I realize that most people talk about their college experiences, and their university of choice, like they're incomparably great. I mean, college is a blast. I'm not one to term things "the best X years of my life," but let's just say that my four years at Penn were four damn good years. And, while I've been known to get a little competitive, I really don't think it's such a stretch to term Penn one of the best places ever.
Why? Because it's in Philadelphia, of course. And for all of my San Francisco pride, my Brooklyn love, and my unhampered appreciation of any a number of other cities, I'll say it loud and say it proud: Philly is a special city. It's got serious character, for one—being oft treated like the marginalized younger brother of New York has given it a slight chip, and a whole lotta attitude. What's more, Philadelphia is the kind of city that you have to explore a bit to really appreciate. When you do, you feel like you're in on the secret.
The food is easily one of the best examples of this. You start out seeing Philly as the city of cheesesteaks and Steven Starr (not that there's anything wrong with either of these things), only to learn that it's so, so much more. It's gorgeous BYOBs tucked away in tree-filled neighborhoods; epic brunches and Ethiopian feasts; Belgian beer bars and incomparable neighborhood dives. I think that I was always a pretty good eater, but going to Penn allowed me to become a truly serious one.
Philadelphia as a whole is a culinary playground worth exploring, but West Philly has plenty of gems to keep you busy (just a short walk from campus). And getting out into West Philly was easily one of the best things I did while in school. Of course, Penn has no shortage of way satisfying late-night greasy spoon spots, which are equally important.
Admittedly, I'm (gulp) four years out and plenty of new things have sprung up around campus, but here are some spots not to miss while eating and drinking your way through your degree.
Allegro's. There is no beating Allegro's. Ever. Is their pizza good? It's unclear. But, I did eat it sober, doused liberally with parmesan cheese and pepper flakes. While Allegro's was always important, it was solidified as the ultimate college pizza spot for me senior year, during Spring Fling. While having a three-day long dance party on a friends' porch, we'd occasionally run next door for slices of pizza. I'll put it this way: not only did it fuel our Fling, I'm not sure anything has ever tasted better.
Remember those West Philly discoveries I was raving about? Dock Street is at the top of my list of best-places-I-wish-I-could-go-right-now list. The brewery and pizzeria is housed in an old firehouse, which is awesome. In addition to excellent beer, the wood-oven fired pizzas are available with a variety of excellent, flavorful toppings—fig jam, many cheeses, creme fraiche—you get the idea (and larges are all are under $20... man, Philly!). Don't skip the trio of fries to start; the mix of classic potato, sweet potato, and french-fried leeks are ridiculously good.
As Penn goes, citing the Greek Lady is about as obvious as saying "I spent some time on Locust Walk." Whatever. The Greek Lady is worthy of such stature. First of all: similar to Allegro's, I totally ate at the Lady when sober. The Greek Lady salad! An enormous pile of delicious grilled chicken, a block of feta the size of a deck of cards, an tub of dressing, and toasty warm pita! If only all salads were so... hearty. Late night, Greek Lady is not only even more delicious, but it's also where you'll run into everyone (everyone who's not at Allegro's, anyway). What to order? A lamb gyro, a grilled chicken pita, a cheesesteak, a bacon-egg-and-cheese—I mean c'mon, it's 2 am and you just finished taking shots at Smokes while singing "Heroin" along with Kweder. Get what you want! I had a pretty long love affair with the curly cheese fries, but there's no going wrong here.
For all of the hype about mobile food vendors over the past few years, no credit was given to Penn's deeply awesome food cart scene. Right around campus during the day, you can get yourself a pile of fresh fruit, crepes, Chinese , tacos... the list goes on. Favorites? Bui's for hangover egg sandwiches (when the woman mumbles 'saltpepperketchup?' just say yes), Don Memo's for Mexican (per a fellow Penn food-lover's recommendation), and most importantly, the Magic Carpet. Vegetarian Middle Eastern food has never been so good, or so rib sticking—a Magic Meatball pita sandwich with hot sauce and cheese is maybe the best lunch ever. Plus, it's vegetarian so it's healthy, right?
The Metropolitan Bakery (or 'Metro') has great coffee, delicious food (millet muffins! grilled cheese with spinach and guacamole!) and is conveniently located right at 40th and Walnut. The Green Line Cafe is airy, light, and the best kind of neighborhood coffee shop (lots of neighborhood locals, too, versus all students). Plus, if you go on Saturday mornings, there's a stellar farmer's market running along Clark Park. Avril 50 doesn't have much space to sit, but does have fantastic coffee and a great selection of international magazines.
Late-night Wawa hoagie purchases aside, Metro was often my go-to for sandwiches. In addition to those grilled cheeses, they have delicious, hearty panini (the roast beef is excellent), and a number of cold sandwiches, all of which were served with a side salad tossed in their addictive lemon vinaigrette. And Koch's is a must for deeply excellent thin-sliced deli meats—their pastrami with melted swiss will cure a hangover like the champ of a sandwich that it is.
New Deck Tavern's half pound burgers are drippy, satisfying affairs—though for a while, I was partial to their turkey burger (well salted and flavorful, it was one of the better ones I've ever had). The burgers are a great accompaniment for the ample amounts of beer you're likely to drink while playing Monday Night trivia. Plus, their beer-battered fries are delicious plain, and even better covered in melty cheddar, green onions, and bacon. Through it all, they stay crispy! How? Magic, I assume. I also used to be partial to ordering a burger and a pitcher of beer at the bar at White Dog next door (they were topped with guacamole); their menu seems to have changed, but they have rather tasty looking (if different) burgers on their lunch and dinner menus.
Vietnam Cafe on Baltimore is a great place to eat some tasty Vietnamese food and go through a few bottles of wine. Marigold Kitchen is a gorgeous space with a thoughtful, ever-changing menu. Rx is tasty for dinner, too. As for BYOs near campus where you can get rowdy? Beijing, the amazingly divey Chinese restaurant next to the Quad is BYOB. You didn't hear it from me. And, Ajia, the sushi spot in the Left Bank apartment building, never protested when we showed up with a few cases of beer, or even a handle of vodka.
Nara is a great spot for sushi, though Friday or Saturday nights will find the spot overrun with sake bombers from Penn and Drexel alike (though if that's your jam, go for it). There are a few options for simple, satisfying Thai food—I was partial to Thai Singha House, but Pattaya got the job done, too. I loved Dahlak for Ethiopian food—they have a great back patio area perfect for drinking Red Stripe on hot nights. Pod is Steven Starr's fancy, shiny, Asian-fusion spot on campus; it can be overpriced, but they have a great lunch special with that includes miso soup, salad, rice, and the protein of your choice (I loved the macadamia chicken stir-fry).*
I often would take my parents to places in greater Philadelphia, but they loved Magnolia Kitchen, Rx, and White Dog. Another great spot—Zocalo for tasty, fresh Mexican food at 36th and Lancaster.
Smokey Joe's and the Blarney Stone are no-brainers, and classing it up on Sansom Street will become a must come junior/senior year. But Fiume is a can't-miss gem. We often referred to it as 'upstairs-Abyssinia,' as it's above that restaurant; this tiny dive looks like it was thrown together in someone's living room and feels like the best house party, ever. Definitely go on Thursday nights for live bluegrass. Also amazing: Monday nights at the Millcreek Tavern for cheap wings, cheap beer, and karaoke.
Worth the Septa Ride
Oh god. You get me started on greater Philadelphia and I could go on for days... but I'll try to keep it brief. BYOBs: Figs, Mercato, Melograno, Lolita, La Viola (the latter, for shitshow group dinners). Brunch: Ants Pants Cafe, Farmicia, Sabrina's, Honey's Sit 'n Eat (check out the second two on weekdays or you'll wait for hours). Beer: Eulogy, Monk's. Burger: Standard Tap, Triumph Brewery (Eulogy, too). Wine and Cheese: Tria (although there's one near campus now!). Bread, Cheese, Sandwiches: Di Bruno Brothers. Big group dinners: Marrakesh, El Vez. Bar: Dirty Franks, Johnny Brenda's. Gelato: Capogiro.
There's so much more! And so much that I'm sure I don't even know about. Where do you like to eat near Penn? This is my reunion year... time to start scheduling old favorites and listing new spots to try.
*Did I not eat Indian food in college? I can't seem to remember any spots. Penn kids, what are your favorite spots for Indian?