Philadelphia’s abundance of craft restaurants, independent cafes and food-forward bars poses a delicious mealtime dilemma for every diner—especially first-time visitors. No matter how a newcomer chooses where to eat in Philly—pre-arrival research, an app, a stroll along a neighborhood food corridor—certain iconic spots serve as great culinary starting points.
These essentials of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene include fine-dining stalwarts, historic seafood houses, international standouts and classic sandwich joints. They’re places locals who’ve moved away dream of from afar and make a point of returning to each time they come home. Beloved for their unpretentious settings and unforgettable food, these spots are the backbone of the city’s dining scene.
It should be noted: Philadelphia’s eating-out must-dos aren’t all restaurants. In and beyond the city, the ever-expanding homegrown convenience store chain Wawa inspires fierce loyalty. And, with 26-and-counting outlets across the globe, Philly’s pioneering coffee roaster La Colombe has four city cafes that are essential stop-offs for perfect cappuccinos and draft lattes.
For sit-down spots, the following list is a great place to start (eating):
Food Hall & Market:
1. Chinatown Square – A relative newcomer to Chinatown’s dining scene, this redeveloped food hall makes an ideal launching point for exploring the neighborhood’s eclectic edibles. On offer here: bao, poké, Cambodian skewers, Japanese street food, Thai rolled ice cream and even Mexican/Korean fusion. 1016-18 Race Street, chinatownsq.com
2. Reading Terminal Market – For 125 years, this indoor public market below a historic train shed has supplied shoppers with ingredients, cookware, gifts—and meals. Breakfast and lunchtime visitors choose from 30 different restaurants and quick-serve stands serving authentic Amish scrapple and eggs, lox and bagels, spicy jambalaya, pad Thai, gyros, crepes and more. 12th & Arch Streets, (215) 922-2317, readingterminalmarket.org
3. El Compadre – Though it’s still called the Italian Market, the historic strip along South 9th Street from Christian Street past Washington Avenue now reflects the neighborhood’s multicultural makeup. This beloved Mexican restaurant is at its heart. Chef Cristina Martínez’s small, inexpensive menu focuses on intensely flavorful dishes like lamb barbacoa (on Saturdays and Sundays), pork rib guisado and chicken mole. 1149 S. 9th Street, (215) 694-3797
4. Han Dynasty – Creating mass cravings for Dan Dan noodles, Han Chiang’s Szechuan restaurant chain began in the suburbs and has since expanded to include three city locations (as well as a couple in New York City). Beyond the addictively spicy chili oil dishes, the must-tries include cumin lamb, pickled chili fish and mapo tofu. 123 Chestnut Street, (215) 922-1888; 3711 Market Street, (215) 222-3711; 4356 Main Street, Manayunk, (215) 508-2066; handynasty.net
5. The Olde Bar – Chef Jose Garces, another homegrown James Beard Award winner, had already made a deep imprint on Philly dining with Amada, Tinto, Village Whiskey and more when he revived classic Old City seafood spot Bookbinder’s. Hewing closely to the restaurant’s history, The Olde Bar serves raw bar specialties, crab cakes, steak Oscar and Fish House punch—with the handsome panache of a modern-day standard-bearer. 125 Walnut Street, (215) 253-3777, theoldebar.com
6. Pat’s King of Steaks/Geno’s Steaks/ DiNic’s Roast Pork/John’s Roast Pork – Cheesesteak traditionalists will argue for one of the neon-lit Passyunk stalwarts, Pat’s or Geno’s (many visitors order one of each to conduct taste tests). Some say South Philly gem John’s Roast Pork is the spot. Yet the cheesesteak isn’t the only iconic Philly sandwich. The roast pork Italiano offers an arguably richer flavor profile, and John’s Roast Pork and DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market do it up right. Pat’s, 1237 E. Passyunk Avenue, patskingofsteaks.com; Geno’s, 1219 S. 9th Street, (215) 389-0659, genosteaks.com; DiNic’s, 51 N. 12th Street, (215) 923-6175, tommydinics.com; John’s, 14 E. Snyder Avenue, (215) 463-1951, johnsroastpork.com
7. Ralph’s – Southern Italian by way of South Philly cuisine (also known as red sauce, a.k.a. “gravy”) dominates the plate at a seminal neighborhood eatery. Owned by the same family for five generations, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in the country has a historic designation and atmospheric charm. 760 S. 9th Street, (215) 627-6011, ralphsrestaurant.com
8. Sabrina’s/Sam’s Morning Glory Diner – Brunch in Philly is an honored custom, especially if it includes gigantic portions and creative cookery. Two South Philly-born stalwarts, Sabrina’s Café, and Sam’s Morning Glory Diner, regularly attract lines out their doors for their fun weekend menus of oversized pancakes, frittatas and more. Sabrina’s, 910 Christian Street, (215) 574-1599; 1804 Callowhill Street, (215) 636-9061; 227 N. 34th Street, (215) 222-1022, sabrinascafe.com; Sam’s, 735 S. 10th Street, (215) 413-3999, themorningglorydiner.com
9. Tacconelli’s – Once a best-kept secret in the River Ward neighborhood of Port Richmond, this fifth-generation, cash-only pizzeria asks its guests to call ahead to reserve dough, limits those guests to three toppings per pie and allows them to bring-their-own beer and wine, but no liquor.
2604 E. Somerset Street, (215) 425-4983, tacconellispizzeria.com
Sweets & Treats:
10. Franklin Fountain – The lines out the door all year long are a testament to the enduring popularity of this soda fountain that lovingly celebrates Philadelphia’s bygone days. Newer seasonal confections like Cape May sea salt caramel ice cream and vegan ice cream can be enjoyed alongside antique treats such as phosphate sodas. 116 Market Street, (215) 627-1899, franklinfountain.com
11. John’s Water Ice – As Philly as the Liberty Bell, water ice—elsewhere known as Italian ices—can be found all over town, but this Bella Vista landmark has been delighting customers since 1945. The all-natural recipe, available in lemon, cherry, chocolate and pineapple, sets a high-quality standard. 701 Christian Street, (215) 925-6955, johnswaterice.com
12. Laurel – One of the most coveted reservations in town can be found at a Passyunk boîte delicately, boldly blending French and American cuisines. Chef-owner Nicholas Elmi changes the tasting menu regularly, but diners are always assured a refined meal with surprising flourishes. 1617 E. Passyunk Avenue, (215) 271-8299, restaurantlaurel.com
13. Oyster House – Open since 1947, this convivial Center City seafoodery is famous for one of the best happy hours in town, the Buck-A-Shuck. Diners move on from there to distinctively timeless fare that embraces tradition (clams casino, snapper turtle soup, chicken salad with fried oysters) and trendier preparations alike. 1516 Sansom Street, (215) 567-7683, oysterhousephilly.com
14. Parc Brasserie – Stephen Starr won James Beard’s 2017 Outstanding Restaurateur award for a career transforming restaurants—20 in Philly, 16 from New York to Miami to Paris—into polished, stylish, comprehensive dining experiences. His first two, Old City’s Continental and Buddakan, remain as popular as ever, but Parc, Rittenhouse Square’s very own Parisian bistro and cafe, embodies modern Starr. 227 S. 18th Street, (215) 545-2262, parc-restaurant.com
15. Vedge – Vegan food got its best booster in the dynamic team of chef Rich Landau and pastry chef Kate Jacoby. At their sophisticated townhouse bistro—widely considered the country’s best vegan restaurant—the couple creates plant-based dishes and desserts that are bold, rich and satisfying. Eaters of all persuasions come away impressed. 1221 Locust Street, (215) 320-7500, vedgerestaurant.com
16. Vernick – Without gimmicks or pretense, chef Greg Vernick (2017 James Beard awardee for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic) has turned his eponymous Center City restaurant into a celebration of New American cooking. With smart cocktails, approachable but intriguing flavor combinations and many different toppings on toast, it’s the kind of place where one could eat nightly—if only there were tables available. 2031 Walnut Street, (267) 639-6644, vernickphilly.com
17. Vetri Cucina – With a studious passion for ingredients and preparation, veteran chef Marc Vetri redefined Italian cooking in Philly two decades ago with his Spruce Street enclave serving a nightly tasting menu. Today, Vetri remains an unparalleled personal experience for eaters looking for both romance and a wow factor. 1312 Spruce Street, (215) 732-3478, vetricucina.com
18. Zahav – Of Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s local restaurant empire, this Israeli restaurant in Old City remains the crown jewel, beloved nationally for its modern spin on mezze and grilled meats. (Zahav’s the spot that earned Solomonov James Beard’s highest honor—Outstanding Chef—in 2017.) The duo’s other ventures, such as Federal Donuts, Goldie and Abe Fisher, are anything but chopped liver. 237 St. James Place, (215) 625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com
Upscale Dining & A Casual Twist:
19. Fork/High Street on Market – Since its opening in 1997, Old City’s Fork has managed to stay at the forefront of culinary innovation, offering diners delicate pastas and locally sourced seafood in a plush but not stuffy setting. Its more casual next-door sibling stays open all day to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with marvelous house-baked breads. Fork, 306 Market Street, (215) 625-9425, forkrestaurant.com; High Street on Market, 308 Market Street, (215) 625-0988, highstreetonmarket.com
20. Talula’s Garden/Talula’s Daily – Aimee Olexy’s vision for regional farm-to-table fare was first realized in her Kennett Square market/eatery Talula’s Table. Stephen Starr helped translate her vision writ large for this Washington Square venue. The Garden offers high-end dining; the Daily provides a casual eating experience. Both feature exquisite cooking, warm service and lots and lots of excellent cheese. 210 W. Washington Square, (215) 592-7787, talulasgarden.com;
208 W. Washington Square, (215) 592-6555, talulasdaily.com
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