Philadelphia isn’t some flashy food town easily swayed by passing trends. True to the spirit of its founding fathers, the city is a refuge for freethinking entrepreneurs who put their faith in community—passionate chefs supplied by the family farms of neighboring Lancaster County.
Outsider chains don’t do well in Philadelphia, where the biggest restaurant empires are homegrown. Stephen Starr, for example, is as much urban-renewalist as restaurateur, with 18 eateries in wildly diverse locations, many of them spurring the emergence of new neighborhoods. Iron Chef Jose Garces, who got his start at Starr’s Alma de Cuba, clocks in with seven restaurants and a taco truck; Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran preside over three—Barbuzzo, Lolita, and Jamonera, not to mention a small grocery and two shops selling gifts, housewares, and accessories—all on the same half-block of 13th Street.
These colonizers expand because they can: a deep reserve of commercial property in an erstwhile industrial capital hell-bent on redevelopment makes Philadelphia a deal maker’s paradise. Kingpins aren’t the only ones taking advantage. Independent chef-owners can afford to step away from big-scene cuisine and showcase their talent in smaller spaces, often rehabbing shop-fronted houses with an inviting, lived-in look. The state-controlled monopoly on wine and liquor has created a strong BYOB culture that makes it easier for chefs to forgo a liquor license altogether and focus on the plate. Menus aren’t designed to please a committee of investors; they are personal statements.
Here’s a short list of spots where chefs are creating new flavors of American cooking.