Welcome to Philadelphia: A Newcomer's Eating Tour
Welcome to Philadelphia
People have always had plenty to say about Philadelphia, and not all of it is nice. But while outsiders were pelting the home of the cheesesteak with monikers like “New York’s Little Brother,” Philly was quietly becoming one of America's best food towns. Home to nationally recognized chefs and stars on the rise, a gutsy sense of tradition, a diverse citizenry and a penchant for innovation, this city of neighborhoods has many personalities, but only one identity. Here's a game plan that should help maximize a visit of any length.
By Drew Lazor
Photos courtesy of Chloe Berk (V Street), Evan Clancy (Fountain Porter), Matt Faisetty (Bardot Cafe), Drew Lazor (John's Roast Pork, Oyster House, Pizzeria Beddia, American Sardine Bar), Ashley Macri (La Divisa), Judith Murray (Zeppoli), Dan Perrone (Little Baby's), Michael Persico (Laurel, Olde Bar), Spice End and Jason Varney (Vernick).
Cheesesteak: John’s Roast Pork
Out-of-towners often assume that all Philly cheesesteak shops are gruff and demoralizing operations — order “their way” or be ridiculed by the surly know-it-all staff. And sure, there are places that do business this way. But for a more friendly experience, visit John’s, a deep-South-Philly shack identifiable by its telltale roof sign: a bibbed pig rubbing its tummy in satisfaction. As the name and mascot indicate, the roast pork is a can’t-miss, but the steaks are killer, too, with huge piles of cooked-to-order meat, your choice of cheese and optional onions, all laid out on an oversize Carangi roll. Order however you want, as long as you’ve got cash.
Vegetarian: V Street
Rich Landau, one of America’s finest vegan chefs, channeled his lifelong wanderlust into the creation of V Street. Inspired by the full-flavor cooking he’s encountered around the world, his restaurant is a more casual companion to sibling restaurant Vedge, but there’s no compromise in flavor. On the contrary: The menu reads like the manifest of an international spice shipment, with Peruvian aji amarillo, Korean gochujang, and Middle Eastern zhoug bobbing and weaving between the small plates.
Burger: Fountain Porter
In this era of cheffy fancy-beef creations topped with artisanal pancetta, foie gras and Délice de Bourgogne, the existence of a burger that is simply just a burger is an invigorating prospect. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Fountain Porter, an excellent South Philly bar with sneaky-strong burger skills. Throw down $5 and get your money’s worth: a perfect cookout-style patty, plus cheese, lettuce and tomato on a potato roll. The 20-tap beer selection and all-vinyl playlist make it taste even better.
Hot Spot: Vernick Food & Drink
Though he cooked in far-flung locales like Tokyo and Qatar as a chef for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, South Jersey native Greg Vernick returned home when it came time to launch his own place. His restaurant, which he owns with his wife, Julie, embodies how we want to eat in 2015. Nothing on the menu is fussy, effete or overcomplicated — it’s just exciting food that jigs the line between simplicity and originality. Grilled toast, raw seafood, elegant pasta and even something as classic as roast chicken take on unexpected contexts in this open kitchen. Try for a perch at the chef’s counter to best see all of that action.
Cocktail Bar: Olde Bar
Set in the Old City space that housed the esteemed seafood house Bookbinder’s for more than a century, this Jose Garces cocktail den has a long culinary history of luring celebrities, politicians and assorted glass-clinkers. In this game, it’s great to be friendly but better to be fast, and the apron-sporting bartenders here are both, navigating a fat list of classic and contemporary drinks. Try the 5th Grandchild, a bourbon-port-chile liqueur tipple named for spirits consultant Erich Weiss, who helped design the program; Weiss also happens to be the grandson of former Bookbinder's owner John M. Taxin.
Pizza: Pizzeria Beddia
In Philly you can be in the mood for pizza, or you can be in the mood for Pizzeria Beddia. That’s because a visit to Joe Beddia’s standing-room-only shop in Fishtown requires a little planning. He opens only Wednesday through Saturday, from 5:30 p.m. until he kicks that evening’s dough supply. Beddia doesn’t have a phone, so you must order in person; on busy nights, the wait for a pie can last more than an hour. It’s worth the effort. Every single pizza that Beddia pulls out of his Montague deck oven has been made by his hands, and if that doesn’t sound like a big deal, try a slice. It’s proof that ingredients, execution and attention to detail matter, even with a food so closely associated with thrift and convenience.
Tasting Menu: Laurel
Instead of spinning his prize money and small-screen notoriety into some hulking project, Top Chef: New Orleans winner Nicholas Elmi made his first big solo move a small one. It didn’t take long for Laurel, his deeply personal 22-seat BYOB restaurant on quirky East Passyunk Avenue, to evolve into one of Philly’s most-sought-after reservations. Elmi, the former executive chef of legendary French kitchen Le Bec Fin, leans heavily on his Gallic perspective, but he cites multiple traditions in building the thoughtful and playful plates for his seven-course tasting menu.
Late-Night Spot: Spice End
The best way to describe a kati roll, a street snack invented in Kolkata, India, is to say it’s an Indian burrito with meat, cheese and sauce twisted up in a buttery griddled flatbread. The owners of Spice End have capitalized on this familiarity, making their low-key shop a hit both with homesick South Asians and Americans looking for a different kind of fix. Their rolls — filled with options like chicken tikka, melting paneer or lamb kebabs — are hearty, inexpensive and people-pleasing. And the rolls are also brilliant after a few cocktails, thankfully available until midnight on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.
Date Spot: Bardot Cafe
Tucked away on a narrow Northern Liberties street like a arthouse adult mag hidden between two classics textbooks, Bardot does out-of-the-way well. But it’s what's on the other side of the door that keeps couples entranced. Owner Dennis Hewlett, a new-wave cinephile, named his moody bar-restaurant establishment after legendary French bombshell Brigitte Bardot, and he made it look like a place where she’d hang — burning candles, velvet curtains, flocked wallpaper that whispers classy bordello in Quartier Pigalle. The European-inspired cocktail and wine lists, along with Chef Rhett Vellner’s elegant but affordable cooking, are hooks in their own right.
Worth a Drive: Zeppoli
The good news is that it’s not really much of a trek to get to Joey Baldino’s peerless Italian BYOB restaurant — charming Collingswood, N.J., is only about 15 minutes from the heart of Philadelphia. The better news is that Baldino, who came up under Chef Marc Vetri, cooks Sicilian more skillfully than pretty much anyone. Tagliatelle bathed in briny bottarga, tender rabbit stewed in tomato, and homemade fennel sausage over so-South-Philly broccoli rabe are but three of the many must-order plates. Bring friends.
Ice Cream: Little Baby’s
If you have a hankering for oddball ice creams served by gregarious “scoopistas”— and, really, who wouldn’t? — then Little Baby’s in East Kensington should be on your frozen confection radar. Little Baby’s, known well beyond its home environs thanks to this novel ad campaign, has made its bones spinning absurdist varieties — think Everything Bagel, Absinthe Poppy or Spicy Honey Mustard — but plenty of more traditional flavors are also on offer. Bonus: LB’s shares a space with Pizza Brain, the zany pizza shop that set a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia.
Iconic Dish: Fried Oysters and Chicken Salad at Oyster House
The Minks are one of Philadelphia’s most-enduring food families, satisfying the city’s seafood cravings in various capacities since 1947. Third-generation restaurateur Sam Mink, who opened Oyster House in its current form in 2009, makes a point to honor the lineage with dishes like Southern-fried oysters and chicken salad, a one-plate pairing that has its bivalve-bountiful roots in the private clubs of 19th century Philly. The edible homage doesn’t stop there: They also do a proper snapper soup (as in snapper turtle), garnished with chopped hard-boiled egg and a drizzle of sherry.
Cheap Eats: Donna’s Bar
Philly’s River Wards, the neighborhoods that run northward along the banks of the Delaware, have experienced a tremendous amount of development in a relatively short amount of time. But there are things that don’t change at all, ever, and for that we’re grateful. Case in point: Port Richmond’s Donna’s, a very Polish bar in a very Polish neighborhood that serves very Polish food. It’s the type of place that still permits smoking, broadcasts TV dramas in the old-country tongue, and offers huge platters of stew for $5.50 and pierogi at a buck a pop. Load your plate with a mix of potato-cheese, cheese steak and sauerkraut pierogi, pop the cap off a frosty-cold Zywiec and blend in with the regulars.
Specialty Food Shop: La Divisa Meats
The Reading Terminal Market, Philly’s most-recognized food landmark, features a handful of butcher stands, but none quite like La Divisa. Nick Macri, who grew up making soppressata with his Calabrian family in Toronto, crafts an ambitious line of homemade charcuterie using sustainably raised veal, beef and pork from the region. Rustic terrines, head cheese and porchetta share case space with Macri’s personal experiments — think salami cured with hops or za’atar.
Beer Bar: American Sardine Bar
There may be bars with more expansive draft selections in beer-crazy Philly, but American Sardine Bar — no slouch with its 16 taps — deserves a nod for curation. The constantly changing chalkboard lineup has a strong domestic thrust: special relationships with award-winning breweries mean the sunny Point Breeze pub tends to get the good stuff. A sweet, knowledgeable staff and a two-fisted menu of sandwiches and sides rounds out the all-around experience.