Taking a Bite Out of Philly
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Vol. 9 No. 9 P. 48
Attendees of this year’s ADA Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo can expect much more than cheesesteaks in this culinary capital.
The historic city of Philadelphia has reinvented itself as a culinary destination. The streets are teeming with celebrity chef-owned restaurants, bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) establishments, quaint bistros, and ethnic eateries. “Philadelphia tends to always take people by surprise,” says April White, food editor of Philadelphia magazine, adding that people who expect the city’s dining experience to be limited to cheesesteaks often find much more awaiting them. “Philadelphia is one of the most exciting and diverse dining cities in the country,” says Tim Zagat, cofounder of Zagat Survey, in a recent press release on Philadelphia dining.
The Philadelphia dining scene offers a broad range of choices for visitors—from upscale dining to unpretentious local haunts, each offering excellent cuisine. Carolyn Wyman, host at the Reading Terminal Market Tour, says, “Philly has great food at both ends of the spectrum.”
Dining Par Excellence
Philadelphia has a number of fine restaurants that regularly grace the “best of” lists for the city (and sometimes the entire country), many led by acclaimed chefs with decades-long reputations. “There are a lot of different restaurants here that you might be able to find in New York. The overall landscape is a lot more competitive now,” says Chef Martin Hamann of the Fountain Restaurant.
Deanna Segrave-Daly, RD, LDN, director of foodservice channel development at Dairy Management, Inc., chair of the Food and Culinary Professionals Dietetic Practice Group, and a local food buff, lists restaurants such as Georges Perrier’s gorgeous French restaurant Le Bec-Fin (1523 Walnut Street, 215-567-1000); the dramatic fusion spot Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine (1512 Walnut Street, 215-545-2666); Lacroix (210 West Rittenhouse Square, 215-546-9000), a sophisticated French restaurant at the Rittenhouse Hotel; Fountain Restaurant (see review); The Grill at The Ritz-Carlton (10 Avenue of the Arts, 215-523-8224), which offers refined contemporary American cuisine; and Ristorante Panorama (14 North Front Street, 215-922-7800), with the largest wine preservation system in the world, among the finest in the city.
Lisa Jones, MA, RD, LDN, the Philadelphia Dietetic Association’s public relations chair, calls the acclaimed Water Works Restaurant and Lounge (640 Water Works Drive, 215-236-9000) “a great place with an amazing view and special chefs.” Many such restaurants require reservations in advance, so it may behoove visitors to phone them in immediately.
The Philadelphia BYOB phenomenon is “a unique enigma,” according to White. BYOB restaurants, springing up as a solution to the unusual state liquor system, have developed their own culture. Today, neighborhoods are packed with small, quaint BYOBs, often operated by husband and wife teams that typically offer fresh, authentic food with which you can pair your own bottle of wine. “They are the most affordable, exciting eating around. Every locale has tons of BYOBs,” says Wyman.
Wyman calls Melograno (2201 Spruce Street, 215-875-8116), Matyson (37 South 19th Street, 215-564-2925), and Chloe (232 Arch Street, 215-629-2337) some of the best BYOB establishments. “Marigold Kitchen [501 South 45th Street, 215-222-3699] is in a cute residential neighborhood. They break the mold; it’s more about food there,” says White. Many BYOBs are small and do not take reservations in advance. For a review of “The Best BYOBs in Philly,” see http://philadelphia.citysearch.com/roundup/38802.
The landscape of dining in Philadelphia has been forever changed by Stephen Starr, who opened his first club, Grand Mom Minnie’s, at the ripe age of 21. Starr promoted live entertainment until 1995, at which time he began the Starr Restaurant Organization with the opening of Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar. After the success of this endeavor, a number of successful Starr restaurants began cropping up in the city, including the Asian-themed Buddakan; Tangerine, a Mediterranean restaurant; Pod, a futuristic Asian restaurant; Alma de Cuba, a modern Cuban spot; Morimoto, serving contemporary Japanese cuisine; Jones, offering American comfort food; the Italian spot Angelina; El Vez, a modern Mexican restaurant; and Striped Bass, which offers contemporary American seafood.
The Starr restaurants remain popular not only because of their creative cuisine but also because they offer a visual feast for the eyes—from Buddakan’s monumental golden Buddha meditating alongside at guests to the sleek, modern lines of Pod’s dining booths. “He’s opened a variety of great places that emphasize not just good, interesting food but are known for their décor,” says Segrave-Daly. Visit http://starr-restaurant.com to view additional information about Starr restaurants.
If you’ve got a hankering for exotic, ethnic food, you’re in the right town. “There are a variety of ethnic restaurants. We have Chinatown, the Italian Market, and a Mexican area,” says White. Jones adds, “We have a lot of influences from around the world, such as Spanish, Indian, and Asian.”
According to White, Philadelphia tends to be a very Italian city. And if you’re in search of Philly’s finest Italian eatery, it’s hands-down the tiny Vetri Ristorante (1312 Spruce Street, 215-732-3478), which some consider the best Italian restaurant in the country. Raddichio Café (314 York Avenue, 215-627-6850) is also growing as a favorite for authentic Italian food.
But if you want a true Italian experience, take a ride to South Philly’s Italian section, which offers a number of humble ristorantes serving up excellent food. Segrave-Daly recommends Ristorante Pesto (1915 South Broad Street, 215-336-8380), Scannicchio’s (2500 Broad and Porter, 215-468-3900), and Mr. Martino’s Trattoria (1646 East Passyunk Avenue, 215-755-0663) as the best of the best.
Philly’s 9th Street Italian Market (www.phillyitalianmarket.com), the oldest and largest working outdoor market in the United States, is definitely a sight worth seeing. Wyman says, “The Italian Market is a scene. It’s like coming up to Stonehenge; it seems unnatural in the middle of a neighborhood. There is old-style Italian food, good pizza, pastry shops, pasta shops, cheese shops, and meat shops.”
“Chinatown is a few blocks away, but you feel like you are overseas,” says Segrave-Daly. Philadelphia’s Chinatown, (www.phillychinatown.com), located north of Market Street between 9th and 11th streets, is full of affordable Asian eating experiences. Some local favorites include Vietnam Palace (222 North 11th Street, 215-592-9596), Penang Malaysian Cuisine (117 North 10th Street, 215-413-2531), and Rangoon Burmese (112 North 9th Street, 215-829-8939).
The destinations don’t stop there. Tequila’s Restaurant (1602 Locust Street, 215-546-0181) is one of the most popular restaurants in Philadelphia, offering—you guessed it—Mexican food. Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar (10 South Second Street, 215-627-0666) is an upbeat Cuban spot. And Estia Restaurant (1405-07 Locust Street, 215-735-7700), a new upscale Greek restaurant, has become a favorite haunt for the locals.
Food up Close
To truly understand the culinary experience of Philadelphia, a visit to the Reading Terminal Market (www.readingterminalmarket.org) is a must. Wyman says the Reading Terminal Market Tour gives visitors a chance to see older, family merchants, some of which have been in business for 100 years, and sample significant Philly foods, such as hoagies, cheesesteaks, sticky buns, scrapple, snapping turtle soup, and peanut chews.
Segrave-Daly says Di Bruno Bros. specialty store (1730 Chestnut Street, 215-665-9220) offers a wonderful experience for foodies. While the cheese case alone is worth seeing, you can also sit down for a quick bite of prepared foods.
Many food outings are on the agenda at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) this year, including a tour of Reading Terminal Market, a tour of Chinatown, an evening reception at Di Bruno Bros., and upscale dinner at Susanna Foo.
Culinary Excursion Time
If you have time for a culinary trek, Wyman suggests a 40-minute drive to Kennett Square (www.historickennettsquare.com/tours.html), the mushroom capital of America, which boasts a small museum, shops, and restaurants, such as Kennett Steak & Mushroom (Birch and Broad streets, 610-444-5085), a restaurant with “a near total local mushroom menu,” and Talula’s Table (102 West State Street, 610-444-8255), run by one of the most popular Philly BYOB owners.
“We have a bourgeoning wine country in Pennsylvania,” says White, who suggests Crossing Vineyards (www.crossingvineyards.com) in Bucks Country and Chaddsford Winery (www.chaddsford.com) in Brandywine Valley as wonderful scenic visits. Jones also recommends a stop at The Inn at Saint Peter’s Village (3471 Saint Peter’s Road, 610-469-2600) in Chester County, which offers world-class cuisine and lodging with views of French Creek.
If you don’t have time to venture far off the beaten path, the White Dog Cafe (3420 Sansom Street, 215-386-9224), known for its blend of cuisine and social activism, is a culinary destination in its own right. Located in the University section of Philadelphia, White Dog Cafe (www.whitedog.com) hosts a number of community events such as block parties, storytelling, agriculture tours, and films, in addition to supporting “sister” minority-owned restaurants.
FNCE has also included culinary excursions in its program, including A Taste of Historic Brandywine Valley, Delightful Herbs in the Kitchen, and Monell Chemical Senses Center.
A Must Taste Experience
There are a few bites you must squeeze in by the end of your Philadelphia stay. “You must try a soft pretzel off a street cart—either eat it plain or with mustard,” suggests Segrave-Daly, who also notes that Tastykakes, Philly’s version of Little Debbie snack cakes, are also unique and worth trying. Wyman suggests going to Shane Candies (110 Market Street), as “it is reputedly the oldest candy store in America. It’s the real deal with tin ceilings and the owner’s a Willy Wonka-type. It’s been in their family for years.”
And last but not least, save room for cheesesteaks. Segrave-Daly recommends Geno’s Steaks (1219 South 9th Street, 215-389-0659) or Pat’s King of Steaks (9th Street, 215-468-1546) in South Philly as the best spots to sample cheesesteaks.
Restaurants in the Spotlight
We’ve chosen three top Philly restaurants to pique your appetite.
If you’re looking for an award-winning dining experience, look no further than Fountain Restaurant, which earned top honors in all three categories in the Zagat 2007 Philadelphia Restaurant Guide, as well as kudos from Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines and a coveted Five Diamond rating from AAA. Located in the Four Seasons Hotel, the restaurant, which underwent a recent remodeling, overlooks the lovely Swann Memorial Fountain in the center of Logan Square.
“We have a talented group at our restaurant that have been with us for up to 24 years. It helps with consistency day in and day out. We are constantly keeping it cool and fresh. We change as much as possible to keep on the cutting edge,” says Hamann, who describes the cuisine as French with global influences.
While Hamann regularly changes up the menu, he claims diners especially adore his lobster dishes, such as the Duet of Lobster and Jumbo Lump Crab Galette with Fennel and Potato Mousseline, Marinated Tomatoes, and Shellfish Bouillabaisse Reduction. Who can blame them?
18th and Race streets
One Logan Square
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Osteria, a new restaurant from Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin of Vetri Ristorante, is quickly “creating a lot of buzz,” according to Wyman. White calls Osteria “a really lovely restaurant with great pastas and nice food.” Guests rave about interesting combinations of foods that still fit within a rustic Italian framework. With their wood-fired pizzas and dishes like Lancaster Chicken with Warm Dandelion and Pancetta Salad, it’s no wonder Osteria is one of the hottest restaurants in town.
640 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Under the guidance of Chef Jose Garces, Amada is a Spanish tapas restaurant that focuses on food traditions—rather than trendiness—and it’s paying off. Wyman calls Amada “the single hottest restaurant in town right now.” According to White, Amada won the Best of Philly New Restaurants in the City last year.
Garces is a local celebrity, with a stint as executive chef at the Starr restaurants Alma de Cuba and El Vez on his resumé. “As a kid, I used to love spending time in my grandmother’s kitchen helping her cook. I learned the fundamentals of cooking from her and developed passion for good food from those experiences. My restaurant Amada, which means ‘loved one,’ is named after my grandmother,” says Garces.
Amada’s Charcuteria y Quesos menu offers choices such as Chorizo-Blanco and Aged Manchego with Truffled Lavender Honey and traditional plates that range from Salt Cod Croquettes to Shrimp & Wild Mushroom Shirred Eggs. Amada also features authentic sangrias, such as Tinto with spiced red wine, oranges, apples, and cinnamon. And don’t miss the Wednesday and Friday Flamenco performances.
217-9 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.
Philly Dining Guide
Check out these resources to help plan your Philadelphia dining experience:
10 Best, Philadelphia Restaurants: www.10best.com/Philadelphia/Voted_Best_of_the_City/Restaurants/index.html
America Online City Guide, 2007 Best Philadelphia Restaurants: http://cityguide.aol.com/philadelphia/bestrestaurants
The Boulevards Guide to Philadelphia Restaurants: www.philadelphia.com/dining
City Search, Philadelphia Restaurants: http://philadelphia.citysearch.com/find/section/philadelphia/restaurants.html
The Daily Pennsylvanian Dining Guide: http://services.dailypennsylvanian.com/dguide
Gayot.com, Philadelphia Restaurants: www.gayot.com/restaurantpages/Philadelphia.php?code=PH
Philadelphia and the Countryside, Dining and Restaurants: www.gophila.com/C/Things_to_Do/211/Dining_and_Nightlife/223
Philadelphia Magazine: www.phillymag.com
Philly Foods: www.phillyfoods.com/restaurants.htm
Trip Advisor, Philadelphia Restaurants: www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurants-g60795-Philadelphia_Pennsylvania.html
Philly Dining Debate
A recent essay about the state of Philadelphia dining titled “Fork in the Road” by April White for Philadelphia magazine kicked off a reappraisal of Philadelphia dining by Food and Wine Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin in a June article titled “What Defines a Great Food City?”
Before the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, check out: