Jason Varney

Chefs, bakers, and creative cocktail makers are shaking up the City of Brotherly Love, where a playful, unpretentious spirit and affordable rents are giving rise to one of the US’s most vibrant culinary landscapes.

Sierra Tishgart
August 07, 2018

It’s easy to dismiss Philadelphia as a place forever languishing in New York City’s shadow. But when it comes to food, Philly is actually one of the more exciting destinations in the country right now. The city’s lower prices and young, scrappy energy have given chefs and restaurateurs free rein to experiment, allowing them to reinvent its classic cuisine and add influences from around the globe.

Despite the Eagles defeating the Patriots in February’s Super Bowl, Philadelphia will always be proud of its underdog spirit. It’s a place where servers befriend you, and strangers in bars talk you into taking shots. It’s not uncommon to see someone break into a dance while making your sandwich. The vibe is more personal and upbeat than that of many U.S. cities —there’s simply more space to play.

Philly native Stephen Starr, who owns 20 restaurants in his hometown and seven in New York City, recently opened the Love, a chic, informal restaurant in Rittenhouse Square that serves updated versions of classic American dishes. “I’ve always thought that Philadelphia and New York shared a lot of the same energy, virility, and heart,” he said. “But in Philadelphia, we have bigger footprints in which to create.”

Branden McRill, who opened Rebelle in New York City and more recently Walnut Street Café in Philadelphia, sees an even broader shift under way. “What’s going on in Philly is fascinating  —  people are coming on weekends and finding there are reasons to relocate here. The quality of life is high.”

Whether you’re considering a move, or just planning a weekend trip, these are the best places to witness Philadelphia’s food evolution — one meal at a time.

Sandwiches: Middle Child

Matt Cahn’s modern luncheonette draws inspiration from cool-kid spots like New York’s Court Street Grocers, where Cahn trained. The sandwich to order is the Phoagie, a Vietnamese-vegan riff on a classic Philly sandwich. But you come for the staff — who treat everyone like old friends — as much as the food. Eagles paraphernalia and a pantry filled with snacks handpicked by Cahn, all for sale, make the diner feel even more inviting. middlechildphilly.com; entrées $5–$11.

From left: Chicken wontons with green curry at Cheu Fishtown; drinking a Lebanese chai latte at Suraya.
Jason Varney

Big Group Dinner: Suraya

In the heart of gritty, up-and-coming Fishtown, you’ll find something surprising: a 12,000-square-foot space dedicated to Lebanese food. This is the ideal place to go with a posse, as it includes the Market, where you order at the counter and then stake out your territory (the restaurant also has a sit-down dinner service Tuesday through Sunday). Order ground beef kafta kebabs, labne cheese, and man’oushe flatbreads made with with za’atar and sweet halvah. Don’t miss the Lebanese chai latte made with salep, or orchid powder, and topped with pistachios and rose petals. It’s exactly the right amount of sweet and, devastatingly, impossible to replicate at home. surayaphilly.com; entrées $23–$40.

Date Night: The Love

After expanding his empire in New York City (which includes the award-winning Le Coucou), Stephen Starr returned home to launch this collaboration with beloved local chef Aimee Olexy. Located in the posh Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, the interiors look like a designer farmhouse with perfect mood lighting. Yes, you’ve had fried chicken a million times, but It’s perfectly done here, and the spicy Mississippi comeback sauce really should be bottled and sold. Plus, it’s a fun contrast to eat quotidian Parker House rolls in one of the city’s most seductive new spaces. theloverestaurant.com; entrées $17–$38.

From left: Buttermilk fried chicken with grits and collard greens at The Love; dining at the bar in Philadelphia's Cheu Fishtown restaurant.
Jason Varney

Ramen and Dumplings: Cheu Fishtown

Housed in an old horse stable, this is a restaurant built for design lovers. The beer list is displayed on a repurposed marquee sign, and there’s a mural painted by street artists on the wall. The menu is suitably fun: brisket ramen comes with kimchi and a matzo ball (somehow, it works), and chicken wontons are stuffed with green curry and peanuts. It’s festive, creative, and low-key — the ideal neighborhood restaurant, just right for a casual dinner. cheufishtown.com; entrées $13–$26.

Cocktails: Upstairs Tiki at the Franklin Bar

After dinner at the Love, walk to nearby Franklin Bar — a two-for-one punch that is part subterranean speakeasy, part delightful tiki lounge. The décor is straight-up kitsch — cocktail umbrellas, leis, string lights — but the drinks and the service reflect serious expertise. The Oxy-colada somehow improves upon the classic piña colada, with overproof Plantation rum, crème de cacao, coconut, and fresh pineapple juice. thefranklinbar.com.

Brunch: Walnut Street Café

Melissa Weller, formerly of Sadelle’s in N.Y.C., is one of the most talented bakers working in America today, and this new all-day restaurant is purpose-built for brunch. Settle in at one of the marble tables set with pastel dishes and flowers, and get ready to try Weller’s famous baked goods like the cinnamon roll and the cherry-and-pistachio croissant. Round out the meal with a fried egg and “black scrapple,” her take on a local specialty made from pork scraps. Pro tip: the restaurant is within walking distance of 30th Street Station, and you can sleep over at the sleek AKA hotel upstairs. walnutstreetcafe.com; entrées $15–$37.

Our series Reasons to Travel Now highlights the news, events, and openings that have us scoping out plane tickets each day.

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