is pizza. Save room for lunch at Pizzeria Beddia, previously lauded by Bon Appetit as the best pizzeria in America. It once only served 40 take-out pies a day, solely made by the proprietor, with no phone to pre-order; now it’s a sleek dine-in restaurant with natural wine on tap and a dizzying reservation list that hasn’t grown tired of these hyped pizzas after years of accolades, located off a narrow street between Frankford Avenue and Front Street. Also pay homage to the nearby Pizza Brain, the USA’s first ‘pizza museum,’ offering up slices and whole pies within a petite parlour permeated with pizza-centric memorabilia.

Lavish Lebanese mezza and grilled meats (mashawi) make dinner at Suraya a night to remember, especially if you reserve a table by the garden fire pit to sample their wealth of marinated kebabs, spice-rubbed lamb chops, and the generous show-stopper, dry-aged rib eye for two. Middle Eastern flavours also take over the fashionable scene at Laser Wolf, styled after an Israeli-style skewer house, or shipudiya, where whole branzino and short rib shishlik frizzle over the charcoal grill. Both restaurants stir up excellent arak-based cocktails and typically require booking a few weeks in advance.

If you’re curious to taste country-style Pennsylvanian cooking, Chef Adam Diltz’s Elwood excels at feasts that draw from heirloom, family-style entrees like whole, farm-fresh rabbit and guinea hen cooked in hay. Nearby, on the corner of Frankford and Girard, find classic renditions of the city’s Philadelphia cheesesteak at Joe’s Steaks, and stop by Fette Sau for a taste of traditional American barbecue.

Fishtown has also earned a reputation as a wonderful watering hole. The beer scene is underscored by outlandish and outstanding pints at brewpub Evil Genius—think hazy mango or guava IPAs, caramel macchiato porters, and chocolate hazelnut imperial stouts—to the meticulously  produced ‘mixed fermentation’ beer made with in-house mother cultures at Fermentation Form, ensconced along an alley off Cecil B. Moore Avenue: you know when the barrel room is open when a green light twinkles in the alley (openings also announced ahead on social media). Local distilleries form the bedrock of the craft booze scene here; New Liberty Distilling offers a fine selection of whiskey and bourbon, and Philadelphia Distilling mirrors a similarly dedicated passion to their vodka and gin—both contain on-site bars where guests can sip on signature spirits.

 

Why We Need To Talk More About Philadelphia’s Food Scene

Philadelphia’s Chinatown is a stomping ground for stellar Chinese specialties. Photo by: Kyle Huff

Convention Center District and Chinatown

Reading Terminal Market, once a historical train depot, offers over 80 exceptional merchants, including dozens of eatery options in its popular public market. Housed in a National Historic Landmark building, the square block structure is spitting distance from the adjacent Pennsylvania Convention Center—adding even more foot traffic to the widespread warren constantly bustling with locals picking out fresh produce or picking up tasty luncheons.

No trip to the market is complete without sampling longtime local classics, including fresh and hard to find Amish and Mennonite fare, native to rural Pennsylvania Dutch farm communities. For savoury treats, dig into buttery, soft Amish pretzels at Miller’s Twist—after all, Philly is the birthplace of the salted pretzel—or rotisserie chickens at Dienner’s, whose produce is delivered farm-fresh daily. Dessert-lovers can gorge themselves on the famous apple cider doughnuts at Beiler’s Doughnuts, the cinnamon-sugar wrapped and cream-topped apple dumplings at Dutch Eating Place, and Flying Monkey’s sinfully inviting whoopie pies (cake-like sandwiches bursting with a creamy filling).

But the breadth of edibles that span the market displays are far from limited to Pennsylvania Dutch fare. Try the roast pork, Philadelphia’s other favourite hearty hoagie, at Tommy DiNic’s—stacked with succulent slices of pork, broccoli rabe, and provolone—piquant pieces of jerk chicken at  Careda’s Caribbean Cuisine, and a magnificent spread of chicken and waffles at Ma Lessie’s. Wrap up your Reading Terminal Market by picking up some sweet potato pie and ice tea at Sweet T’s Bakery or the lauded ice cream at Bassetts Ice Cream, the first merchant to sign a lease at the market in 1892, to-go. Polish them off at the outdoor dining tables in nearby Dilworth Park (0.3 miles) or Love Park (0.4 miles) while you take in views of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown is also vicinal to the Pennsylvania Convention Center District, stomping grounds for stellar and conveniently clustered Chinese specialties. Frequent Sang Kee Peking Duck House for its namesake signature dish on North 9th Street, Ting Wong for hearty Hong Kong-style noodles on North 10th, and happily hover over the host of hot pots at Lee How Fook on North 11th Street. Race Street quarters one of America’s most eccentric and select speakeasies, Hop Sing Laundromat; late night roistering has a home at Yakitori Boy on North 11th, a trim karaoke lounge; and late meals linger on at David’s Mai Lai Wah, which closes at 3:00 am, also on Race Street.

 

South Philly

You may recognize snippets of South Philadelphia—a sprawling neighborhood sandwiched between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers—from the Rocky movies, but once you’ve gorged yourself in this region of varied gourmand residents you’ll fondly remember it for the food. The Italian Market, which operates on south Market Street, is a year-round, open-air haven for hawkers flush with fresh produce, established by Italian immigrants in the 1880s. The stalls are flanked by specialty shops—selling everything from craft olive oil and vinegar to fresh tortilla chips—and restaurants that mirror the past and future of Philadelphia’s immigrant communities through a macédoine of meals for every mood.

The ever-evolving artery sees Italian stalwarts such as Ralph’s (est. 1900)—America’s oldest continually operated Italian restaurant, famed for its homestyle chicken parmesan—and the cannoli kings at Termini Brothers Bakery bordering the James Beard-awarded Thai restaurant Kalaya—also named by Esquire as best new restaurant in 2020. Just down the street find South Philly Barbacoa for lamb tacos of Chef’s Table fame. Cap the night off by taking in the sunset-hued Philadelphia skyline at BOK Bar’s rooftop digs, which also hosts chef collabs.

 

Why We Need To Talk More About Philadelphia’s Food Scene

The year-round Italian Market on south Market Street is a haven for fresh produce. Photo By: Kyle Huff

 

Center City’s Rittenhouse Square, Midtown Village, and Washington Square West

Rittenhouse Square, Midtown Village, and Washington Square West (which includes the Gayborhood) all come together to form a super-connected bundle of nabes where outdoor dining takes over the sidewalks, patios, rooftops, and gardens. Saturday is a great day to sit under the shade of the tree-filled Rittenhouse Square—one of the five original public green spaces city’s founding father (William Penn) established centuries ago—and feed off the bustle of its year-round Farmers Market, held from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.

Looking across at each other from their respective east and west sides of the park are Parc and Lacroix at The Rittenhouse, each embracing Philadelphia’s longtime, historical French connection through their food; at Parc, the beautiful bistro ushers in brunch with elegant platters of moules frites, trout amandine, and nicoise salad across the many tables of its cafe-style streetside setup, while the breakfast crowd at Lacroix can cut into crisp galettes (savory buckwheat crêpes) complete with ham and gruyère, and tactfully folded around a fried egg. Alternatively, you can pick up the famed falafel and tehina shakes at Goldie or the wait-worthy Jerusalem bagels at K’Far and take them for a picnic at the park.

But eating here is a whole-day excursion, from noshing on Korean-style wings at Southgate or rich helpings of sweetbreads, veal cheeks, and caviar with creme fraiche at Friday Saturday Sunday to sampling the terrific thalis at Veda-Modern Indian Bistro. Come evening, sip on fine wines at the sleek yet cozy abar, sample the seriously impressive array of Belgian beer at Monk’s Cafe, and relax with bespoke bourbon cocktails at Whiskey Village.

 

Midtown Village

Michael Schulson, chef and restaurateur behind the Schulson Collective restaurant group, has made a wide swathe of Midtown Village his culinary canvas. Grab your morning coffee and pastries at Double Knot, and return in the evening when it transforms into an underground izakaya brimming with kobe beef or octopus robatayaki and specialty sashimi. The operation is flanked by Alpen Rose and Sampan, both also part of the collective, respectively serving sizzling steaks and Pan-Asian plates. The bylane beside Sampan leads to Graffiti Bar , Schulson’s heaving happy hour hangout, the walls alive with street art by local artists, a fitting homage to Philadelphia’s status as the mural capital of the world.

Why We Need To Talk More About Philadelphia’s Food Scene

Sample Evil Genius Beer Company’s outlandish pints or head to Laser wolf for arak-based or zero proof (bottom) cocktails. Photos by: C. Smyth (top); Michael Persico (bottom)

Local restaurateurs paint an equally palatable picture, the likes of Marcie Blaine Turney and Valerie Safran lining 13th street with modern Mexican at Lolita, wood-fire pizza at Barbuzzo, and a plentiful parade of American comfort food at Bud & Marilyn’s, including pork chops, grits, and stuffed meatloaf. Don’t miss the slender facade of Turney and Safran’s Little Nonna’s on Locust Street, leading to an open kitchen and 40-seat outdoor garden, where those in the know flock for the slow-braised short rib Sunday gravy, served until it sells out. However, if plant-based eating is what you’re after, look to Vedge’s seasonal menu layered with locally sourced vegetables prepared by James Beard-nominated Chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby.

Crown the day by venturing to Drury Street to sip on history at  McGillin’s Olde Ale House, Philadelphia’s oldest continuously operating tavern, established in 1860. Troegs Independent Brewing takes care of the three house specialties—McGillin’s Real Ale; McGillin’s Genuine Lager and McGillin’s 1860 IPA—and quite a number of tipplers stop by for O’Hara’s Irish Stout, marketed as the sole stout brewed exclusively in Ireland.

 

New Diverse Digs

Here, block by block, a vast medley of meals unfurl the elaborate patchwork of cooking that sews together the abundant appetites of this fine city; a tradition taken forward by newcomers keen to establish a voice by virtue of their victuals, in a town where taste does the talking. Ancient Spirits & Grillè expands the already ample ambit with Ayurveda-influenced food and drink—diners can scan a QR code and answer a quick questionnaire to personalise a menu based on their “physical, mental, and emotional characteristics.” Ember and Ash distinguish themselves with their “snout to root” concept, working with local farms to craft cooking that crackles over a custom-built wood fired hearth, like their slow roasted pig’s head.

Creative comfort food carves out its own cachet as well. At Bar Poulet buckets of champagne and crispy honey-buttermilk fried chicken, portobello and maitake mushrooms meet gravy boats of ‘beer-naise’ and truffle velouté. And at La Chinesca find Baja staples served alongside Chinese American flavours in the handsomely converted bones of an old Jiffy Lube on Spring Garden Street—where duck egg rolls and battered fish tacos cheerily commingle. The beauty of dining in Philadelphia is that here, king crab fried rice, Nigerian yaji-marinated steak, and Carolina gold Hoppin’ John at the recently opened (and respective) Gabriel’s Vietnam, Suya Suya West African Grill, and Rex at the Royal all taste at home.

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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