Philadelphia's culinary scene offers 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 food shed; a wildly diverse array of ethnic eats; a nationally lauded vegetarian and vegan culture; and much more. Here are 17 reasons why 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, BYOBs are owned and operated by couples, 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 and Will. With more than 300 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 from the relatively modest (Melrose Diner, Jerry’s Bar, Strangelove’s) to the absolutely high-end (Amis, Fork) sides of the spectrum.
- Around The World
Having attracted waves of immigrants since its earliest days, Philly has always been known for its cosmopolitan cuisine. Going back to the 18th century, that meant German (City Tavern, Brauhaus Schmitz, Frankford Hall), Swedish (Noord eetcafe), French (Bibou, 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 Restaurant), Cambodian (Khmer Kitchen), Indonesian (Hardena, Sky Cafe), Malaysian (Banana Leaf), Caribbean (Jamaican Jerk Hut, Mini Trini food truck), 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’ Buena Onda and Distrito. Still another cohort of upstart restaurateurs has taken a different tack, redefining the endlessly popular street food with sometimes quirky results: That would include Union Taco, Dos Tacos and Loco Pez.
- Meatless Wonders
It all started with a little restaurant called Horizons, which other than the decades-old Govinda’s, was the first major restaurant in the city dedicated exclusively to meatless cuisine. 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, and their street food-inspired V Street, but also for offshoots from former employees: Charlie was a sinner., HipCityVeg, Miss Rachel’s Pantry, Sprig & Vine and Blackbird Pizzeria, to name a few. Meanwhile, Pure Sweets & Co., Veggie Lovers, Vegetate, Mama’s Vegetarian and Kung Fu Hoagies food cart have proliferated the options for meat-free eaters from tempeh hash to coconut yogurt to faux teppanyaki steak to ridiculously good falafel. That’s not even counting Little Baby’s Ice Cream’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), which is said to have been invented by Pat and Harry Olivieri in the 1930s. This epic sandwich can be found 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). Likewise, the hoagie, a spicy combination of cold cuts and cheese on a similarly long roll, was the creation of Italian immigrants on a lunch break. Today, with the creative but reverent variations at Sarcone’s Deli, Koch’s Deli, Cosmi’s Deli and Paesano’s Philly Style, there’s truly a hoagie for every taste. A Pennsylvania Dutch invention, the soft pretzel is a doughy yeasty salt lick that can be found 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 Bistro. 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, but 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. For a hearty red gravy-soaked feast, Northern Liberties’ Modo Mio delivers five courses of Italian fare 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. Chef Marcie Turney, together with her partner Valerie Safran, operate a large swath of Midtown Village’s dining scene (Lolita, Barbuzzo, Jamonera, Little Nonna’s, Grocery market). Internationally revered chef Marc Vetri began with his self-titled Italian restaurant, and has since branched out to Osteria, Amis, Alla Spina, Pizzeria Vetri (two locations) and 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 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. Likewise, season 11 winner Nicholas Elmi took his spoils back to Philly and opened the appropriately named Laurel. Another local Top Chef contender from season 11, Jason Cichonski has numerous outlets for his real-life cooking challenges: Ela and The Gaslight. 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), as well as 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.
- The Place For Pie
Foodies across the country may have done a double take when Bon Appétit declared that the best pizza in the world resides in Philadelphia. Who wasn’t shocked? Philadelphians. In addition to Pizzeria Beddia, where Joe Beddia has crafted every pie since opening his bare-bones Fishtown shop in 2013, locals have come to expect pies worth crossing neighborhood boundaries for: Port Richmond BYOB Tacconelli’s, where those in the know call ahead to reserve their dough and stick to the three-topping limit; Marc Vetri’s Pizzeria Vetri, serving up Neapolitan-style pizza in Fairmount and Rittenhouse; part-pizza joint and part-museum Pizza Brain in Fishtown; square pie expert Santucci’s, with half a dozen locations; and combo-loving Zavino in University City and Washington Square West/Midtown Village.
- 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 drinks, both classic and new. 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+bar, house vodka. The barrel-aged trend ages gracefully at Percy Street Barbecue, The Fat Ham, Stratus Rooftop Lounge and Emmanuelle. Meanwhile, house-made mocktails and sodas at Vernick Food & Drink, Charlie was a sinner. and Russet deliver 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
In a town of underrated treasures, it’s no surprise that Philly’s cultivated a cache of hideaways. 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 wall of Mexican sodas 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 Kanella at Mercato, 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 Jose Garces options at Waterfront Winterfest and Spruce Street Harbor Park, which also features PortFedNuts, a spinoff of CookNSolo’s Federal Donuts.