Serious Eats City Guide: Philadelphia (Way Beyond the Cheesesteak)
Editor's note: Our first Serious Eats City Guide brought you New York through the eyes (and stomach) of our own Ed Levine. For our second installation, we head down the Eastern Seaboard to Philadelphia with resident eater Joy Manning, the restaurant critic at Philadelphia Magazine. If her picks aren't enough, you can check out the magazine's Best of Philly food winners from 2004 to 2008 online. As always, chime in with agreement, or feel free to alert us to any Philly eats we've overlooked.
A lot of visitors, especially New Yorkers, complain about pizza in Philly. But we do have a few terrific spots that bake world class pies. My two favorites both have super thin, super crispy crusts, but they are served up in settings that couldn’t be more different. Osteria, an upscale restaurant co-owned by Marc Vetri, does a full menu of rustic Italian fare but the pizzas—cooked to perfection in an 800-degree wood fired oven imported from Italy—steal the show. Try the Lombarda, which is topped with house-made sausage and a runny baked egg. Tacconelli's, on the other hand, is a no frills neighborhood pizzeria with one big caveat. You have to call ahead and reserve the dough for the number of pies you want. A hassle? Definitely. But these perfectly charred pies are worth the effort.
The Good Dog burger is so good it inspired Craig LaBan, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic, to write a song and make a music video about it. (Seriously: check it out.) Of course, this burger is seasoned and cooked just right, but its secret ingredient is a knob of flavorful blue cheese sealed in the center of the patty.
Good Dog Bar and Restaurant: 224 South 15th Street, Philadelphia PA 19102 (map); 215-985-9600.
Best Ice Cream
Bassett’s, unlike ultra premium brands, understands overrun, the air that is incorporated into ice cream. Cheaper brands whip too much air into their product, while brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs do not incorporate enough. A certain amount of overrun is required to achieve that perfectly creamy texture. And Bassett’s flavors melt softly on your tongue without numbing it. I am partial to their heavily rippled peanut butter vanilla.
Bassett’s Ice Cream: 45 North 12th Street, Philadelphia PA 19107 (map); 215- 925-4315.
Best Late-Night Eats
The Royal Tavern has been open for years, but in spite of my zeal for all things new, it remains one of my very favorite places to grab a bite and a beer. They always have fabulous microbrews on draft and their menu features bar classics (really good burgers and fries) vegan options (a crave-able tempeh club sandwich) and specials that are often based on farm-fresh ingredients the restaurant gets through Philadelphia’s Farm to City program. (I’m still thinking about a roasted asparagus and fried egg special I had at the Royal two years ago.) But of all the things it has going for it, one of the best is that the kitchen remains open—cooking up the full menu—until 1 a.m.
The Royal Tavern: 937 East Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia PA 19147 (map); 215-389-6694.
Best Bar Food
Philadelphia invented the gastropub. Really, people didn’t use that term before the Standard Tap opened up in 2000. And while I’ve got nothing but love for the Standard Tap, I don’t think they have the best bar food. That title, in my book, goes to Grace Tavern, an inconspicuous, unassuming bar that shares an owner with the perpetually mobbed Monk’s. The food here is pretty simple—burgers, a few bar snacks, and sandwiches. Get one of the homemade sausage sandwiches (I like the chicken-apple) along with fries in a killer bourbon-enhanced mayo. And I’m not alone in my adoration of this humble spot: it’s where Mayor Michael Nutter hung out the night before his election last fall.
Grace Tavern: 2229 Grays Ferry Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19146 (map); 212-893-9580.
Best 'Date Night' Spot
My husband and I have a strong restaurant preference for our date nights: Ansill, a French-influenced small plates bar just a block off South Street. It hits just the right note of casual but still nice and the food is an incredible selection of adventurous offal-based dishes (we recently had a mix of fried pigs ear slivers, sweetbreads and tripe) and comfort food (if you go, don’t miss the osso bucco sandwich.) We’re also crazy for Mr. Martino’s Trattoria, a semi-secret restaurant with no sign and covered up windows. Stepping inside takes you back in time about 50 years and the homey, inexpensive Italian food always satisfies. Don’t miss the white bean soup or the lemon tart.
Best Japanese Food and Sushi
I would be remiss not to mention Morimoto. The Philly location is his flagship, and though he’s rarely there the quality remains high. It’s a hip, flashy, expensive, delicious night out if that’s your thing. Zento, on the other hand, is a low key BYOB helmed by a former Morimoto mentee. Try Zento’s Square roll, which combines eel, avocado, plum paste and tuna.
The Dead Sea at Zahav combines the anise-y spirit Arak with tart grapefruit juice. I am a huge fan of non-sweet cocktails and this is incredibly refreshing. You want classic cocktails mixed the old fashioned way? Go directly to Southwark, where you’ll find the perfect Manhattan or Sazerac.
Three Must-Haves at Reading Terminal
Nanee’s Kitchen’s lassis. These tart-sweet-creamy yogurt shakes are mixed fresh daily in flavors like cardamom and rose. Metropolitan Pretzel. This is not your typical Philadelphia soft pretzel. It’s better. The twist is made of sourdough and sprinkled with coarse salt and fennel seeds. And Famous Fourth Street Cookie. These big, buttery, basic chocolate chip cookies are baked all day at Reading Terminal Market. They are always fresh and warm.
Reading Terminal Market: 12th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia PA 19107 (map). Nanee’s Kitchen: 267-918-0786. Metropolitan Pretzel: 215-829-9020. Famous Fourth Street Cookie: 215-629-5990.
Best Pork Sandwich
DiNic’s Roast Pork—with provolone and broccoli rabe. Some combinations are perfect. The long roll soaks up the flavorful pork jus; the bitterness of the greens cuts the richness of the pork and the creamy, sharp cheese rounds out the sandwich. The foodies who live here wish the world would forget the cheesesteak and celebrate our real sandwich treasure. Tony Luke’s and John’s Roast Pork round out the traditional trio of favorite roast pork sandwiches.
DiNic’s, at Reading Terminal Market: 12th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia PA 19107 (map); 215-923-6175. Tony Luke’s: 39 East Oregon Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19148 (map); 215-551-5725. John’s Roast Pork: 14 East Snyder Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19148 (map); 215-463-1951.
Best Food Shopping Locale (aside from Reading Terminal)
Philadelphia has a terrific network of farmers markets. My favorite happens on Sunday, when dozens of local farmers and artisans take over Headhouse Square. You will find not only in-season heirloom fruits and vegetables but also pastured meats, local cheeses and tempting baked goods.
Headhouse Square: Second and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia PA 19147 (map).
Best Bargain Lunch
Tiffin’s lunch specials (available for delivery) cost $7.50 (for vegetarian) or $8.50. You go online to check out the weekly offering; there just two choices (veg and non veg) per day. For that low price you get a delicious Indian entrée with a side plus dal, rice, chutney and pickles. It’s definitely two days worth of lunch and some really nice reusable containers to sweeten the deal. I always opt for a vegetable curry.
Tiffin: 710 West Girard Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19123 (map); 215-922-1297.
Most Worth a Splurge
The word "splurge" has different meanings for different people. I remember when every meal I ate out was a splurge. Dinner for two at Vetri, Philadelphia’s most celebrated restaurant, ran me close to $400 when I visited earlier this year. Le Bec-Fin, with its new a la carte menu, is still a worthy splurge at around $250. Ansill, my favorite restaurant, might run you $150. (If you don’t drink wine, you’ll spend $50 to $100 less at each of these places.) For a $100 dinner for two, I suggest Matyson, a fine dining American BYOB off Rittenhouse Square.
Vetri: 1312 Spruce Street, Philadelphia PA 19107 (map); 215-732-3478. Ansill: 627 South Third Street, Philadelphia PA 19147 (map); 215- 627-2485. Le Bec Fin: 1523 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA 19102 (map); 215-567-1000. Matyson: 37 South 19th Street, Philadelphia PA 19103 (map); 215-564-2925.
Best Brunch Without A Wait
Brunch at Lacroix, the restaurant in the swanky Rittenhouse Hotel, is a meal you won’t have to wait in line for. You will need a reservation and some cash though. It costs $75 a person. That’s a lot of dough for brunch, but once you’ve been you’ll begin thinking of it as one of the best values in restaurants you’ve ever heard of. Why? The spread—it’s a buffet—is lavish. There are freshly shucked oysters and sushi. There are dozens of little chef-y creations like foie gras ganache. And of course there is all the usual brunch fare like bacon, eggs, ham, pastries, pancakes, etc. The kitchen opens up for this weekly event and there you’ll find carving stations with roast meats, heirloom vegetable sides and a heavenly assortment of buttery pastries and cakes. Save room for some artisanal cheese. Did I fail to convince you to splurge on brunch? Try The Ugly American for the best biscuits in town at a price that won’t blow the day’s eating budget.
Best Streetside Vendor
Philadelphia’s best street side vendor isn’t in truck or a cart. Los Taquitos de Puebla, locally famous for their scrumptious tacos al pastor, brings its storefront operation street side every Sunday at the Headhouse Square Farmers Market. It’s quite a show to see the roasted pork and pineapple shaved into a warm taco just before you eat it.
Can you just forget about the cheesesteak? I know if you are in Philadelphia you feel like you must have one, but it’s not really all that important. Have a roast pork sandwich or even an Italian hoagie instead. OK, OK. You want a cheesesteak pick. Fine. Tony Luke’s. His sandwiches are made from flavorful rib eye and served on a roll that strikes the right balance between crusty and soft. Ordering here is less rigid than at some other places, but go ahead and say “wiz wit.” It means you want Cheez Whiz and fried onions. Be sure to strike the cheesesteak lean (where you lean as much forward as you can to avoid getting grease on your shirt) and ask someone to take your picture. Happy now?
Tony Luke’s: 39 East Oregon Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19148 (map); 215-551-5725.
Best Water Ice
I remember when I was in college at NYU being absolutely dumbstruck that no one seemed to know what water ice was. It’s not Italian ice, that awful hard-as-a-rock stuff you buy in a paper cup with a pull off top. Real water ice has a softer texture, and the best is chockablock with flavor from actual fruit and fruit juice. The best I’ve had is from Mancuso & Sons. There are just three flavors: chocolate, cherry and lemon. Go with the lemon.
Mancuso & Sons: 102 East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19148 (map); 215-389-1817.
Best Italian Food
I’m sorry I had to go and tell you how expensive Vetri is. The place is legendary, the food is from-another-planet delicious, and the atmosphere is guileless and charming. Here is where I’ll give you a little good news. Osteria (see Best Pizza) is co-owned by Marc Vetri. It’s also co-owned by its executive chef Jeff Michaud, a longtime Vetri sous chef. And like Vetri, Osteria has silky homemade pastas, house-cured charcuterie, and desserts to die for. And you and a date can get in and out for $100.
Osteria: 640 North Broad Street, Philadelphia PA 19130 (map); 215-763-0920.]
Best BYOB Restaurant
For several years we’ve suffered through a glut of mediocre BYOBs. Then, earlier this year, Cochon opened. This tiny gem in the Queen Village neighborhood would be just as busy if they served alcohol. The rustic French fare is awesome, and that’s why people eat here. Cochon means pig in French and the pork dishes here do stand out though it’s hard to go wrong with anything on the oft-changing menu.
Cochon: 801 East Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19147 (map); 215-923-7675.
Must Eat Before Leaving
There are certain restaurants where I’ve never eaten dessert because these places are too close to one of Capogiro's two locations. The gelato made here is just too good not to have if in a five-block radius. I know Italians who claim it’s better than most gelato in Italy. If you visit Philadelphia and don’t visit Capogiro, you should lose your rights to access this website or ever call yourself a Serious Eater again. If you can only enjoy one bite of Philadelphia, get yourself a cup of this heavenly stuff. There is a 339-post thread on eGullet devoted to “interesting flavors and combinations” at Capogiro. My favorite flavor combo is dark chocolate with sea salt.