Little Black Book

Eat and Drink Your Way Around Philly’s Sizzling Food Scene

by Linda Cabasin
It's always a feast at Zahav. Photo by Mike Persico.

Come hungry: Philadelphia’s delicious, lively restaurant scene has been getting bigger and better for years, and it’s time to explore. Fathom contributor Linda Cabasin checked out longtime favorites and hot newcomers.

PHILADELPHIA – A confession: With family nearby, I've visited Philly for years, stopping by cherished sights (hello, Barnes Foundation!) and places to eat (ditto, Reading Terminal Market!). But I know that food is great all around town, the vibe unpretentious and welcoming. Millennials and immigrants — whether from New York or around the globe — are bringing fresh energy to the city and also inspiring chefs to up their games. With Philly's restaurants scooping up awards and national press, I resolved to visit or revisit places both newer and longtime.

I stayed in Old City near Independence Hall at the Renaissance Philadelphia Downtown (large rooms, friendly staff, some nice local touches), so I'll start with the famous historic area. It's easy to get around the city by foot, public transportation, or ride share.

Israeli and Lebanese, New American and French, West African and Malaysian: From University City to East Passyunk, here's just a taste of Philly's superb culinary options. If you can't get into one restaurant, check if the chef has others around town, as often happens around here.

Getting ready for brunch at Fork. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Lunch at High Street. Photo by Pavia Rosati.

Old City and Society Hill

This is where Philadelphia was born in 1682. And although Ben Franklin would recognize the cobblestone streets and redbrick townhouses filling the historic area, he would surely be surprised by the food.

Royal Boucherie
A boucherie is a butcher shop or butchery, and chef Nicholas Elmi's brasserie, opened in 2017, presents detail-perfect, French-accented fare from lunch to late night, including house-made charcuterie (pair it with the excellent cheese plate), roast duck with red wine reduction, worthy burgers, and, for summer, a lobster roll. With its tin ceiling, dark wood, and lively front bar, this buzzy spot is perfect for cozying up. The terrace garden is dreamy, too. Elmi also runs the acclaimed 22-seat, tasting menu–only Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue.

Zahav
Michael Solomonov's Modern Israeli restaurant — the game-changer that has helped spread the word about Israeli food since it opened in 2008 — won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2019. Which means you'll need to reserve far ahead. And then cross your fingers. If you do snag a coveted table, the feasting begins with fluffy laffa bread from the wood-burning oven, vegetable salatim and silky hummus, and continues with mezze like fried cauliflower and larger grilled meat and fish dishes. Try the tayim, a taste of everything, and maybe plan not to eat the following day. Solomonov is a daring of the Philly food scene. You can explore the rest of his expanding local stable at Federal Donuts (Korean-style fried chicken and doughnuts), Dizengoff (all hummus), Abe Fisher (classic American-Jewish fare), and Goldie (falafel shop). If you're only on a layover at the airport and have an American Express Platinum card, you can get a taste of his menu at The Centurion Lounge.

Fork
Going strong for more than 20 years, the regional New American fare at Fork is as inspiring as the glowing setting, with its autumnal murals of trees, orange-covered chandeliers, and gleaming open kitchen. My companion and I had brunch, and the pain perdu French toast) with blueberries, maple syrup, and mascarpone, and a shrimp and pea omelet made us feel the week ahead would be perfect — and we didn't even have the mimosa flight. Here's another local who scored at the 2019 James Beard awards: Chef Ellen Yin was a finalist for Best Restaurateur.

High Street on Market
Next door to Fork, its rustic younger sibling runs all day, serving everything from breakfast's egg sandwiches and pastries/breads (come early for the best choices; I had a cheddar scone) to dinner's seafood and pastas. I'd have anything with mushrooms. It's coffeeshop-esque, intimate, and very popular. Love the bread? You can buy a loaf to take home.

Dusk in the garden at Suraya. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Fishtown

North of Old City and Northern Liberties, Fishtown is a working-class neighborhood that embraces its past but is also now home to all kinds of independent enterprises, including exciting restaurants. I've heard good things about the food tour here.

Suraya
The Lebanese food at this new star (voted Best New Restaurant of 2018 by Philadelphia magazine) is as spectacular as the setting — and that's saying something. The vast, white-painted space is divided into sections with shelving; tiled and wooden floors and an all-day café and bar add texture. Out back is a large, romantic garden with white walls, trees, a bar, firepit, and seating. I could have made a meal of mezze like fattoush salad and smoky baba ghanoush with pita, but shared a perfectly grilled whole fish. Need help? Friendly servers steer you through the menu, including great wine and cocktails.

East Passyunk

Stretching from Broad to 9th Streets in South Philadelphia and including more than 150 independently owned business, East Passyunk Avenue and vicinity has become one of Philly's most celebrated restaurant districts. With shops and row house-lined streets, it's perfect for strolling.

Saté & Kampar
Opened in 2016, this cheerful BYOB (Philly has many of these) with brick walls, industrial lighting, and an open kitchen brings authentic Malaysian fare to an area once known for Italian restaurants. Born in Malaysia, chef Angelina Branca left the corporate world to pursue her passion for cooking. Satays are grilled over coconut-shell charcoal and are excellent, as is rendang daging, long-braised beef with coconut cream and spices. My fragrant rice dish came wrapped in a banana leaf. Coffee and tea options include iced tea with lime or milk.

Manatawny Craft Spirits Shop & Tasting Room
Experience Pennsylvania's burgeoning spirits scene at this hip outpost of a Pottstown (north of Philly) small-batch distillery. On offer are a range of whiskeys, from four-grain to honey-flavored, plus gin and rum. At the long, narrow bar, I tried a four-whiskey flight including one made with cold-brew coffee; clever cocktails are another option. Charcuterie, cheese, and snacks round out the menu, and you can buy a bottle.

Bok Bar
Rain stopped me from getting a drink at this hot spot, a seasonal rooftop bar in a 1930s school that now houses dozens of entrepreneurial businesses and services. It's a bit away from East Passyunk but worth a trip for the views of South Philadelphia and Center City.

Dutch Eating Place at Reading Terminal. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Tommy DiNic's at Reading Terminal. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Center City

While I missed the many options on or near the 13th Street restaurant corridor — the vegetarian wonders at Vedge, Japanese at Double Knot, pizza at Zavino, and Mediterranean at Barbuzzo — I did stop by an old favorite.

Reading Terminal Market
Deliciousness since 1893: This beloved National Historic Landmark building offers a down-home feast with dozens of options, like doughnuts and coffee at Beiler's, pancakes at the Dutch Eating Place, and awesome pork or beef sandwiches at Tommy DiNic's. Save room for a Bassetts ice-cream cone or a Termini Brothers cannoli. Shop for Pennsylvania Dutch goodies. Seek out the day stalls too, highlighting new vendors selling sweet fare and global treats.

Vernick Food & Drink
Local boy Greg Vernick grew up in a food and restaurant family, then spent years cooking with giants like Ken Oringer in Boston and Jean-Georges Vongrichtien in New York and around the world. He came home and opened his first solo spot in 2012, and the accolades have been rolling in ever since for his clever pairings (boar lasagna with butternut squash and amaretti crumbs; broccoli steak with tomato fondue and olives). The menu is as inviting as the townhouse setting. Try to grab a seat at the chef's counter in the back to watch the team work their magic.

Pizza at Dock Street Brewery. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Dock Street Cannery's tasting lounge. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

University City/West Philadelphia

Just west of Center City across the Schuykill River, the area has a diverse community that supports excellent ethnic restaurants from West African to Caribbean to Asian. The presence of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania means there are many reasonably priced restaurants here.

Dock Street Brewery
Woman-owned Dock Street, Philly's first microbrewery (1985), flourishes. Its redbrick outpost, a former firehouse, includes Dock Street Cannery (2017), a casual tasting lounge and hangout spot with music and events that's perfect for small bites and beers like citrusy, fruity Summer Haze. Next door, in the main brewpub, don't miss flavorful wood-oven pizza, including surprises like Mellow Yellow (with portobello mushrooms, mustard, and cheeses). Point Breeze, Dock Street's newest brewery and restaurant, is now open. And if you like beer, you're in a city that's always celebrating it in some way. Philly Loves Beerlists ongoing events and festivals.

Kilimandjaro
Part of a small strip mall, Kilimandjaro is a neighborhood lunch and dinner spot specializing in tasty, filling Senegalese dishes. Stewed chicken yassi, for example, has marinated onions and a nice kick from habanero peppers; delicious rice comes on the side. Thieboudiene is a tomato-based fish stew with vegetables and herbs. Wash it down with spicy ginger or ginger-mango drinks.

A Word About Cheesesteaks

It's a classic Philly sandwich, and thus to be respected, though I generally pass, given the many other wonderful things you can eat here. If it comes to the battle of Pat's and Geno's (both open 24/7), I'd say Geno's, but with provolone, not Cheez Whiz. Or taste-test around town. I prefer Jim's, or a hoagie, or a beef sandwich at DiNic's.

[Editor's note: Philadelphia is a sandwich town, and the other classic local option is roast pork with provolone and broccoli rabe. And although our trusty reporter Linda Cabasin doesn't partake of this particular delight, we'd be remiss if we didn't share it with those of you who do. Fathom founder Pavia Rosati's favorite places to eat them — in all their messy glory — are Paesano's Philly Style and John's Roast Pork, yet another James Beard award winner.]

Wine in a can at Paradocx. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Beyond Philadelphia

Paradocx Vineyard
Philly visitors often explore nearby areas like the Brandywine Valley, famous for Du Pont-related sites like Longwood Gardensand Winterthur. You can taste Pennsylvania's wines at rural places including Paradocx — and you may be pleasantly surprised. A sunny tasting room (check the hours) serves good bites featuring local products. Of the vineyard's 100 acres, 30 are under vine, growing grapes from cabernet franc to chardonnay (my favorites). You buy the wine in bottles or in a refillable, three-liter paint can. Don't scoff: The inside pouch is really clever. As for the name, Paradocx refers to the “pair of docs” (two physician couples) who have run it since 1998.

Roost Apartment Hotel. Photos courtesy of Roost.

Where to Stay

Roost Rittenhouse
Chic apartment living meets boutique hotel style at Roost in Rittenhouse Square, where accommodations are available by the week or the month. In addition to stocked kitchens with full-size appliances, Apple TV, and a washer-dryer, amenities here include a bike share, same-day laundry services, and a 24-hour concierge. Roost has two other locations in Philadelphia: Midtown and East Market.

The Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia
It's what you'd expect from a luxury hotel of this caliber: an impressive structure (a 1908 neoclassical bank), a central location (across the street from City Hall), and lots of elegant public spaces for meetings and weddings. The room furnishings are just fine, the beds are perfectly comfy, and the bathrooms are spacious. In other words, it's basic, not striking, luxury.

Want even more info on Philly tastes and sites? The local tourist board site Visit Philadelphia is a helpful resource made by people who clearly love their home town.

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