The taste lingered long after the car turned onto Interstate 95 and the twin towers of Liberty Place grew smaller in the rearview mirror. It was quite possibly the best pork sandwich ever—tender herb-braised meat, pulled apart and tucked into the firm yet yielding roll that only a Philadelphia bakery can make. The crowning touch: garlicky broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. The Italian pulled-pork sandwich, pronounced America’s “best sandwich” by the Travel Channel’s Adam Richman, is the signature item at DiNic’s (136 Arch St., 215-923-6175, tommydinics.com), one of about 100 vendors in Philly’s Reading Terminal Market. While DiNic’s offers other delights, it’s the pork that prompts people to wait in a line that snakes around the counter. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag a seat when a diner leaves.
DiNic’s is a mouth-watering institution in a city with no shortage of them. Philadelphia is, after all, the birthplace of the original cheese steak. But if you think Philly’s food fame only lives inside a sub roll, think again.
“Our city’s dining scene is continually evolving, and diners can enjoy all different types of cuisine, cooked to perfection from top-notch chefs,” says Michael Solomonov, who in 2011 won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. “It’s definitely not just cheese steaks and hoagies anymore.”
For proof, consider Solomonov’s own Philly spots: Zahav (237 St. James Place, 215-625-8800, zahavrestaurant.com), a modern take on Israeli cuisine; Percy Street Barbecue (900 South St., 215-625-8510, percystreet.com); and the wildly popular Federal Donuts, which only serves donuts and fried chicken (two locations, including 1219 S. Second St., 267-687-8258, federaldonuts.com)—and when the donuts and drumsticks are gone, it’s closing time.
Philadelphia is also the home of Iron Chef Jose Garces, who has seven restaurants here. Another culinary guru, Marc Vetri, won the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic honor in 2005. The Philadelphia native opened the 40-seat Vetri Ristorante in 1998 (1312 Spruce St., 215-732-3478, vetriristorante.com). “There wasn’t much at the time,” he says of the dining scene. By 2004, he says, “a lot of cool, young chefs started to open up places, and it just has not stopped.”
Nor has Vetri, who now has four restaurants. His latest is Alla Spina (1410 Mt. Vernon St., 215-600-0017, allaspinaphilly.com). Italian for “from the tap,” the newcomer showcases beer and Italian “gastropub” fare, such as Italian “poutine,” made with mozzarella curd, and a guinea-hen-leg Bolognese.
C. Evan Flatt, editor of eater.com in Philadelphia, credits these celebrity chefs, along with trailblazer Georges Perrier and restaurateur Stephen Starr, for nurturing young talent. “All those places became an amazing machine, and all of the kids who were growing up in those kitchens are now opening their own places,” he says. “And here we are: The trees are bearing fruit.”
Your hotel is a good place to whet your appetite; many possess acclaimed restaurants.
Take The Ritz-Carlton (Ten Avenue of the Arts, 215-523-8000, ritzcarlton.com), for instance. Located in an imposing former bank building, the Ritz offers 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge (215-523-8273, 10arts.com). You may remember that 10 Arts produced Top Chef contestant Jennifer Carroll. Chef de cuisine Nathan Volz is now at the helm. The hotel is near the theater district, making it ideal if you plan on seeing a show.
The Four Seasons (One Logan Square, 215-963-1500, fourseasons.com/philadelphia) has bragging rights to the Fountain Restaurant, which has racked up hundreds of accolades with its seasonal, prix-fixe menu and exceptional service. It can also boast about its proximity to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the spine of the museum district. Walk to The Franklin Institute (222 N. 20th St., 215-448-1200, fi.edu); the Rodin Museum (2151 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., 215-568-6026, rodinmuseum.org); and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org). New to the scene is the can’t-miss The Barnes museum (2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., 215-278-7200, barnesfoundation.org), which relocated last year from its suburban site.
The Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco (433 Chestnut St., 215-925-2111, monaco-philadelphia.com), which offers the Red Owl Tavern, opened in fall. The property, located in the 11-story Lafayette Building, is wowing guests with its Japanese soaking tubs and in-room “view” maps, which offer information based on your room’s sightline.
The hotel is close to the National Constitution Center (525 Arch St. 215-409-6600, constitutioncenter.org), Independence National Historical Park (143 S. Third St., 215-965-2305, nps.gov/inde), the Liberty Bell Center (598 Chestnut St., 215-965-2305, nps.gov/inde/liberty-bell-center.htm), the National Museum of American Jewish History (101 S. Independence Mall East, 215-923-3811, nmajh.org) and the African American Museum (701 Arch St., 215-574-0380, aampmuseum.org).
If you’ve arrived on a Friday, consider stopping by “Art After 5” for wine, cheese, and jazz from 5-8:45 p.m. at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On a recent visit, a hipster crowd sat at white-linen tables or on the broad steps of the Great Stair Hall.
Or there’s the casual London Grill (2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545, londongrill.com), which, thanks to its little sister, the Paris Wine Bar, located next door (2303 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545), now mines Paris and London for inspiration. You’ll find fish and chips and duck confit.
Another evening option is First Friday in Philadelphia’s Old City (oldcityarts.org). The monthly event highlights the more than 40 galleries in this happening neighborhood, once a commercial warehouse district on the Delaware River.
Restoration efforts attracted restaurants as well as galleries, and Jose Garces’s first entry into the Philadelphia dining scene is among them. Since opening in 2005, Amada (217-219 Chestnut St., 215-625-2450, amadarestaurant.com) has created a sensation with its inventive tapas menu. Picture a custardy cake of succulent shrimp, earthy wild mushrooms, and shirred eggs, or roasted pork kissed with orange and served with white beans and peppery arugula.
Another Old City favorite is Fork (306 Market St. 215-625-9425, forkrestaurant.com), which debuted in 1997. “When Fork opened, Philly’s restaurant scene, as it currently has evolved, was in its infancy,” recalls owner Ellen Yin. “Fork fit into the dining scene as a ‘New American bistro.’”
On Saturday, join sleepyheads in the Italian Market district at Sabrina’s Café (910 Christian St., 215-574-1599, sabrinascafe.com), where the challah French toast—stuffed with farmer’s cream cheese and topped with bananas and vanilla-bean syrup—and a side of scrapple, the region’s celebrated breakfast meat, will perk you right up.
The 9th Street Italian Market, which spans about 10 city blocks, is one of the oldest and largest open-air markets in America. This was the scene for the Italian Stallion’s training runs in Rocky.
Many make the trip to visit DiBruno Bros. (930 S. Ninth St., 215-922-2876, dibruno.com), a staple since 1939. Although tucked into a slender space, the shop holds more than 400 cheeses, as well as high-quality oils and vinegars.
At the market’s southern tip rests Philly’s claim to cheese-steak fame: Pat’s King of Steaks (1237 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-468-1546, patskingofsteaks.com) and its rival, Geno’s Steaks (1219 S. Ninth St., 215-389-0659, genosteaks.com).
Legend has it that Pat Olivieri invented the steak sandwich in 1930, but Geno’s, which is decorated with more neon lights than an Atlantic City casino at Christmas, added the cheese. They’ve been battling for supremacy since 1966, when Geno’s opened. Both are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To avoid hearing “Yo! Hurry up!” from impatient Philadelphians, learn the lingo. “One whiz wit” means you want a cheese steak with Cheez Whiz and fried onions. “One provolone without” means you want a cheese steak with provolone but without fried onions. Order Swiss cheese and expect ridicule.
As a possible alternative to the Italian Market, visit the Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch Streets, 215-922-2317, readingterminalmarket.org). (You could go on a Sunday, but the Pennsylvania Dutch vendors are off then.)
The market, which opened in 1892, attracts more than 100,000 visitors a week. What’s the appeal? “There are all these labyrinths of stalls, smells, and different kinds of people. There are lots of transactions happening all the time,” says David O’Neil, author of Reading Terminal Market: An Illustrated History and the market’s general manager from 1980 to 1990.
Wares include pickles, beeswax candles, pastries, whole fish, French linen, and local produce. There’s Thai food, fried seafood, soul food, and Middle Eastern food. Highlights include Sweet as Fudge Candy Shoppe, A.J. Pickle Patch & Salads, and the Cookbook Stall. Along with DiNic’s, pause at Bassetts Ice Cream, Termini Brothers Bakery, and Old City Coffee.
Indeed, beer is as prevalent in Philly as soft pretzels, perhaps more so. This is the City of Brotherly Suds, and the successful Philly Beer Week this year runs May 31-June 9 at venues throughout the city.
At Standard Tap in the Northern Liberties section (901 N. Second St., 215-238-0630, standardtap.com), daily selections are scrawled on a chalkboard over the bar. Don’t ask for bottled beer. “That is why we are called Standard Tap,” a bartender reminds a customer, working the hand pump to pour a glass of Victory’s Uncle Teddy’s Bitter.
Beer by Victory, based in the Philadelphia suburbs, is ubiquitous in Philly. Yet the city also craves Belgian beers. Monk’s Cafe (264 S. 16th St., 215-545-7005, monkscafe.com), located a few blocks from the Kimmel Center complex, sparked the trend when it opened in 1997. At least half of the 250 available beer selections are Belgian.
For an authentic tavern experience, don’t miss McGillin’s Olde Ale House, founded in 1860, (1310 Drury St., 215-735-5562, mcgillins.com). It is, admittedly, easy to miss. Drury Street is like an alley, complete with rusty trash bins, a fenced parking lot, and the backs of buildings. McGillin’s appears like something out of Brigadoon—only with beer.
When Chris and Mary Ellen Mullins took over the tavern from her father and uncle in 1993, they decided to specialize in craft brews, particularly those from the Philadelphia area, as well as European ales, lagers, and pilsners. “The beer scene here is thriving,” Chris Mullins says. McGillin’s three house beers are made by Stoudt’s, also based near Philadelphia.
Philadelphians love their Sunday brunch. Expect nothing less than the unexpected at the $69 buffet at LaCroix in the Rittenhouse Hotel (210 W. Rittenhouse Square, 215-546-9000, lacroixrestaurant.com), where you might pick up smoked haddock at the raw bar followed by a slice of hand-carved roasted suckling pig or pastrami-spiral veal. Entrees include braised short-rib pad Thai and Vietnamese beef broth with quail and an egg.
On a sunny day, head to Parc on Rittenhouse Square (227 S. 18th St., 215-545-2262, parc-restaurant.com), one of the many sensations Stephen Starr has sprinkled throughout the city. Sit outside to savor the scenery with your pommes frites. The restaurant doesn’t stray too far from the theme. There are omelets with Gruyère cheese, quiche Lorraine, croissants, and steaming cups of café au lait.
Walk off les oeufs with a stroll through the park, a frequent place for art shows, fairs, and the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market, held year-round on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Or see where all the hippies meet with a visit to South Street, whose eclectic shops are as likely to attract suburbanites as they are pierced and tattooed bohemians. You can also check out chef Michael Solomonov’s Percy Street Barbecue while you’re there.
No matter what you do, your taste buds will thank you. These days, Philadelphia is at the forefront of another American revolution—only this one seeks to liberate your palate.