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Philly Food: From Food Trucks to Fine Dining

Philadelphia as seen from South Street Bridge
Philadelphia as seen from South Street Bridge (photo: James Loesch)

Philadelphia is a food town. Sure, Philadelphia has excellent restaurants, but when it comes to Philly food, I’m talking about something much broader and deeper. 

From food trucks to fine dining and from each neighborhood’s ethnic cuisine to the famed Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia is a city that loves to eat.

As with any urban area, the topographical dining map of Philadelphia can be categorized in different ways.

It’s easy to get frustrated and direct your Uber in the direction of the closest T.G.I. Friday’s. (Don’t do that.)

Two of my favorite ways to dice up the selection are by geography and price – that way, no matter where you are, you can find a meal to match your moola. In this article, I’ve done both.  

Follow me through Philadelphia on a tour of three dinner-dense neighborhoods. In each neighborhood, I’ll give you the best of the high, the middle, and the low.

That way, you’ll have a destination for that once-a-year extravagance and a go-to for those Tuesday night munchies. 

By the end, I guarantee you’ll have some Philly Food in mind for your next trip through the City of Brotherly Love.

‘As long as you remember what you love and why you love it, it will never be far from your heart – or your plate’ – Jose Garces, Philadelphia Chef and Restaurateur 

Society Hill & Queen Village

Society Hill and Queen Village are some of the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. 

Because of that, they have a wide variety of eateries, ranging from the most acclaimed, chef-driven concepts to your basic corner grub. 

Just because the neighborhood is old, doesn’t mean the scene is stale. This area has some of the best and brightest for all our price points.

Zahav

Israeli – $$$

If you Google ‘Best Restaurant in Philadelphia,’ Zahav will likely show up at the top of your first screen. (Try it right now.) 

Since opening its doors in 2008, this Israeli eatery has been winning the hearts (and stomachs) of local Philadelphians and eliciting praise from both tourists and critics. 

In a wood-fired Taboon, Zahav bakes its own laffa bread to order and takes the same hand-crafted approach to all of its dishes.

While the restaurant allows BYOB, you can also order an award-winning cocktail or a bottle of Israeli wine from an unparalleled list. 

Part of Zahav’s appeal is its affordability.

While it's possible to rack up quite a bill, if you BYOB and keep to the small plates, you can experience special-occasion Philly food on a not-so-special-occasion budget.

Hungry Pigeon

Comfort Food – $$

Nestled in the heart of Queen Village, Hungry Pigeon presents a rather ordinary corner-cafe appearance. It is anything but ordinary.

Somehow this unpretentious, hip spot manages to stretch the expectations of what a neighborhood cafe should be while maintaining a seriously comfortable atmosphere. 

Here’s a sample of the language from their menu:

“What's our cafe like? Well, there's a long counter where you can have a croissant and a coffee in the morning, lots of tables for groups of two or four during the day, and a couple of large tables as well.

Breakfast and lunch are casual counter service. Dinner and weekend service you can kick back and we'll wait on you.”

As you can tell from the description, the venue is also exceedingly dynamic.

Depending on your arrival time at Hungry Pigeon, you may find a comfy breakfast spot, a hip happy hour rendezvous, or an intimate setting for dinner. Oh, and the food’s not bad, either.

From freshly baked croissants to whole fried chickens, they choose to cook what they like, and they cook it very well.

Jim’s Steaks

Cheesesteaks – $

Yes. I put a cheesesteak place on the list. You almost made it through without one, but here it is – a cheesesteak place. 

The thing is, while millions may now flock to Philly for some seriously diverse cuisine, many also still come for the cheesesteaks. 

If you’re in that latter group, you may as well know the best place. And no, it’s not either of those two brightly-lit monsters caddy-cornered from each other on Passyunk. 

Since 1976, Jim’s Steaks has been an unassuming little joint in the heart of the ‘South Street’ corridor. Now in its 2nd generation of proprietorship, Jim’s is friendly, fun, and fast.

If you don’t want to depart your first Philly food excursion without the menu item, it’s most known for; this is your best bet. 

Now – if you don’t know how to order a Philadelphia Cheesesteak, you better study up. You wouldn’t want to look like a tourist.

Philly food fills the streets of the City of Brotherly Love
Philadelphia skyline (photo: Evgenii)

Fishtown & Port Richmond

Philadelphia’s adjoining neighborhoods of Fishtown and Port Richmond are riverside boroughs, and traditionally blue-collar areas of the city. 

In the past twenty years, both have been on the rise as hip, new spots for residence, dining, and nightlife.

While the dive bars and family-owned greasy spoons are still plentiful, I was able to carve out three unique examples of Philly food at its finest.

Suraya

Lebanese – $$

Voted the ‘Best New Restaurant of 2018’ by Phillymag.com, Suraya is an inspired Lebanese cafe, restaurant, and outdoor garden. 

Named for the grandmother of founding siblings Natalie Richan and Roland Cassis, the menu features Levantine-inspired creations such as Sawdat Djej and Kafta Kebab. 

Suraya complements this assortment of hot and cold tapas-style dishes with a thoughtful beverage menu.

The latter features both Arak Cocktails (made with the namesake anise liqueur) and traditional cocktails with names such as ‘Builders of Bridges’ and ‘The Optimist.’ 

While I’ve featured Suraya as my top-tier choice for Fishtown and Port Richmond, dinner and drinks for two may only run you $50 – $75.

If you put the tab on one of your best travel credit cards, you may make that back in points and rewards.

Frankford Hall

Beer Hall – $$

Ostensibly a German Biergarten, Frankford Hall is a bit more – and worth a pit stop on your quest for some of the best Philly food. 

Located off of Frankford Avenue in the heart of Fishtown, the industrial-chic conversion from old warehouse space is a hotspot for active, young neighborhood residents. 

In addition to the German and American beers, Frankford Hall has a barrage of open-seating picnic tables (both covered and open-air), fire pits, ping pong tables, and a variety of other parlor and party games (e.g., Jenga). 

Although many party-hungry parishioners might overlook this, it’s a restaurant too.

From Kasekrainer to an ‘Impossible’ Veggie Burger (both served with house-cut fries), Frankford Hall brings its A-game to high-end bar food.

The Tot Cart

Food Truck – $ 

Considering the name of the article, I had to get this in somewhere.

Although Philly may not be quite as known for its Food Truck scene as some of its East Coast compatriots, it still has some mobile gems. 

And while it goes against the spirit of the thing to confine a Food Truck to one neighborhood, The Tot Cart calls Port Richmond home as much as anywhere else. 

Started by tot enthusiast Julie Crist, this rolling bit of gourmet grease is making a name for itself all over the city and surrounding areas. 

The menu is structured to build-your-own tot creation from ‘Gourmet Tot Toppings’ such as Gravy or Buffalo Sauce to ‘Deluxe Tot Toppings’ creating dishes such as the ‘Pork Roll’ and the ‘Reuben.’ 

More often than not, The Tot Cart is frying at a public or private event.

Rittenhouse 

Named after the first director of the United States Mint, Rittenhouse Square and the surrounding neighborhood are some of the most exclusive and posh areas of Center City Philadelphia. 

While this locale skews toward the high-end, we can still enjoy great eats at all price points.

Lacroix

Global – $$$$

Located in the Hotel Rittenhouse (arguably Philadelphia’s premier hotel) and overlooking Rittenhouse Square, Lacroix is one of the most well-regarded fine dining restaurants in the city. 

While the name is French, the cuisine boasts both global influence and fresh farm-to-table ingredients. 

Executive Chef Jon Cichon inherited the kitchen from his mentor, Jason Cichonski, and has grown the menu to include seasonal dishes such as Hay Roasted Squab and Bethmale Chevre.

The wine program is one of the city’s most exclusive, and the two bars are both elegant and well-stocked with premium spirits. 

While the price point might relegate Lacroix to a once-a-year occasion, it’s the perfect opportunity to try out some of the best hotel credit card offers of 2019. However you pay, you won’t be disappointed in the experience.

Tinto

Spanish – $$$

Opened when he was still in his mid-twenties, Chef Jose Garces’ second restaurant Tinto, has been thriving only a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. 

Tinto is a Basque wine bar and tapas restaurant serving small plates such as bocadillos (finger sandwiches) and brochettes (skewers) paired with some of the best wines from Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and other famed Spanish domains. 

Just next door, another Garces creation Village Whiskey operates as a whiskey tasting bar and Prohibition-themed gourmet burger joint. 

The two locations share a kitchen, a loyal clientele, and a fantastic vibe.

From Distrito to his flagship Amada, the Garces Group restaurants are some of the most exciting authentic ethnic experiences in Philadelphia and the best examples of famed Philly food.

Revolution Taco

Tacos – $

Honestly, the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia doesn’t lend itself well to economical fare, but our next destination, Revolution Taco, fits the bill.  

As with Lacroix, although the name suggests a more restrictive cuisine, Chef Carolyn Nguyen prides herself on using the taco shell as a vessel for a variety of globally-inspired dishes. 

Notable menu items include roasted duck tacos, Korean beef tacos, and vegan BBQ cauliflower tacos. 

With prices starting in the single digits, Revolution Taco qualifies for special notice as an affordable bit of Philly food.

***

Philadelphia food is a whole lot of fun. Like its big brother New York City, Philly offers a wide variety of options on a massive scale of price points. 

Because Philly is considerably smaller than NYC, all of the neighborhoods I’ve just toured you through are a $20 cab or Uber right apart. 

Do yourself a favor and spend a weekend eating your way through Liberty City.

Then come back and add a few restaurants (or even a new neighborhood) to my list.

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