Where to Eat in Philadelphia

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Where to Eat in Philadelphia

19 February, 2021

Though it shouldn’t be, it is still a shock to some visitors that beneath Philadelphia’s infamously rough exterior lies a bevy of restaurants as diverse as the population itself. Innovation, a focus on local ingredients, and a burgeoning immigrant population have transformed the food scene and catapulted it into the rarified air reserved for the nation’s best gastronomic cities.

But no conversation about dining in Philadelphia can be had without acknowledging the elephant in the room: the cheesesteak.

Most tropes about Philadelphia food are bunk, but there is one that rings true: The city is synonymous with the cheesesteak. The exalted sandwich is not only a civic symbol, but it also serves as the cornerstone of the city’s food identity. While there’s plenty of hometown love for the ingenious merger of sliced ribeye and liquid cheese, its overwhelming popularity with visitors is sometimes a cross too heavy to bear. In fact, most Philadelphians agree that it is the least fascinating aspect of the culinary landscape.

And, yes, the city has a serious culinary landscape — one that has garnered some well-deserved attention in recent years. From street fare to James Beard Award-winning restaurants, Philadelphia is a city that should be explored one bite at a time. If there’s one thing visitors should know, it’s that Philly food encompasses more than its signature sandwich.

Zahav

Zahav restaurant

Zahav restaurant / Instagram

In 2019, when the James Beard Foundation named Zahav the best restaurant in the country, the prestigious institution was simply affirming what many Philadelphians already knew. If ever there was an appropriately named restaurant, this Society Hill gem is it. Hebrew for ‘gold’, the Israeli hotspot has certainly become the gold standard for elevated but unpretentious dining in the city. Chef/owner Michael Solomonov deftly offers diners a primer to the food of his birthplace and manages to take deceptively simple food to new heights. Small plates of salatim, like beets with tahina and Moroccan carrots, complement tender grilled duck hearts and crispy sunchokes, while a luscious pomegranate-studded lamb shoulder with chickpeas and tahdig garner the spotlight as the restaurant’s most-requested dish.

Barbuzzo

Barbuzzo

Barbuzzo / Instagram 

A seriously addictive menu of locally-sourced ingredients and a slew of housemade accoutrements woos diners like a persistent suitor. A roster of rustic Italian classics, hearty salads, and fresh seafood remain perennial favourites, while imaginative pizzas like the Coniglio — a delightful cacophony of rabbit-hazelnut sausage, San Marzano tomatoes, stinging nettles, and olives — serve as a reminder as to why a seat in this diminutive restaurant is coveted real estate. Bookend your meal with a starter of caciocavallo-stuffed meatballs and the lauded budino, an Italian egg pudding.

Vedge

Vedge

Vedge / Instagram 

In the last decade or so, vegetarian and vegan restaurants have managed to shed their reputation as being nothing more than glorified salad bars. Stylishly modern Vedge shatters that restrictive notion with a progressive menu of tapas-style plates like smoked eggplant, cauliflower, and chickpeas a with a punched-up salsa verde. Farm-fresh vegetables can be ordered from the cheeky ‘dirt list’ and a steak-spice seared tofu with chanterelles, kabocha squash, and madeira will convince, and possibly convert, even the staunchest carnivores. Perhaps the most notable feature of this veggie haven is that it doesn’t attempt to serve knockoffs of meat-focused dishes — you won’t find vegetable 'bacon' or a tofu 'sausage' on the menu. This is a ‘vegetable-forward’ restaurant that is decidedly comfortable in its own skin.

Bibou Boutique

Bibo Boutique

Bibo Boutique / Instagram

For years, Bibou enjoyed the undisputed honour of being the best French restaurant in the city — an honour it held until it was shuttered by the pandemic. Following a speedy rebranding, it recently reopened as a boutique grocery and chef Pierre Calmels’ beloved terrines, pâtés, sausages, quiches, and breads will now line the cases of the épicerie as well as imported specialty items and dry goods, ensuring the continuation of the best of Bibou in its former iteration.

Vetri Cucina

Vetri Cucina

Vetri Cucina / Instagram 

Award-winning chef Marc Vetri has been on the radar of food lovers since he made his foray into the Philadelphia food world with his eponymous Italian eatery two decades ago, and deservedly so. A true chef, he speaks as passionately about pasta extrusion as he does the importance of selecting a proper olive oil, and he manages to convey that passion onto the plate. Vetri Cucina is undoubtedly the crown jewel in his empire of restaurants (he owns a few in the city) and enjoys its reputation as a culinary bucket list destination. The chef’s degustation menu — the sole offering — changes frequently but remains consistently indulgent with handcrafted pastas and sauces, antipasti, and velvety desserts.

Kanella Grill

Kanella Grill

Kanella Grill / Instagram 

The joy of Greek-Cypriot food lies in its simplicity; a few fresh herbs and a squeeze of citrus is usually all that’s needed to highlight dayboat seafood and standards like souvlaki, kebabs, and shawarma and the menu at Kanella affirms as much. The bright BYOB doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel but opts instead to serve traditional fare that would make any yia-yia proud.

Nomad Pizza

Nomad Pizza

Nomad Pizza / Instagram 

There is no shortage of pizza joints in the city; they’re almost as ubiquitous as their counterparts in New York City, but Nomad stands out from the rest thanks to its secret weapon: a copper-domed wood-fired pizza oven that reaches a fiery 850 degrees and can produce perfectly blistered Neapolitan-style pies in a mere 90 seconds. Pizzas are crafted from locally-sourced, all-organic ingredients when possible and the result is a succinct menu of about 12 offerings and a smattering of artisanal salads. While there are no real misses on the menu, the tartufo, spicy sausage, and margherita pies are clear winners.

Suraya Restaurant

Suraya

Suraya / Instagram

This Lebanese multi-hyphenate has been a local favourite from the outset. As an all-day specialty market and café, restaurant, and outdoor garden, Suraya is one of the tastiest jacks-of-all-trades in the city. The spacious complex’s menu guides diners through the Levant —t he area that includes Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel — and offers a delicious lesson on the contrasts and complexities of the flavours of the Middle East. Hot and cold mezze — think tabbouleh and fried kibbeh — are familiar tastes while the halabi kebab of muhammara-brushed ground lamb seasoned with chilli peppers, cinnamon, coriander and paprika present a striking palate pleaser.