The editor of Edible Philly tells you how to spend your time—and calories—in her hometown.
Every five years, news breaks of Philadelphia’s supposed food renaissance. But for at least five decades, this city has been worth a visit on the merit of meals alone.
It was true when Le Bec-Fin reigned as the best French restaurant outside of France; it was true when chef-driven BYOBs re-defined the food scene; it was true when mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr began dotting the city with sexy places whose cultivated clubby vibe made us feel, for once, cool.
It was true when chef Michael Solomonov started cooking game-changing Israeli food at Zahav in 2008, and now that chef Cristina Martinez and her restaurant, South Philly Barbacoa, has been featured on Netflix’s A Chef Table, well, it is still true. Word is out that you should probably spring for a plane ticket just to taste her warm house-nixtamalized local-corn tortillas cradling barbacoa that can only be described as the savory braised embodiment of what Lady Liberty loves most about immigrants and America.
Philadelphia’s best known culinary treasure troves–the Italian Market and the Reading Terminal Market–have been worth a trip for more than 125 years. What I’m saying is this: to eat here is to love it here, so if you’ve never made the trip, the time is now. It will always be the right time. Come get a taste of what you’ve been missing.
Where should I stay in Philadelphia?
If you want to stay at a hotel where the restaurant doesn’t have that hotel restaurant vibe but does have actually good food, you’ve got options. There’s AKA Rittenhouse Square. Its restaurant A.Kitchen is part of Ellen Yin and Eli Kulp’s well regarded High Street Hospitality group and serves reliably excellent creative American dishes. The Warwick Hotel, also in Rittenhouse, is home to Top Chef fan favorite Jennifer Carroll’s Spice Finch. Together with partner and fiance Billy Riddle, Carroll turns out vegetable heavy Mediterranean-inspired food that is altogether too vibrant and exciting to be coming from a hotel restaurant.
If you are more of the Airbnb type of traveler, you might want to get off the beaten path of Center City’s hotel saturated blocks and look to Philly’s more residential neighborhoods. Food lovers will likely be happiest finding a place to stay in the Fishtown, Kensington, East Passyunk, Queen Village, or Spruce Hill neighborhoods, each of which has a high concentration of interesting restaurants, markets, and cafes. Those guides will give you a good sense of an Edible approach to exploring them, too.
What reservations do I need in Philadelphia?
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This is a big question that, as a former restaurant critic, I take seriously. And so should you. Don’t dare show up here with no reservations and direct message me on a Friday asking where you should eat tonight.
Like in other large cities, Philadelphia’s greatest and most famous restaurants book up in advance. Most will begin accepting reservations eight weeks out, so mark your calendar to grab the ones you want in a timely fashion. Make sure these stellar restaurants are on your radar long before you get here:
It’s basically unanimous that Zahav is Philly’s absolute do-not-miss-it restaurant. This modern Israeli restaurant from multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov is pure magic. After a decade, its menu feels as fresh and forward-thinking as ever. The service is friendly and fun. There’s no trace of pretension, just wildly flavorful food. Should you struggle to get a table, remember: The bar and chef’s counter are open to walk-ins. Arrive in advance of the restaurant’s opening, and you stand a very good chance. It’s worth the risk. If you can’t eat here for whatever reason, you should definitely hit up one of Zahav’s fast-casual siblings: Dizengoff (hummus, pita, and salads), Federal Donuts, or Goldie (falafel and dairy-free tahini-based shakes.)
Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge has a reputation for the best vegan food in America. It’s also one of the city’s best restaurants, period. Housed in an elegant old townhouse, the restaurant is where plenty of Philadelphians celebrate special occasions whether they eat meat and dairy or not. Even if you usually skip dessert, you’ll want to order one of Jacoby’s vegan cheesecakes–they somehow beat the dairy-based version hands down.
One of the Philly area’s most outstanding eating experience is actually just over the bridge in New Jersey. Zeppoli is chef Joseph Baldino’s homage to handmade pasta and the culinary traditions of Sicily. His tagliatelli al limone is a nest of buttery noodles supercharged with concentrated fresh lemon zing and underscored with the briny depths of bottarga. Sorry to make you eat two pasta dishes, but you’ll have to order the spinach and ricotta gnocchi, too. I wouldn’t ask you to get an Uber for nothing.
A mainstay of the Old City scene since the late 90s, Ellen Yin’s shape-shifting restaurant Fork has managed to remain relevant over the decades through several prescient concept and chef changes. One of the early farm-to-table restaurants, Fork maintains direct relationships with farmers to this day, offering a true expression of the Mid Atlantic foodshed in a pretty, artsy dining room. Next door is the slightly more casual, carbohydrate focused High Street on Market, which is a great stop for not only dinner but breakfast and lunch, too.
One of the most buzzed-about restaurants in recent years, the Lebanese all-day-cafe Suraya, is truly a stunner. You enter from bustling Frankford Ave into a bakery and market, which gives way to a stylish, airy dining room. Finally, there’s an expansive outdoor patio and bar that would not be out of place in Los Angeles. You’ll find all the best dishes here on the mezza menu. Don’t miss the fatteh, a warm salad of chickpeas, eggplant and yogurt with crispy pita, nuts, and butter.
There’s a lot to be said for great ingredients cooked with great respect. If you have high standards and roll your eyes at trends, get a table a Vernick Food & Drink and you will not be disappointed. A veteran of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York City-based restaurant group, Greg Vernick brought his culinary talents back to his home town in 2012. Since then, his seafood- and vegetable-focused menus have won steady acclaim, including a James Beard award. For coffee or lunch, check out sister spot Vernick Coffee Bar and don’t leave without a slice of carrot cake pie.
Some viewers were surprised when Nicholas Elmi emerged victorious from Top Chef season 11, taking down other contestants that seemed like shoe-ins. Not Philadelphians, who have underdog status in our DNA. Neither were we surprised when Elmi’s post-Top Chef restaurant, Laurel, won immediate acclaim. His food is immaculate and subtle, marked by the French influences he absorbed during his years as Georges Perrier’s right hand at Le Bec-Fin. Make your reservation, re-watch his Top Chef season finale, and see the documentary King Georges to properly stoke your anticipation. Pro tip: Arrive early and grab a drink at ITV, the adjacent swanky cocktail bar that Elmi also runs.
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What’s the touristy stuff in Philadelphia I should actually do?
Reading Terminal Market. Yeah, there is plenty of good stuff to eat here, most notably DiNic’s roast pork sandwich and Bassett’s ice cream, but the best part of a visit to Reading Terminal is the feeling you get walking around and people watching. RTM is a spectacle, but unlike most other food-focused attractions, it’s not just for show, it’s a real, vibrant market, with up-and-coming chefs buying their produce at Iovine’s next to SNAP recipients while tourists try to pronounce “sfogliatelle” 50 feet away at Termini’s.
Each time I’ve decided on a house or apartment in Philadelphia, one criterion has topped my list. I must be able to walk to the Italian Market. This increasingly multicultural stretch of South Ninth Street is home to restaurants (including South Philly Barbacoa), cafes, markets, and shops. Must-stops include DiBruno Bros, where you should sample liberally from the staggering array of their cheese; Fante’s, where you can browse a huge assortment of gadgets and kitchenware; and Molly’s Books and Records, for a delightful selection of used and vintage cookbooks.
Spruce Street Harbor Park sits along the Delaware River and is open seasonally between May and November. The hammocks, lights, and boats, are all fun but the real attraction is the food. Local restaurants set up satellite shops in renovated shipping containers. Look for vegan fast food by HipCityVeg and ice cream from Franklin Fountain.
So, you want to eat a cheesesteak. Of course you do. But can you do me a favor and skip the ones from the most famous places, Pat’s and Geno’s? If you are near Pat’s and Geno’s, perhaps after your Italian Market stroll, stop into Cosmi’s Deli for a superior steak. It’s just a couple of blocks away. Or if you find yourself in Fishtown, go to Joe’s Steaks and Soda Shop. Care for a meatless version? Try Whiz Kid.
What is a BYOB?
Many a confused and disappointed visitor has stopped in a charming little restaurant and sat down to order only to learn too late they were at a BYOB. Bring your own bottle. Thanks to oddball liquor laws in Pennsylvania that make it tough and expensive to open a restaurant that serves alcohol, BYOBs are a mainstay of restaurant culture here. Diners here have turned this bug into a feature, embracing the money you save when you don’t rack up a bar tab over a night out. Because overhead at these restaurants tends to be lower, they are often chef-owned, idiosyncratic, and awesome.
Located off the beaten path in South Philly’s Pennsport neighborhood, Musi bills itself as “relationship based cuisine.” I think that business model has something to do with being friends with your farmers, suppliers, and fellow members of the local food community. Whatever it may mean, the food is highly personal to chef Ari Miller and super appealing. Order the beef heart tartare and polenta with poached and pickled rutabaga.
Chef Joncarl Lachman has the biggest, warmest personality in the Philadelphia food world, and eating at his Northern European inspired BYOB, Noord, feels like being invited to his house for dinner. Don’t skip the bitterballen, Dutch fried pork croquettes. BYO note: Lachman’s food tends to pair better with beer than wine. Head around the corner to The Bottle Shop beforehand and pick up a few cold brews before dinner.
Chloe BYOB is old school, one of the few remaining BYOs from Philly’s BYO heyday in the early 2000s. Husband and wife team Dan Grimes and Mary Ann Ferrie opened their sweet Old City restaurant in 2000 and it remains a great example of the inherent charms of a mom-and-pop BYOB. The menu changes weekly according to the couple’s whims but the baby back ribs are a mainstay because the regulars would riot if they disappeared from the menu.
Again, these places don’t have bars. Buy wine at a shop first if you want it! Find wine shops in Philly here.
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Should I visit a farmers market in Philadelphia?
Yes! Farmers markets aren’t just for stocking up on lettuce and broccoli. They are vibrant community gathering spots that can give you a sense of place. Many feature vendors where you can grab lunch or a beverage, live music, or cooking demonstrations. In Philly, our most celebrated farmers markets are the Clark Park Market in West Philly, which is on Saturday, and the Headhouse Market on Sunday. Check out Edible Philly’s complete Farmers Market guide here.
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What about international eats in Philadelphia?
More than a quarter of Philadelphians are immigrants or have an immigrant parent, according to a 2018 report from Pew. The city is much more multicultural than our image might suggest. This diversity shapes Philadelphia in every imaginable way, but it has had a particularly transformative effect on our food culture, especially in recent decades as immigration here has surged. There is so much terrific food cooked by people from all across the globe.
A quick subway ride from Center City, Hardena is worth a visit. This small, casual spot is an institution. Indonesian specialties, including collard greens stewed in coconut milk and beef rendang, rotate on the menu here. Whatever you order, get extra house-made sambal.
Head to Perla on Wednesday or Sunday night for the Filipino family style meal known as kamayan. Tables are covered with huge leaves onto which all the food is piled. You can request silverware, but this meal is traditionally eaten with your hands. Your leaf will be layered with garlic-scented rice, vegetables, spring rolls, and pork belly pieces. Then a whole fried fish and fully half a chicken will arrive. Homemade sauces complete the meal.
My husband complains that the only restaurant I want to visit is Sate Kampar, a Malaysian spot specializing in the grilled skewers of the region. That’s not quite true but it is a favorite of mine that I default to whether I am eating with out-of-town visitors or not. The restaurant takes no reservations and gets busy at dinner, but the weekend brunch might be the best time to visit anyway. Try one of the Malaysian pulled coffee drinks.
Hungry for Thai? Try to nab a table at Kalaya. Chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon cooks the fresh, bold, spicy dishes she learned from her mother without compromises to the fragile American palate.
South Philly Barbacoa has become increasingly mobbed as chef Cristina Martinez’s star has risen. Open for limited hours Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, it can be tough to nab your tacos. It helps if you consider the meal breakfast–the restaurant opens at 5 am on the weekend and 8 am on Monday. Crowds are thinner in the morning hours.
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Anything else I should know?
Just a few things. Philadelphia is a major beer hub and the home of the nation’s first Beer Week. Most bars have a great selection of craft beers, but Monk’s Cafe is the oldest and still one of the most respected by beer nerds.
Finally, let’s talk about two things especially close to my heart: cafes and bakeries. Sitting with a properly made cortado and croissant in a pretty cafe people watching is one of my favorite ways to take in a new place. For coffee stops, I recommend Rival Brothers, Elixr, Menagerie, Ultimo, Herman’s, and Ray’s. For sweet treats (and coffee, too) hit up Hungry Pigeon, Lost Bread, Essen, Creme Brulee, and Flow State.