Philadelphia, PA- A richly textured, wonderfully layered dining scene combines history and growth, innovation and tradition, local and global influences.
Philadelphia has all of these attributes and more: homegrown bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) spots redrafting the rules of elegant eating; a distinctly local sensibility informed by a fertile foodshed; a wildly diverse array of ethnic eats; a nationally lauded vegetarian and vegan culture; and much more. Here are 17 reasons why the Philly food scene rocks:
- Just Bring It: The BYOB Phenomenon
Though the bring-your-own-bottle restaurant first emerged in Philly more than a decade ago, a steady stream of brilliant chefs with a do-it-yourself sensibility and the belief that great food is enough to attract loyal diners keeps the concept fresh. Philly’s restaurant patrons understand the value of picking up their own wine at a nearby liquor store and enjoying it at the table without a corkage fee. Often, couples own and operate BYOBs, making for a personal, intimate experience that would be hard for a bigger-budget operation to replicate. These days, original players Audrey Claire, Chloe, and Little Fish stand alongside newer-comers Laurel, Will, and Ulivo. With more than 200 such restaurants to choose from (and counting), one could easily visit a restaurant every night for almost an entire year without ever having to ask for a wine list.
- 100 Miles Of Ingredients
One reason Philly chefs can whip up magic night after night is that they have access to a gorgeous bounty of local ingredients. Whether it’s pasture-raised and grass-fed meats and dairy from Chester County’s Birchrun Hills Farm, heirloom shelling beans from Lancaster County’s Green Meadow Farm, Jersey day-boat scallops from Cape May, or Claudio Specialty Foods’ ricotta made right in South Philly, there’s never a shortage of excellent quality products on which to build a menu. This cornucopia has inspired countless farm-to-table restaurants—among them, The Farm and Fisherman, Talula’s Garden, and Russet.
- Mushroom Magic
The most famous indigenous food the region offers is the mighty mushroom. Kennett Square, after all, is the mushroom capital of the world, producing half of the nation’s output. The town hosts an annual Mushroom Festival in September, with street vendors, growers’ exhibits, family activities, and all manner of mushroom-related foods. Year-round, homegrown varieties like porcini, oyster, and shitake find their way into area restaurant soups, sandwiches, pizzas, omelets, crostini, and countless other dishes.
- Going (PA) Dutch
With Lancaster’s Amish community close at hand, the Pennsylvania Dutch influence remains strong in Philadelphia dining. The Reading Terminal Market’s Dutch Eating Place provides a countertop passport to German immigrant foodways, cooking up rib-sticking apple dumplings, ham loaf, and shoo-fly pie—all recipes meant to sustain a day of work in the fields. Also in the market are the Amish-inspired Miller’s Twist (pretzels) and Amish-owned Beiler’s Bakery, in addition to Amish vendors offering fresh produce, canned Chow-Chow pickles, and sausages. Elsewhere, traditional dishes such as sticky buns, Scrapple, and whoopie pies make their appearances at restaurants relatively modest (Melrose Diner, Jerry’s Bar, Strangelove’s) to the absolutely high-end (Amis, Fork, Fountain Restaurant) sides of the spectrum.
- Around The World
Since its earliest days, Philly has always been known for its cosmopolitan cuisine, attracting immigrants' waves. Going back to the 18th century, that meant German (City Tavern, Brauhaus Schmitz, Frankford Hall), Swedish (Noord Metcalfe), French (Bibou, Cafe L’Aube, Zinc), and, of course, English restaurants (The Dandelion, The Victoria Freehouse). In the 19th-century came Jewish food (Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, Zahav, Abe Fisher) and way too much Italian fare to be confined to a “little Italy” (Modo Mio, Le Virtù, L’angolo, among dozens of others). In the early 20th century, immigrants turned Chinatown into a pan-regional dining destination (Dim Sum Garden, Tai Lake, Xi’an Sizzling Woks). More recently, the diasporas from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia are making their own imprint on the dining scene: Burmese (Rangoon), Vietnamese (Vietnam), Cambodian (Khmer Kitchen), Indonesian (Hardena, Sky Cafe), Malaysian (Banana Leaf), Caribbean (Jamaican Jerk Hut, Mini Trini food truck), French and African (Le Bercail), Ethiopian (Dahlak, Abyssinia), Venezualan (Sazon) and Colombian (Tierra Colombiana).
- Taco Trail
Once glaringly absent from the local restaurant roster, the traditional taco now challenges the cheesesteak as Philly’s most ubiquitous fast-food staple—thanks to a steadily growing Mexican population. In South Philly, North Philly and beyond, authentic mom and pop storefronts like El Jarocho, Taco Riendo, Taqueria Los Taquitos de Puebla, and Taqueria La Mexicanita serve up inexpensive tacos with classic fillings such as carnitas, lengua, and Pescado Asado. Highbrow chefs turn out their own renditions at Tim Spinner’s Taqueria Feliz, Stephen Starr’s El Vez and El Rey, and Jose Garces’ Distrito, which also operates a truck. Still, another cohort of upstart restaurateurs has taken a different tack, redefining the endlessly popular street food with sometimes quirky results: That would include Shifty’s Taco, Union Taco, and Loco Pez.
- Meatless Wonders
It all started with a little restaurant called Horizons, the first major restaurant in the city dedicated exclusively to meatless cuisine other than the decades-old Govinda's. Proving that vegan eaters deserved a fine-dining experience as much as anyone else, owners Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau drew a fervent following. Their success not only paved the way for their nationally revered Vedge, which has been touted as the best vegan restaurant anywhere, but also for offshoots from their former employees: Charlie was a sinner., HipCityVeg, Miss Rachel’s Pantry, Sprig & Vine, and Blackbird Pizzeria, to name a few. Meanwhile, Vegan Commissary, Pure Sweets & Co., Veggie Lovers, Vegetate, Mama’s Vegetarian, and Kung Fu Hoagies food cart have proliferated meat-free options eaters from tempeh hash to coconut yogurt to faux teppanyaki steak to delicious falafel. That’s not even counting Little Baby’s dreamy dairy-free ice creams.
- The Classics
No matter how exalted Philly’s dining scene may be, there will always be a place for the iconic, everyday foods that have become a necessary part of the city experience. Take the cheesesteak, the luscious combination of fried thinly sliced beef, fried onions, and melty cheese (Whiz, American, or provolone) invented by Pat and Harry Olivieri in the 1930s. You can find this epic sandwich at the still-operating Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philly, its across-the-street competitor Geno’s Steaks and just about every pizza and sandwich shop within a hundred-mile radius, as well as in fine dining establishments upping the ante with Kobe beef, homemade Whiz and truffles (see Barclay Prime and Fountain Restaurant). Likewise, the hoagie, a spicy combination of cold cuts and cheese on a similarly long roll, created Italian immigrants on a lunch break. Today, there's truly a hoagie for every taste with the creative but reverent variations at Sarcone’s Deli, Koch’s Deli, Cosmi’s Deli, and Paesano’s Philly Style. A Pennsylvania Dutch invention, the soft pretzel is a doughy yeasty salt lick that you can find at street vendors, pretzel-specific storefronts such as Philly Pretzel Factory, and even, of late, as a trendy first course at restaurants such as the Ritz Carlton’s 10 Arts. Finally, water (pronounced wudder) ice, a semi-frozen slushy confection that’s meltier than sorbet and more solid than a granita, is another Italian immigrant import, best experienced from a summertime truck (complete with a clanging bell) or old-school stands such as John’s and Pop’s—though Little Nonna’s upscale changing seasonal flavor (think blood orange-basil-olive oil) is a sophisticated after-dinner slurp.
- To Market
Reading Terminal Market may be more than 120 years old. Still, it remains astonishingly vibrant, with produce stands and butchers, Pennsylvania Dutch products (see above), souvenirs, and gourmet specialty items, plus dozens of quick-service restaurants serving everything from Thai noodles to wurst and kraut. Then, of course, there’s the Italian Market in South Philadelphia and its shops full of specialty Italian cheeses, seafood, game meats, pasta, and outdoor tables laden with inexpensive produce.
With a citywide emphasis on local eating, farmers' markets selling ultra-fresh and often unusual wares have proliferated in recent years, serving just about every community during the growing season. Some notables include the outdoor Headhouse Farmers’ Market and the year-round Fitler Square and Clark Park farmers’ markets.
- A Family-Style Affair
Few dining experiences are as convivial as gathering around a table and sharing a multicourse set menu with friends, and Philly’s restaurants proffer many such options. There are the storied and elegant farm-to-table dinners (requiring a year-ahead reservation) at Talula’s Table (eight courses for $108 per person) in Kennett Square and the slightly more obtainable meals at Talula’s Daily in Center City (five courses for $55 per person). The dinner table at Tela’s Market is Chef Chad Williams’ weekly showcase for seasonal produce. Zahav’s Tayim dinners, served only to the whole table, include a spread of salads and hummus and two mezze, in addition to a main and a dessert for $42 a person. Kanella’s Sunday night offering is a Greek Cypriot small plate spread for either vegetarian ($30) or meat-eaters ($35). For a heartier red gravy-soaked feast, Northern Liberties’ Modo Mio delivers five Italian fare courses on Sugo Sundays ($35) that will feed a crowd and then some.
- Chef Empires
More than just an incubator for local culinary talent, Philadelphia is a veritable proving ground for chef restaurateurs who’ve turned a knack for cooking into true restaurant empires. Consider CookNSolo, the joint venture of Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov, responsible for Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, and a growing number of Federal Donuts locations. Jose Garces built his Spanish tapas emporium Amada into a cadre of first-rate eateries, including Distrito, Tinto, Garces Trading Company, Village Whiskey, Volvér, Rosa Blanca, and JG Domestic—and that’s just within the city limits. Together with her partner Valerie Safran, Chef Marcie Turney operates a large swath of Midtown Village’s dining scene (Lolita, Barbuzzo, Jamonera, Little Nonna’s, and Grocery market). Internationally revered chef Marc Vetri began with his self-titled Italian restaurant and has since branched out to Pizzeria Vetri, Amis, Osteria, Alla Spina, soon-to-be-opened Lo Spiedo. After training in Stephen Starr’s Asian kitchens, Michael Schulson opened his own Sampan and Graffiti Bar, followed by Independence Beer Garden, with more Philly projects slated for the near future.
- Screen-To-Table Eating
While the flavor is everything, it never hurts to gain some national visibility. After conquering Top Chef D.C., Kevin Sbraga opened Sbraga and The Fat Ham, and he now has other eateries in the works. Likewise, season 11 winner Nicholas Elmi took his spoils back to Philly and opened Laurel appropriately in 2013. Another local Top Chef contender from season 11, Jason Cichonski, has numerous outlets for his real-life cooking challenges: Ela and The Gaslight. Last but not least, Iron Chef Jose Garces and Iron Chef competitors Michael Solomonov and Marc Vetri have parlayed TV triumphs into their own respective restaurant dynasties (see above).
- Cheese, Please
No longer just an addition to steak sandwiches, cheese is a bona fide commodity in Philly. Locally made cheese abounds from Lancaster County and Chester County makers (Birchrun Hills Farm, Shellbark Hollow Farm, Misty Creek) and New Jersey’s Valley Shepherd Creamery, which sells direct to customers from Reading Terminal Market. With multiple locations around the region displaying goods from around the world, Di Bruno Bros. has revolutionized the retail cheese scene. Smaller shops, including the Downtown Cheese Shop, The Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, and Salumeria, stock a diverse selection with all manner of interesting accompaniments. Gourmet shops and eateries Wedge + Fig and Talula’s Daily offer cheese two ways—by the wheel and by the sandwich. And for a remarkable cheese plate to top off a meal, there’s Talula’s Garden, Tria, Southwark, Bibou, and Garces Trading Company, to name a few. If time is an issue, Fair Food Farmstand will put together a strictly local arrangement to go.
- Mix It Up
The cocktail revolution keeps on shaking, with a wealth of serious bars and bartenders. The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company, Southwark, and Hop Sing Laundromat have led the charge for well-crafted, classic, and new drinks. The beverage programs at leading restaurants Vernick Food & Drink, Petruce et al., and The Gaslight show as much innovation as the food, with homemade bitters and infused spirits, and even, in the case of a.kitchen and a.bar, house vodka. The barrel-aged trend ages gracefully at Percy Street Barbecue, The Fat Ham, Stratus Lounge, and Emmanuelle. Meanwhile, housemade mocktails and sodas at Vernick Food & Drink, Charlie was a sinner. And Russet delivers interesting options for teetotalers.
- The Givers
Having already given the city their brilliant talents, some of the biggest restaurateurs now also give back for the greater good. Jose Garces’ Garces Foundation supports the immigrant community with medical, educational, and nutritional services. Marc Vetri’s Vetri Foundation operates a school lunch program at area schools. Stephen Starr, meanwhile, has been raising money for Philadelphia schools with his Support Our Schools initiative. And then there’s The Food Trust, a comprehensive program that matches farmers’ markets with neighborhoods, works to improve food education and access, and encourages grocery stores in underserved areas.
- Behind Closed Doors
It’s no surprise that Philly’s cultivated a cache of hideaways in a town of underrated treasures. A recently opened restaurant in the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, Bank & Bourbon takes the bank part of its name seriously, with a vault-like secret dining room tucked behind a bookcase. The Mexican sodas wall at University City’s Distrito opens into a hidden karaoke room for private parties. Long known to journalists, but few others, Pen & Pencil Club is an after-hours membership club located on a little-traveled alleyway. West Philly’s living room music venue Fiume sits just above Abyssinia restaurant.
- Delicious Surprises
A tight-knit dining scene brimming with creativity means plenty of collaboration and cross-pollination. Philly chefs constantly emerge at their peers’ restaurants with pop-ups. They might be showcasing a new menu item or a whole new restaurant concept, or they may simply be enjoying the excitement that comes from joining two different culinary personalities in the kitchen. Recent examples include Blue Duck Sandwich Company at Sancho Pistolas, the Le Bec-Fin redux at Vetri, and a pop-up bar at Prime Stache. Then there are seasonal pop-ups in gardens and outdoor spaces, such as the Waterfront Winterfest at Penn’s Landing, featuring a menu by George Sabatino and Jose Garces’ Blue Anchor at Spruce Street Harbor Park pop-up. At any given time, there’s almost always something new popping up.