As a Philly native and a food writer, I can tell you one thing for sure: A lot of people have the food scene here dead wrong. For example, I wouldn’t suggest wasting a meal on a cheesesteak. Soft pretzels do not justify the stomach space they take up and our famous Tastykakes are really not all they have been made out to be.
At this point, you’ve probably got our heaviest hitting restaurants on your list of places to dine, and the likes of Zahav, Fork, and Bibou are more than worth a visit—if you have the budget and can get a reservation. But just under the surface of Philadelphia’s food image lies a treasure trove of unsung pleasures. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about us that you should keep in mind as you plot your Philly food itinerary.
It’s not all about the restaurants. You probably have heard about our restaurant scene and the celebrity chefs that have helped Philadelphia rise to national prominence. But you might not have heard about a lesser known part of our culinary landscape: Food artisans, specialty grocers, and other makers. In Reading Terminal Market alone, you can taste world-class charcuterie at La Divisa Meats, try local farmstead cheeses and small batch pickles at Fair Food Farmstand, or take some freshly churned butter from Condiment back to your hotel room along with your High Street bread.
We’ve got surprisingly healthy options. We’re not all bread, meat, and cheese in Philly. If you are interested in lighter, healthier eats, this is a great place to visit. For starters, we have what is likely the very best vegan restaurant in the US in Vedge. Yes, it books up far in advance. If you miss the chance to nab a table, check out Vedge’s sister restaurant V Street—it’s more casual and just as terrific. Other amazing vegan spots include Charlie Was a Sinner,P.S. & Co. and Miss Rachel’s Pantry.
International eats abound. Philadelphia is home to one of the largest Cambodian populations in America. Several wonderful restaurants have opened to serve them the spicy, vegetable-forward food of their homeland. These friendly restaurants are very welcoming. Take a short bus or cab ride to South Philly to eat at Khmer Kitchen. The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan will tell you exactly what to order. We’ve also got Mexican food galore, West African, Malaysian, and Vietnamese… to name a few of the global cuisines you’ll find here.
Zero-proof drinks. It’s true that Philadelphia is a great place to indulge in craft beer, natural wine, and high-end cocktails. But if you’re not in the mood for booze, we’ve still got you covered for festive drinks. At ITV, Top Chef winner Nick Elmi’s outstanding bar on East Passyunk Avenue, genius bartenders mix cocktails made with Seedlip—the world’s first distilled nonalcoholic spirit. Vernick, this year’s James Beard award-winning restaurant for the Mid-Atlantic region, pours house-made sodas that refresh a thirsty traveler and complement its outstanding food. In Fishtown, both Front Street Café and La Colombe offer locally made kombucha on draft.
Our oldies are still goodies. New restaurants tend to get all the love, but in this town, when a restaurant stays in business for 10-plus years, you know the food is good. One such place to seek out? Chlöe BYOB in Old City. This charming spot will tell you everything you want to know about neighborhood restaurants here. You’ll be tempted to order the whole menu, but the ribs are a must. And they are enough to share. Regulars throw fits in the dining room if this dish runs outs. Bistro 7, Paradiso, and Amada are all classics that rarely get attention anymore but are going strong after all these years.
Joy Manning is editor of Edible Philly and the cohost of the Local Mouthful podcast. She will moderate the panel Food Journalism in the Gig Economy at the AFJ annual conference. Follow her food adventures on Instagram @joymanning. Don't wait. Review the agenda and register for the conference today.