Reflecting its tradition of welcoming folks from far and wide, Philadelphia has an incredibly diverse, vibrant food scene. German and Italian heritages are predominant, but these days they're part of a brilliant mix that runs the gamut from Burmese noodles to vegan delights. Whether you're in search of the ideal cheesesteak or a James Beard Award winner, Philly delivers.
Where to Eat
Foodies should zone in on the hot restaurant strips of E Passyunk Ave, between Dickinson and McKean Sts in South Philadelphia, and Frankford Ave in Fishtown. You'll also find plenty of choice and many top spots in Center City, particularly in Midtown Village/the Gayborhood and Chinatown.
For cheap eats, including the legendary Philly cheesesteak, South St is a go-to spot. Bargain eats are also a feature of University City, as are food trucks. In fact food trucks are a common sight across the city; Food Truck Nation (www.foodtrucknation.us) has found Philadelphia to be among the top five friendliest cities in the US for these mobile meal outlets.
In a city with such a long history and cultural diversity, it's only natural it would have a wide range of specialty foods.
If there's one thing you must eat while in town its a cheesesteak. Philadelphians argue over the nuances of these hot sandwiches comprised of thin-sliced, griddle-cooked beef on a chewy roll: there are pork, chicken and even vegan versions available, but die-hard fans will tell you that only the classic beef really qualifies. And don't get people started on where the best one is to be found – there's as many opinions on this as there are areas of the city.
What a visitor most needs to know is how to order. First say the kind of cheese you want – prov (provolone), American (melty yellow) or whiz (molten orange Cheez Whiz). Then 'wit' (with) or 'widdout' (without), referring to fried onions: 'Prov wit,' for example, or 'whiz widdout. And if it's a take-out place, have your money ready – cheesesteak vendors are famously in a hurry.
Alongside the cheesesteak, the hoagie is the city's other significant contribution to sandwich culture, named for the whopper-packed lunches enjoyed by the Italian factory workers at the Hog Island shipyards. Your classic hoagie is a long Italian roll, filled with multiple layers of deli meats and cheeses, and finished with salad, a sprinkle of oregano and a drizzle of oil and vinegar. Great spots to sample these are Reading Terminal Market, Di Bruno Bros and Koch's Deli.
Pennsylvania Dutch Country Foods
While at Reading Terminal Market you'll come across a wide range of Amish and Mennonite foods from Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Specialties include sticky buns, shoofly pie (a spiced concoction of molasses and brown sugar in wet- or dry-bottom versions, so named because the sweet pie attracts flies), fastnachts (a type of doughnut), scrapple (a terrine made from offal) and chow chow (a mixture of sweet pickled vegetables).
A summertime treat is water ice – pronounce it 'wooder ice' if you want to sound Philadelphian. A candied syrup (the best are made only from natural fruit juices) is combined with water and sugar before being frozen to create a smooth, creamy consistency. When Barack Obama was in town he opted for the lemon flavor from John's Water Ice, in business since 1945.
Pop-up events and supper clubs add variety to Philly's multifaceted food scene. Generally you'll need to book ahead for these events:
Boku Supper Club (www.bokusupperclub.com) Sign up online to find out about these events that happen once or twice a month and seat no more than 28 guests – 22 at a communal table and six at the chef's counter.
Food Underground (www.facebook.com/FoodUnderground) Ari Miller's culinary venture organizes a variety of monthly events including pop-up food carts serving premium quality cheesesteaks in the Fishtown branch of Garage bar.
Miss Rachel's Pantry Rachel Klein prepares five-course vegan (and kosher) feasts served around a farmhouse table in a cute space in South Philly, that also doubles as a cooking-class studio.
Talula’s Daily After 6pm this Washington Sq–facing cafe transforms into a French supper club serving a five-course menu that changes each month.
- Chew Philly Food Tours (www.phillyfoodtours.com) Walking tours with a culinary theme in Manayunk and Chestnut Hill.
- Taste4Travel Jacqueline Peccina-Kelly, a professional chef who grew up just two blocks from the Italian Market, leads two-hour tours of the area as well as an East Passyunk dinner tour and an amble around the gourmet goodies of Chestnut Hill.
- Taste of Philly Food Tour The best way to get a handle on Reading Terminal Market is on a tour with knowledgeable food writer Carolyn Wyman. Reservations are recommended.
Festivals & Events
As well as the many annual neighborhood parties, such as Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival and South St Spring Festival, there's scores of food-related festivals and events showcasing Philly's culinary scene. Among the main ones are:
East Passyunk Restaurant Week (www.eastpassyunkrestaurantweek.com) At the end of February and early March many businesses along Philly's hottest dining strip offer a three-course lunch and/or dinner for $15, $25 or $35. Return here again in April for the Flavors of the Avenue event.
Manayunk StrEAT Food Festival & Restaurant Week (http://manayunk.com) April is when the Schuylkill River community showcases its culinary chops.
Night Market (http://thefoodtrust.org/night-market) Chinatown, Fairmount, South St and the Italian Market are among the venues that have hosted this roving, seasonal, night food market.
Great Chefs Event (www.alexslemonade.org/campaign/great-chefs-event-philadelphia) Marc Vetri’s fine-dining festival is held in June at the Navy Yard. Profits go to a kids' cancer charity.
University City Dining Days (www.universitycity.org/university-city-dining-days) Prix-fixe, three-course dinners are served at the area's top restaurants over this 10-day July event.
Audi Feastival Kicking off the Fringe Festival in September is the city's highest-lauded food fest.
Philly Cheesesteak & Food Fest (www.cheesesteakfest.com) This celebration of blue-collar cuisine is held in October at Citizens Bank Park.
One great feature of Philly's dining scene is that many restaurants have a BYOB – bring your own bottle (of wine or beer) – policy. At most places there's no charge for this, but if there is it's unlikely to be more that a couple of bucks. Another bonus is that the majority of the clientele at these restaurants are usually locals, as people who live in the area are more likely to take the extra step of first going to a wine shop (which are not very common, due to Pennsylvania liquor laws). Look out for branches of the state-run liquor store Fine Wine & Good Spirits in Center City and elsewhere. You can also buy wine at Reading Terminal Market.
Need to Know
- Breakfast: 7am or 8am to noon
- Lunch: 11:30am to 3pm
- Dinner:5pm or 6pm to 10pm Sunday to Thursday, to 11pm Friday and Saturday.
Recommended for all top-end and several midrange places.
Credit Card vs Cash
Check in advance whether credit cards are accepted as some places, especially those that are BYOB, are cash only.
Most people tip between 15% and 20% of the final price of the meal. For takeaway, it’s polite to drop a few dollars in the tip jar.
Foobooz (www.phillymag.com/foobooz) Up-to-date news and listings on the dining scene.
Edible Philly (http://ediblephilly.ediblecommunities.com) Free print and online magazine.
Eater Philadelphia (https://philly.eater.com) News and reviews on where to eat.
It pays to eat dinner early as many downtown restaurants often have happy-hour specials on food between 4pm and 7pm.