The Best Places to Eat in Philadelphia
Philadelphia is packed with culinary credibility, including award-winning chefs, innovative BYOBs and, of course, plenty of cheesesteaks. Here are some of the best places for nearly every craving.
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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.
There is no shortage of great falafel in a city like Philadelphia, but Goldie, from Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Zahav, Federal Donuts, Rooster Soup Co.), distinguishes itself in a few ways. Instead of the common DIY toppings model, they bang out your fresh pita sandwich or salad bowl for you, and keep you laced with all the required condiments (the schug will fire you up). Everything also happens to be fully vegan, a detail not lost on fans of the tehina-based milkshakes, in flavors like Turkish coffee and banana.
BYOB: Res Ipsa Cafe
Res Ipsa Cafe operates as an urbane coffee shop by day, serving breakfast and lunch and pulling espresso from local roaster ReAnimator, a partner in the concept. By night, it seamlessly changes into one of Philly’s most-unexpected supper spaces, serving Sicilian-inspired salads, seafood and scratch-made pasta from Chef Michael Vincent Ferreri. Wine geeks tote along their best bottles from Italy and beyond; strive for versatility if you opt for the $60 tasting, which leaves diners in the hands of the kitchen, from appetizers thru dessert (don’t sleep on the roast chicken).
Malaysian: Saté Kampar
A native of Kuala Lumpur, Angelina Branca hit pause on a successful international finance career to open this BYOB saté shop with her American-born husband, John, crafting her proactive response to the fading traditional food culture of her home country. Here you’ll find all manner of traditional skewers done in authentic marinades and caramelized over special coconut charcoal Branca imports from Southeast Asia, but it’s not just food on sticks. Staple dishes like beef rendang, along with recurring specials like chile crab or variations on the noodle soup laksa, keep diners coming back for a transportative taste of Malaysia’s diverse and dynamic cuisines.
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 normal 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 serious, too, with huge piles of cooked-to-order meat, your choice of cheese and optional onions, all laid out on an oversize Carangi roll. The award-winning reputation will get you in line, but the warm, jovial staff will keep you coming back.
Pizza: Square Pie
There are many fine pizzas in Philadelphia, but none are quite as distinctive as Square Pie’s. Chef-Owner Gene Giuffi, a native Brooklynite who’s long called Philadelphia home, relies on a long fermentation process when batching the dough for his quadrilateral creations, creating an airy-but-substantial pan pizza with intoxicatingly crispy edges. The plain pie’s always a winner, but you shouldn’t sleep on the house specialties (porchetta with garlic, spinach, provolone and cream).
Bakery: Essen Bakery
This self-described "little Jewish bakery" is run by Tova du Plessis, a South African pastry chef who decided to bring her worldly sweet-stuff skill set to Philadelphia. Her bewitchingly scented wares do cover plenty of traditional Hebrew ground — see the Jewish apple cake, fudgey babka and rugelach, za’atar-spiced challah, or house-recipe bagels (for sale on Thursdays only) — but it’s far from the only category du Plessis excels in. She also gets regular love for her cookies and savory sandwiches, served on her own bread.
Vegetarian: V Street
Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, some of America's finest vegan chefs, channeled their lifelong wanderlust into the creation of V Street. Inspired by the full-flavored cooking the duo has encountered around the world, V Street splits the difference between their high-end Vedge and fast-casual Wiz Kid, but there's no compromise on flavor. Quite the opposite: The menu reads like the manifest of an international condiment shipment, with Peruvian aji amarillo, Korean radish kimchee and Middle Eastern zhoug bobbing and weaving between the small plates.
A fast-growing national chain running 23 (and counting) locations across eight states and the District of Columbia, Honeygrow is a serious contender in today's health-conscious quick-serve space. But it's a Philadelphia company through and through - the burgeoning brand is headquartered in Fishtown, and its flagship locations have been humming here since 2012. Though the menu does feature core salads and stir-fries assembled fresh right in front of you (see the Sesame Garlic bowl, with fresh-made whole wheat noodles, broccoli, mushrooms, scallions and antibiotic-free beef), many eaters opt for the build-your-own option, fully customizing their meals via a user-friendly touchscreen menu.
Steakhouse: Barclay Prime
Stephen Starr’s well-loved boutique steakhouse brings together a primo address (right on Rittenhouse Square), slick-sexy digs and unparalleled cuts of meat to create a special-occasion haven that stands out from the typical red-meat-peddling chains. The destination dinner spot, known for luxurious options like bone-in filet, wild-caught Dover sole and opulent Wagyu beef, is a polished, but personalized experience, down to the collection of high-end steak knives diners peruse tableside before they dig in.
Breakfast: The Dutch
A cheery joint venture between chefs Joncarl Lachman (Noord) and Lee Styer (Fond), The Dutch is one of those special little spaces that always seems flooded with sunlight, even on the cloudiest days. The South Philly café crafts excellent renditions of regional staples (Eggs Benedict with ring bologna), along with house specialties, like cast-iron Dutch Baby pancakes, both sweet and savory. They also host the occasional nighttime dinner, inviting guest chefs to take over the kitchen. It’s BYOB for either mealtime, so be sure to pack a bottle or two.
Dim Sum: Dim Sum House by Jane G's
Propelled by the success of her popular Szechuan sit-down in Center City, veteran restaurateur Jane Guo, along with her son, Jackson Fu, have gotten into the Philly dim sum game with this handsome second-floor space overlooking University City. The menu, comprising a mix of quintessential Shanghainese, Cantonese and Jiang Nan cooking, is broad enough to accommodate a slew of tastes, but the spicy crab soup dumplings, dongo pork belly and ginger-scallion whole steamed fish should be mandatory for every table.
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 eponymous restaurant, which he owns with his wife, Julie, embodies how most people want to eat today. 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 at this perpetually packed Rittenhouse mainstay. Try for a perch at the kitchen counter to witness firsthand what won Vernick "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic" at the 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards.
Sweet Shop: Shane Confectionery
Brothers Eric and Ryan Berley, proprietors of Old City’s wildly popular, deliberately archaic Franklin Fountain, reached back once again into the sweet, sweet past to resurrect Shane Candies, a once-famous name in Philadelphia sugarcraft that had fallen by the wayside in recent decades. Up and running in full force once again, the shop makes painstaking efforts to adhere to the old ways, preparing chocolates, spun-sugar confections, hard and chewy candies and many more treats with time-honored techniques that you just don’t see these days.
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-helmed 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, like the colonial staple Fish House Punch (three kinds of rum, brandy, peach cordial, lemon) and the off-the-wall Harissa Explains It All (vodka, Aperol, grapefruit liqueur, citrus and a syrup made from the namesake North African spice blend).
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 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. Elmi's adjoining cocktail and small-plates concept, ITV, provides a luxe waiting area for Laurel diners, but it's also a worthy hangout all its own.
Happy Hour: El Rey
Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco - if can count to five en espanol, you've already got a pretty good grasp on the happy hour dealage at this hopping Mexican diner in Center City, from prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr. Weekdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m., $1 gets you tacos, $2 gets you rotating snacks and Tecate cans and $3 gets you small bites and draft beers. Shell out $4 and sip on a classic house margarita; for one buck more, you can enjoy their rotating flavored marg of the day. And even if you miss that happy hour window, chef Dionicio Jimenez's authentic and accessible menu is worth seeking out.
Engineer-turned-chef Mel Tenorio named his daytime Kensington cafe after the Bogotá neighborhood that raised him, building his menu around beloved Colombian favorites like sancocho (a soul-warming beef-yucca-potato-corn soup) and pan de bono (a staple cheese bread). But he branches out beyond his own heritage to offer decidedly non-South American options, too, like a house-special breakfast burrito or a Latin spin on Israeli shakshuka, served with arepas instead of pita.
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.
Breakfast Sandwich: Ants Pants Café
Situated on the far west end of South Street, Philly’s cheery Australian-themed brunchery is well-known for a number of dishes — loyalists love the dill scrambled eggs and myriad French toast variations, washed down with a long black or flat white that’d impress even the most discerning Sydneysider. But Ants Pants answers the call for a simple, honest breakfast sandwich, too: just good over-medium eggs, good cheese and meat (if you want) on a soft-yet-substantial long roll from local Wild Flour Bakery. Sometimes it’s all you need.
Vietnamese: Café Diem
The epicenter of the city’s large Vietnamese population, South Philadelphia features dozens of so-appointed eateries, many of them specializing in the ubiquitous beef noodle soup pho. The tiny, welcoming Diem, meanwhile, is best-known for its Bún bò Huế, a funky and fiery alternative native to the central city of Huế. Armed with fatter noodles, a spicier broth and a generous selection of beef cuts, this is one crave-worthy, rejuvenating bowl that leaves a permanent impression. Scheduling tip: Unlike other Vietnamese eateries, Diem shuts down in the early evening, so make it a priority for breakfast or lunch.
Coffee Shop: Menagerie Coffee
Menagerie owners Elysa DiMauro and April Nett manage to strike the exact right balance across the board with their sweet little Third Street shop. Inside the clean-lined respite from the bustle of Old City outside, you’ll find one of the best-versed staffs around, serving premium Dogwood Coffee and local snacks. It’s the mix of clientele that often makes the cafe so appealing — a diverse hodge-podge of Philadelphians with good taste and tourists with good instincts, all taking well-earned breathers in a warm, woodsy space well-suited for them.
Water Ice: John's Water Ice
It's called shaved ice or Italian ice elsewhere in the country, but here in Philly, the fruity, chilly slush everyone seeks out once the temperatures start rising is known as water ice. John's, an Italian Market institution that's been in operation since 1945, sticks to the old way of doing things, relying on nothing more than real fruit, ice and sugar to produce their menu, offered seasonally each year (they go into hiberation over the winter). Pro moves: Order a half-and-half combination of the staple cherry and lemon flavors, with salty pretzel rods to scoop instead of a spoon, or opt for a gelati, which combines water ice and ice cream into a single brainfreeze-inducing cup.
Outdoor Seating: Kensington Quarters
A beacon of Fishtown’s dining identity, Kensington Quarters places a huge emphasis on locally sourced meats, prepared with an unobtrusive simplicity that maximizes flavor. KQ is well-regarded for its smart beverage program, too, built around interesting natural and biodynamic wines, regional craft beers and a small, but smart cocktail selection. One thing the restaurant doesn’t always get credit for, however, is its spacious and inviting outdoor seating area, a twinkly, umbrella-laden patio that’s more than conducive to lively group dinners and long, leisurely brunches. It’s a welcome oasis tucked away from the constant wackiness of Frankford Avenue.
Date Spot: Bistrot La Minette
Open since 2008, Peter Woolsey’s classic French bistro sports a soul much older than its calendar years. Executive Chef Kenny Bush’s execution of timeless Gallic classics — mainstays include garlicky escargot in adorable mini crocks, and mustard-braised rabbit with housemade pasta — is complemented by a Euro-immersive room that’s neither too formal nor too casual, and always très romantique. It’s the ideal date-night destination for couples looking for an elegant, but not geriatric, experience.
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.
Bloody Mary: Atlantis: The Lost Bar
On Sundays, and Sundays only, the staffers at Kensington's long-standing Lost Bar build what might be the prettiest and most-elaborate Bloody Marys in the city. Expect accoutrements ranging from salami/cheese roll-ups and vegetarian grape leaves to seasonal fruits and veggies and big fat cocktail shrimp. For Bloody obsessives across the city, this is one Atlantis worth discovering, and well worth the weekly pilgrimage.
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.
Mexican: Blue Corn
The drag of South Ninth Street that runs through the Italian Market is home to countless Mexican-owned concepts, from humble takeout taquerias to slightly fancier sit-downs. Blue Corn stands way out from this competitive pack thanks to stellar, familial front-of-house service and its dedication to the sweet spot that hovers right in between casual and upscale. Signature plates here include camarónes al ajillo (spicy garlic shrimp), angelitos negros (a duo of house special mole sauces over chicken) and all manner of tacos served on housemade cilantro tortillas. And unlike many of its competitors, they've got a liquor license, too, which keep the Modelos and margaritas flowing.
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.
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 with Americans looking for a different kind of fix. Their rolls - filled with chicken tikka, melting paneer or lamb kebabs, among other options - are hearty, inexpensive and people-pleasing. And the rolls are also brilliant after a few cocktails, thankfully available until 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends.
Hoagie: Antonio's Deli
Philadelphians are insanely particular about their hoagies, this region’s go-to word for what sandwich fans in other parts of the country might call a sub or hero. Consistency in both construction and quality ingredients is paramount in this category — lucky for us, both boxes earn emphatic checks at Antonio’s in South Philly. Though famous for their veggie hoagie (Roman-style baked eggplant, broccoli rabe, marinated peppers and a blend of house-aged sharp provolone cheeses), this unassuming shop does pretty much everything well, including some mean beef-pork-veal meatballs made by hand and simmered all day in the house "gravy" (red sauce).
Wine List: Walnut Street Cafe
Building a compelling wine list, both by the glass and by the bottle, is still a challenging proposition in Philadelphia, given Pennsylvania’s famously draconian alcohol laws. That’s why it’s so impressive that Walnut Street Cafe, from the team behind NYC’s late Rebelle, can reinterpret the adventurous wine approach of that Michelin-starred restaurant for the Commonwealth. Overseen in Philly by sommelier Kait Caruke, WSC’s list starts with some 50 pours by the glass alone, touring underappreciated regions and highlighting small producers from Argentina to Alto Adige. The sizeable bottle section is built around Old World and New World in equal stead — and every selection is available in half-bottle portions to encourage vigorous exploration.
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. Proprietor Nick Macri, who grew up making soppressata with his Calabrian family in Toronto, crafts an ambitious line of homemade charcuterie using sustainably raised lamb, 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.
Lunch: Kanella Grill
A midday stop popular with restaurant industry types, employees of the nearby hospitals and pretty much everyone else in the neighborhood, Chef Konstantinos Pitsillides’ cozy corner BYOB, Kanella Grill, brings a splash of Cypriot flavor to Washington Square West. Pork, lamb and even fish kebabs, accompanied by fresh rice, sides and salads, are the primary attraction here, though the Mediterranean scope expands to include killer renditions of falafel, hummus, tabbouleh and more.
Food Truck: Roast Cebu Lechon
Expertly preparing a whole pig is a hard enough endeavor — and Chef John Peralta somehow manages to do it well inside a truck. Roast, his four-wheeled Filipino mobile operation, specializes in lechon, the crispy-fatty-succulent pork made famous by the Philippine region of Cebu. Slow-cooking for hours over clean-burning coconut charcoal, Peralta's pig is worth queueing up for, as are his other specialties, including lumpia (meaty fried spring rolls) and, in the warmer months, halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert made with condensed milk and a Technicolor mix of fruits, jellies, ice creams, etc.).
Seafood: Bait & Switch
While many of the businesses located in the River Ward of Port Richmond are Polish operations, there are also excellent outliers like Bait & Switch, a fishy-in-a-good-way pub from the team behind Loco Pez, the popular Mexican bar nearby. This is the spot to satisfy a serious shellfish or seafood craving, with a menu that features solid takes on dishes like crabcakes, spicy mussels and NOLA-style barbecue shrimp. There’s even a tuna-based "cheesesteak," made with medium-rare ahi, long hots, fried onions and provolone cheese.
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.
Ethiopian: Almaz Cafe
Almaz, which translates to "diamond" in Ethiopia’s Amharic language, is the definition of a gem — a true-blue East African eatery that also happens to operate as an American coffee shop. There are plenty of entry-level sandwiches and salads for the uninitiated, but regulars know to make a beeline straight to the native sections of the menu, where classic meat dishes like doro wat, kitfo and zilzil tibs join a slew of flavor-packed vegetarian selections like shiro (blended chickpeas spiced with hot berbere).
Indian: Dana Mandi
If West Philly’s Dana Mandi looks a heck of a lot like a South Asian grocery from the outside, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. But shoppers patient enough to make it all the way to the back of the store will discover what’s really worth traveling here for: a small restaurant and takeout window built around the unmistakable spices and textures of Punjabi cuisine. Highlights of the menu include mulli paratha (a griddled bread stuffed with crunchy radishes), the deep-flavored goat curry and vegetarian rajmah, the quintessential Punjabi kidney bean stew.