Philadelphia food is so much more than the cheesesteak and the soft pretzel, or even scrapple, or roast pork sandwiches. It’s also amazing vegan fare, quirky BYOB (bring-your-own-bottle) restaurants, world-class craft local beer, emerging distillery scene, or chef-driven concepts and passion projects. Philly’s food scene is about neighborhoods that grow with their restaurants. And competing chefs who work together. It’s about sourcing ingredients from the region’s farms and giving casual dining its due. It’s about embracing delicious diversity.
Here is a primer of 26 lesser-known components of Philly’s lush and luscious food scene:
1. Richly Rewarding Food Shed: A wealth of the region’s nearby farms, urban greenhouses and hyper-local rooftop gardens (a specialty of Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood) supply the freshest ingredients to restaurants and markets. Everything from obscure heirloom tomatoes and specialty corn hybrids to luscious dairy products, grass-fed meats and indigenous herbs are grown in close proximity to the kitchens where they are prepared.
2. BYOB: The bring-your-own-bottle phenomenon has enabled celebrated, eminently talented chefs to open small storefront restaurants without one of Philly’s expensive liquor licenses—and made it possible to enjoy a high roller-quality meal without breaking the budget. Indeed, some of the greatest culinary creativity on display can be found therein at Will, Helm, Noord and others.
3. Delicious Diversity: Philadelphia has long been a melting pot of vibrant cultures and flavors. Today, the ever-changing population and a cosmopolitan audience of diners guarantee the success of mom-and-pop eateries hailing from every part of the globe. Neighborhoods from deep in South Philly to the easily-accessible 9th Street Italian Market, West Philadelphia’s University City to Center City’s Chinatown offer Indonesian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Szechuan, Middle Eastern and Italian.
4. Restaurants Doing Good: West Philadelphia’s EAT Café offers a pay-what-you-can dinner four evenings a week, helping to tackle the issue of food insecurity. The new Rooster Soup Co. turns a brisk business of soups, salads and sandwiches into financial support for Broad Street Ministry, which helps feed homeless and hungry people. At the Girard Bruncherie, gratuity is included in the prices of menu (breakfast, brunch and lunch) items, guaranteeing that restaurant staff earns a living wage.
5. The Best Bar Food: Eating at the bar is a great way to dine at some of Philadelphia’s most sought-after restaurants—without making a reservation months in advance. Volvér, R2L, Townsend, The Olde Bar, Lacroix (Bar 210), Fork, Zahav and others offer last-minute diners a more casual way to experience high-end food and service, without the wait.
6. Destination Dining: Dining options inside the city limits may well be limitless, but the Philadelphia region hosts some wonderful options for a food-centric outing with picturesque charm. Some of the top reasons to venture out include Junto (Glen Mills), Mainland Inn (Harleysville), Sovana Bistro (Kennett Square) and Birchrunville Store Cafe (Birchrunville).
7. Chefs Who Collaborate: Collaboration among Philadelphia’s restaurant industry pros consistently wows out-of-town food insiders. Some popular cooperating spots include Sancho Pistola’s, whose “Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen” beer dinner is legendary; Hungry Pigeon, helmed by chefs Scott Schroeder (South Philly Taproom, American Sardine Bar) and Pat O’Malley (formerly Balthazar); The Dutch, by chefs Lee Styer (Fond) and Joncarl Lachman (Noord, Neuf); Blue Duck, where chef Kris Serviss leans on buds Christopher Kearse (Will), Josh Kim (Spot Gourmet Burgers) and Adan Trinidad (Sancho Pistola’s) for theme nights and coursed-out dinners; and Zama, where chef Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka invites chefs such as Marc Vetri and Jose Garces to create their own maki for charity.
8. Fast Casual: Philly stays true to its working-class roots by offering quick, laid-back ways to get in on amazing cuisine. Some widely spreading fast-casual concepts include cheesesteak and roast pork-maker Tony Luke’s global proliferation; chef Marc Vetri’s Pizzeria Vetri, coming to an Urban Outfitters near you; and chef Michael Solomonov’s new vegan falafel joint, Goldie.
Foods & Dishes To Try:
9. The Other Cheesesteak: Any listing of local specialties absolutely must include the roast pork Italiano sandwich. Some people even prefer the zesty flavors of sharp provolone cheese and garlicky broccoli rabe to the tamer flavors of the classic cheesesteak. Pennsport’s John’s Roast Pork, Reading Terminal Market’s DiNic’s Roast Pork, South Philly’s Cosmi’s Deli and any location of Tony Luke’s are great spots to sample this specialty.
10. The Mushroom Capital: A scenic drive from Center City, Kennett Square serves as an epicenter for the nation’s mushroom production, with more than a million pounds of fungi cultivated a week. September’s annual Mushroom Festival celebrates the famous crop with family activities, food, culinary demos and more.
11. Bread & Cheese, Please: In recent years, Philly’s stepped up its bread game, with High Street on Market baking innovative concoctions with buckwheat and ancient grains, Essen’s upmarket challah, Philly Bread’s signature spin on the English muffin and scores of restaurants turning out their own house-made loaves. On the curd side, cheesemaking operations have multiplied in Bucks, Chester and Lancaster counties, turning Southeastern Pennsylvania into a veritable cheese region. No bread and cheese lover’s trip to Philly is complete without a visit to the 9th Street Italian Market, home to Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese, Claudio’s Specialty Foods (makers of fresh mozzarella) and Sarcone’s Bakery.
12. Water Ice: Elsewhere this frozen confection is known as Italian ice—made famous by Philly-born Rita’s—but in Philadelphia and the surrounding area, it’s “wudder” ice. Superior versions can be found across South Philly at John’s, Mancuso & Son, Italiano’s and Pop’s.
13. Scrapple: Created during lean times, this cornmeal- and wheat flour-based patty of pork scraps (hence the name) has a cult foodie following, cropping up in classic and trendy breakfast dishes. It can be sourced from local farms or from most diners and breakfast counters, particularly Dutch Eating Place, Green Eggs Café, Hungry Pigeon and Sabrina’s Cafe.
Trending In Philly:
14. Vegans Rule: Regarded as the world’s best vegan restaurant, Vedge sets the standard for plant-based fine dining. Its success has spawned deliciously ethical offshoots HipCityVedge, Blackbird Pizzeria, Charlie was a sinner., V Street, Bar Bombón and Miss Rachel’s Pantry.
15. Carnivore Craze: Meanwhile, meat remains at the center of the plate (and the appetizer and even dessert plates too) at a growing number of eateries. Kensington Quarters, Butcher Bar, Cleavers and Urban Farmer buck the veg trend and celebrate the primal (and paleo) pleasures of beef, pork and the like.
16. Mexican Dining: Over the past few decades, Mexican food has come to dominate the Philly restaurant scene. Diners can choose from simple storefront taquerias, sleek restaurants like Jose Garces’ Distrito and Stephen Starr’s El Vez, elegant fine dining at Tequila’s, small, family-run eateries like Blue Corn and South Philly Barbacoa and gastropubs with Mexican flair.
17. Food Halls: Like food corridors in miniature, Philly’s food halls vibrate with the energy of startups, artisans and quick-serves. In 2017, Chinatown Square transformed a vast space in the heart of Chinatown with curry, ramen, nori dogs, bao, poke, bibimbap, Korean tacos, rolled ice cream and karaoke. In 2018, the country’s first formal commodities exchange, the historic Bourse Building, plans a reinvention as a food hall complete with chaat, matzo ball soup, local chocolates and artisan cocktails, while an old food court at the University of Pennsylvania will harbor on-trend tenants such as Goldie, Little Baby’s Ice Cream, Kensington Quarters, Pitruco Pizza and more.
18. Food Learning: With so many food-obsessed Philadelphians to learn from, the secrets of wine connoisseurs, chefs and butchers are in easy reach. Classes at Tria, Reading Terminal Market, Cook and Kensington Quarters are all about sight-doing, not just sightseeing and sight-tasting.
More Than Grocery Stores:
19. Historic Markets: Since its earliest days, Philadelphia has supported excellent markets, and locals avidly patronize them even in the era of Instacart. The circa 1892 indoor Reading Terminal Market offers an eclectic mix of restaurant stalls, Amish foodstuffs and farm-fresh produce, meat and seafood. The open-air 9th Street Italian Market serves as the hub of an increasingly international neighborhood where one can find excellent cheese, cannoli, tamales and hummus among the many goods for sale.
20. Farm Markets: With an abundance of regional producers bringing their goods to the city’s year-round markets, locavores thrive in Philly. In the warmer months, every neighborhood hosts its own outdoor farmer’s market—a couple not-to-miss markets take place in season on Saturdays in Rittenhouse Square and Sundays at Headhouse Square—within a short drive to the surrounding suburbs there are dozens of venues for pick-your-own fruit, pumpkins and flowers.
21. Artisan Food Products: Buying local also means supporting the many wonderful makers that produce edibles here. Some notables include Soom Foods’ tahini (sesame paste), Castle Valley Mill grits, Éclat Chocolate, EPIC Pickles and ice cream by Zsa’s, Little Baby’s and Weckerly’s.
22. Coffee: Seattle may retain the biggest name in the business, but Philly has some of the most cutting-edge coffee sourcers and roasters around. Local purveyors La Colombe, Elixr, ReAnimator, Greenstreet, Rival Bros., Peregrine and Square One ensure a citywide supply of freshly roasted coffee.
23. Beer: The onetime beer-brewingest town in the Western Hemisphere has reemerged as a leader, with 11 breweries inside city limits, and many more in its suburbs. Hops-philes make annual trips to Philly Beer Week, featuring dozens of bars, bottle shops and events. Trending right now: Sours and ciders, thanks to OGs like Belgian Monk’s Cafe and newbies such as Cinder.
24. Distilleries: Craft spirits constitute another trend, with many local distilleries popping up over the past five years. From Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey to Boardroom Spirits’ beet-based brandy and Federal Distilling’s vodka, creative entrepreneurs are reinventing the way we drink.
25. Wine: Philadelphia has worked hard to carve out a niche for itself in the wine world. Bars such as Tria, Jet, Vintage and Panorama promote wine awareness and education, Philadelphia Wine Week has blossomed into one of the city’s most festive events, and many of the city’s finest restaurants promote special dinners with winemakers and growers. Outside of the city, the burgeoning winery scene merits a day trip (or two).
26. Cocktail Culture: With its rigorous food scene, it’s only natural that Philly also supports an equally passionate cocktail culture. Liquid innovation can be found at cocktail bars Hop Sing Laundromat, The Franklin Bar, the Ranstead Room and Tiki, and at any high-end restaurant.
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