Philadelphia Might Be One of the Best Food Cities on the East Coast

The chefs, bakers, and creative cocktail makers who created the vibrant culinary landscape of the City of Brotherly Love.

Fried Chicken at The Love, in Philadelphia
Photo: Jason Varney

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 most exciting destinations in the country. 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.

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.

Over in Rittenhouse Square, Philly native Stephen Starr, who owns 20 restaurants in his hometown and nine in New York City, heads up The Love, a chic, informal restaurant 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 the now-shuttered Rebelle in New York City and Walnut Street Café in Philadelphia, sees an even broader shift underway. "People [come up] on weekends and [find] 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.; entrées $7–$13.

Best restaurants to try in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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 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 nightly). Order ground beef kafta kebabs, labneh, and man'oushe flatbreads made with za'atar and smoked salmon. 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.; entrées $24–$98.

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 in 2017. 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 spaces.; entrées $28–$42.

Best Restaurants in Philadelphia, PA
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 Korean corn cheese rangoons come stuffed with spicy mayo, scallion, and gochugaru. It's festive, creative, and low-key — the ideal neighborhood restaurant, just right for a casual dinner.; entrées $13–$30.

Cocktails: Ranstead Room

After dinner at The Love, walk to nearby Ranstead Room — another Starr concept hidden in the alley behind his Mexican eatery, El Rey. The speakeasy has an intimate, moody interior — think gilded bar, red booths, and some sexy décor details — and a selection of inventive cocktails. Order the Fernet Con Coca (Mexican coke, mint, cherry, vanilla-infused fernet) or the Aperitiki Smash (pineapple, mint, lemon, red aperitif, gin) for a delightful after-dinner drink.; cocktails $16-$18.  

Brunch: Walnut Street Café

This University City favorite serves up New American dishes alongside a delectable pastry counter and cocktail menu. Settle in at one of the marble tables set with pastel dishes and flowers for a meal of oysters, lamb rigatoni, and strip loin steak frites. Don't leave without trying the Blood Orange Pisco Sour or the coconut tiramisu. Come back for the Belgian waffles and shakshuka at weekend brunch. Pro tip: The restaurant is within walking distance of 30th Street Station, and you can sleep over at the sleek AKA hotel upstairs.; entrées $19–$28.

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