Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Best Restaurants in Philadelphia, PA
Your tummy and your wallet will smile
Yikes! But if it's on my list, it's worth it
217 Chestnut Street, Old City
(215) 625-2450 $$
Amada has a certain je ne sais quoi...a certain something. Maybe it's the dark, seductive interior, filled with elegant diners and drinkers. Or the palpable excitement filling the air. More than likely, however, it's the promise of a revelatory and satisfying meal. Chef Jose Garces offers up his fanciful interpretation of authentic Spanish tapas, those little nibbles that add up to a big meal. An excellent starter is the cana de cabra, a soft white cheese paired with a delectable fig and cherry marmalade. The albondigas are lamb meatballs with shaved Manchego cheese while the pernil asado, in Chef Garces' hands, is the sweetest roasted pork redolent of orange and smothered in white beans. The house-made sangria is sweetly refreshing. Lunch and dinner.
138 South 2nd Street, Old City
(215) 413-1443 $$
Ben Franklin would have been right at home at City Tavern. As a matter of fact, he was, along with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. City Tavern was originally built in 1774 and was the convening site for the Constitutional Convention. George Washington even had a constitutional ball here, which means he likely downed a pint or two. Fast-forward to 1976, when restauranteur Walter Staib decided to put a spit polish on the old place. The founding fathers would have loved to eat here now, seeing as how the restaurant looks better than ever and now has food to match. Waiters in period garb (yep, knickers for men) are serving the food of our forebears (some of the recipes are said to have come from Jefferson himself) to the hungry masses. Start with the West Indies pepper pot soup, an old Colonial recipe and spicy fun. The country rabbit terrine with a mushroom relish is also a worthy choice. The medallions of pork loin, which are deglazed in oatmeal stout, or the medallions of venison, served with a bourbon-mushroom sauce, are sure to satisfy the heartiest of appetites. The second floor veranda is the best place to take it all in. Lunch and dinner.
Reading Terminal Market
12th and Arch Streets, Center City
(215) 574-0929 $
Delilah is da girl on the Philadelphia food scene. Delilah Winder grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where meals were events morning, noon and night. “I woke up to eat!” she says, lovingly recalling the aromas which would wake her up and send her rushing downstairs to dig into her grandma’s homemade biscuits. “My grandma made those biscuits from scratch every morning,” she continues. “We’d all sit at the table for every meal. Everything would be laid out in platters. She’d make fried chicken every Sunday morning, along with biscuits, gravy, bacon and eggs, homemade preserves -- and grandma worked, too!” Little Delilah isn’t so little anymore, but she’s doing some mighty fine cooking of her own. This is “Southern cuisine,” so get ready to savor some of the best Cajun fried catfish you’ll ever have. The fried chicken comes in huge pieces, and you can choose either of these items with a couple of side orders and cornbread for a monster meal. Making up your mind at Delilah’s is near impossible: how do you choose between sinful candied yams, dreamy black-eyed peas and rice and the best macaroni and cheese you’ll ever have? Oh, and you’ve gotta save room for the peach cobbler. Lunch only (service till 5 PM market closing).
Four Seasons Hotel
One Logan Square, Center City
(215) 963-1500 $$$
You will see ladies at Fountain Restaurant wearing while gloves -- I did. If that isn’t Main Line, nothing is. Yes, Philadelphia is a city of tradition, and while the restaurant will invite you to wear your Sunday best, the menu has moved into the new millennium with grace and style. Look for French-oriented cuisine where technique is paramount and a bit of whimsy is thrown in for good measure. First, take in the surroundings: dark paneling, crystal chandeliers and beautifully-set tables. Order some wine and enjoy the terrine of American foie gras and Muscovy duck with toasted brioche and apples. Continue with the roasted venison chop with fig chutney and draped in a Cabernet red wine sauce while your companion (come here solo?) orders the rack of lamb and shank cassoulet with a mustard thyme jus. You may have to hock grandma’s brooch to pay the bill, so bring her, too. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
700 Chestnut Street, Old City
(215) 223-5663 $$
The somber storefront of Jones Restaurant belies a playful, “Austin Powers”-like interior and some of the most delicious American food in town. The after-work crowd mixes it up with first-date couples and families who are here for the friendly service and well-prepared drinks as well as a varied selection of classic dishes. Start off with the baked macaroni and cheese topped with bread crumbs (so creamy!) or the crispy calamari salad atop a frisee-romaine mix and topped with a spicy chile vinaigrette. The “Thanksgiving Dinner” is a must, a moist turkey breast wrapped around a fistful of stuffing and snug against buttery mashed potatoes, the whole napped in a sweet brown gravy. The big berry waffle sundae is big enough to share – but will you? Lunch and dinner.
210 W. Rittenhouse Square, Center City
(215) 546-9000 $$$
Chef Matt Levin is redefining Lacroix, the namesake restaurant of acclaimed chef Jean-Marie Lacroix. No teacher-student set-up here, though: Levin is his own man and the Culinary Institute of America grad has plenty of ideas of his own. Think international cuisine with bright spice notes and a dash of molecular gastronomy added in. In a comfortable, candlelit room which is both warm and inviting, you should begin your meal with the morel mushrooms with green garlic, muscovado sugar and brown butter. The wild sea bass is paired with milk-poached endive and tater tots whereas the veal sweetbreads keep company with artichoke and kumquat. The lemon passion fruit mousse is sweet surrender. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
1523 Walnut Street, Center City
(215) 567-1000 $$$
Chef Georges Perrier came to Philadelphia from Lyon, France forty years ago. “Lyon is an area with both a river and wine,” he tells me, “and that is what produces great chefs. That’s why you have great chefs in California.” Perrier is a man of strong opinions, yet possessed of the steady self-assurance of one who has mastered his art. He opened the doors of Le Bec-Fin, his homage to classic French cooking, thirty+ years ago. Is it still timely today? “Everyone wants light today,” says Perrier. “But light without flavor? That’s not my approach to cooking.” Perrier does rely on the best local produce available in creating food for the ages. The dining room at Le Bec-Fin would have enchanted Marie Antoinette: huge chandeliers, cream-colored walls and roomy chairs play against the simple elegance of a sweet bouquet at your table. Start with the English pea risotto with a sage emulsion and PEI mussels in parsley sauce. The dried lime-crusted grouper with a yellow carrot puree, sea beans and a rhubarb and grapefruit compote is lovely and a good counterpoint to the heartier pork chops with romaine salad and onion fricassee. The restaurant's “world famous” dessert cart is immodestly filled with riches. A meal at Le Bec-Fin is nothing if not unique. Dinner only.
735 S. 10th Street, South Philly
(215) 413-3999 $
At Morning Glory, a cute, window-walled breakfast space, friendly hipsters are quick to refill your coffee cup and offer up ketchup in a carafe. What more could you ask for first thing in the morning? The city's definitive breakfast spot delivers both service and satisfaction as evidenced by the stuffed French toast, thick slices piled high and bursting with blueberry cream cheese. The crab and asparagus frittata is one of nearly a dozen egg selections and is accompanied by a biscuit as big as your fist. Sandwiches and salads are also available. Breakfast and lunch.
200 S. Broad Street, Center City
(215) 790-1919 $$$
It's easy to be dazzled by the dining rooms at Nineteen. Ensconced in the twin cupolas on the 19th floor of the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, each dazzles in its own way. The Cafe is a study in celadon and copper tones and the spray of flowers at its center competes for the eye with the panoramic view outside. Across the way is the Restaurant, a study in soothing elegance crowned by a massive chandelier that looks like your Great Aunt Ruth's pearls. Too often, restaurants like this are all about mood and completely ignore the food. Thankfully, that's not the case at Nineteen: the classic menu exhibits a sure hand and some dishes are downright exciting. At the Restaurant, start with a selection or two from the prodigious raw bar at the center of the room. The prime beef carpaccio or jumbo lump crab cake (absolutely no filler) follow nicely, with the caramelized black bass, awash in smoked mussels and melted leeks, the piece de resistance. Breakfast in the adjacent Cafe is a delightful way to start the day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
640 N. Broad Street, Center City
(215) 763-0920 $$$
In this tale of local boy does good, our hero, Marc Vetri, spends the weekends of his youth cooking with his Sicilian grandmother, takes his love of food to California, Italy and New York, cooks some more, gains acclaim and returns to Philadelphia to open his world-class, eponymous restaurant. As if that weren't enough, Vetri has just opened table #2, Osteria, an ode to the culinary experiences of his beloved Bergamo, Italy. The James Beard Award-winning chef and his protege, Jeff Michaud, are clearly having fun here: the room is light, the mood and food even lighter and the sum total is an experience not to be missed when in Philly. Any of the small pizzas is a perfect starter, even the unlikely “fava,” a confection of mozzarella, fava beans and black walnuts. The saffron gnocchi with a pork ragu and delicate English peas serve to redefine this oft-heavy pasta while the spit-roasted lamb leg with broccolini and pecorino cheese is yet another showcase of masterful cookery. Lunch and dinner.
1237 E. Passyunk Avenue, South Philly
(215) 468-1546 $
Drive down to South Philly if you want to see what regular Philadelphians are doing. Bear in mind, these are folks who are proud to live in the old neighborhood and have a well-worn path to their favorite haunts. Food is a popular pastime in this mostly Italian part of town, which leads to heated debates about where to get the best, say, cheesesteak. Pat’s name comes up a lot. Occupying a nondescript street corner, Pat’s is as un-fussy as it gets: a few red plastic tables are scattered outside, while the walk-up window is manned by a speedy if surly staff. “Whaddaya WANT!” “Uh, cheesesteak,” I reply. Sliced-thin beef is placed on an open roll, a few onions are added and then a long brushstroke of – Cheez Whiz? I kid you not. It’s warm Cheez Whiz, if that makes a difference. The resulting cheesesteak is...good. Pat’s is open 24 hours a day, and the scene is mighty lively at night.
2929 Arch Street (Lobby Level), University City
(215) 922-3839 $$$
Rae is rich. The newest venture from esteemed chef Daniel Stern is an amalgam of glass and blond woods paired with cosseting choco-leather chairs and celadon banquettes. The room has been dropped into the Cira Centre, a glass cube of a skyscraper perched atop Amtrak's 30th Street Station. Who is dining above the hustle and bustle? Certainly the lawyers and accountants whose offices are in the building but also a sophisticated bunch of foodies hep to Stern's spin on American dishes. “This is a platform to showcase American cooking,” says Stern. And elevate it to another level. “I want to make fine dining accessible,” he continues. “There's still that quality service and interesting food, but it's more comfortable here.” The midday meal is proof positive. Prime the palate with a classic tomato and mozzarella pizza, its thin crust and delicate flavors sheer delight. The Rae Reuben is sweet and its meat top quality yet it's upstaged by the Rae Burger, a hefty slab of ground sirloin topped with smoked bacon, aged cheddar, finely chopped salad and slivers of avocado. An all-around winner at the edge of (down)town. Lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.
Sansom Street Oyster House
1516 Sansom Street, Center City
(215) 567-7683 $$
One of the oldest remaining traditional oyster houses in Philadelphia is the Sansom Street Oyster House, where high quality at a moderate price is the credo to this day. These establishments used to dot the nearby parishes way back when, but thanks to restauranteur Cary Neff, the tradition lives on in the heart of town. Busy downtown folks make for a lively lunchtime scene, happily putting down a half-dozen oysters, mussels, clams or whatever else looked good at the fish market that morning. The Maryland crab cakes and chunky bouillabaisse are also a treat. Be sure to gaze up at the collection of antique oyster plates (some dating to before the Civil War) along the restaurant’s walls. Lunch and dinner.
Taqueria La Veracruzana
908 Washington Avenue, South Philly
(215) 465-1440 $
Tucked into an unassuming corner of the city's bustling Italian Market is Taqueria La Veracruzana, where the home-style Mexican cooking is a real palate pleaser. Décor is spartan at best: squared-off tables and chairs rest atop linoleum in a bi-level room where the lighting is far too bright. That said, the wait staff's sunny disposition goes a long way toward compensating for the aesthetics – good news, since your focus should be on the food and not the mood here. Taquitos are stuffed full of chicken or beef and crisply fried then paired with a couple of burn-'em-up dipping sauces. The burritos are another plump affair, packed full of rice, beans, avocado, tomatoes and whatever meat you choose. Branching out to the bistec a la parrilla is a wise move: a grilled skirt steak is smothered with caramelized onions and served up with the requisite rice, beans and creamy guacamole. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Continental Mid-town
1801 Chestnut Street, Center City
(215) 567-1800 $$
Fabulous is one way to describe The Continental Mid-town. Or should we say fabulocity? Goodness knows party girl Kimora Lee Simmons, who oozes fabulocity (and sprinkles it in every other sentence), would be right at home in this three-story, multi-million dollar dining room filled with sensuous curves -- on both the furniture and the patrons. Order up a Hawaii 5-0 (that's a drink, folks) and dig into a menu of global tapas like the rad na Thai chicken, rice noodles heaped over crispy romaine or the Continental cocktail party, a medley of crab wontons, chicken dim sum, shrimp spring roll and tofu-chive dumplings. The penthouse rooftop patio boasts an indoor-outdoor bar and fireplace and is divine on a warm Philly night. Lunch and dinner.
408 S. 2nd Street, Old City
(215) 238-7280 $$
Xochitl (pronounced “so-cheet”) is doing its best to acquaint American taste buds with the truefoods (and flavors) of Mexico. There isn't a burrito or chimichanga in sight in the modest yet inviting dining room, a melange of pumpkin-colored walls and low-key artwork. Chef Dionicio Jimenez, who hails from Puebla, Mexico, is the right man for the job: Puebla is the definitive foodies spot south of the border. “I'm doing the food of my youth,” says Jimenez. “No one is doing this kind of cooking here. It's a long process to get people used to haute Mexican cuisine. There are flavors to the sauces – they don't have to be spicy.” It's flavor you'll get in the sopa Azteca, a sparkling-bright interpretation of the classic tortilla soup. While the soup may feel familiar, the gorditas de huitlacoche will not, but that's no reason to take a pass. Truffled masa pockets are stuffed with huitlacoche, a small fungus that grows on an ear of corn. Improbable? Make that memorable. The pechuga de pato offers up a seared duck breast redolent of chocolate-y mole Poblano while the chiles en nogada are Poblano peppers stuffed with ground beef, dried fruit and nuts and draped in a pomegranate-walnut cream. The flan de calabaza will have the table fighting, albeit delicately, over the singular pumpkin pudding. Dinner
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.