Philadelphia may very well be the City of Brotherly Love, but it is anything but congenial when it comes to food. Opinions are fierce and firm, secrets are closely guarded, and recommendations are fervently issued. The upside of all of this passion, all of this obsession, is that you, the traveler, will eat better in Philly than just about any other place in the US.
Here’s how I’d eat my way through a weekend long visit to Philadelphia.
First Stop: Reading Terminal Market
This indoor market contains everything your heart could desire and it’s no wonder just about every Philadelphian will heartily recommend that you visit. Just don’t ask them to recommend only one stand! Amish farmers serve fresh blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings, the perfect stop to get some fuel for a shopping extravaganza. There are cookie shops and coffee shops, with beans from all around the world, tons of delis and sandwich shops (including DiNic’s, whose roasted pork and broccoli rabe sandwich was named best in the country by the Food Network), as well as plenty of specialty food shops selling olives, gourmet oils, hot sauces, spices, seafood, cheeses, and more.
Spice Things Up
Philly gets its fair share of damp and chilly weather, and I have the perfect place to warm up: Cheu Noodle Bar, a tiny café that packs in massive flavor. The coconut curry noodle bowl is one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had all year (pro tip: wear a bib!), but a most unexpected treat were the black garlic chicken wings. They are easily the most incredible wings I’ve had — EVER! (But I’m careful saying that in mixed company. Philly has tons of sports bars that would be eager to get in on the great chicken wing debate!)
A Sexy Date Night
People in downtown Philly are decidedly hip and cool. It can be an intimidating crowd but if you’re up for braving it, the place you have to eat is at fashionable Vernick, one of the hottest spots in town. You’ll need reservations and you might want to dress a step up from jeans (unless they’re cool jeans!). But once you’re inside, there’s nothing but warm, friendly, professional service and an incredible array of fresh, locally-inspired food.
There are small plates like avocado and spicy radish on toast, raw arctic char with dill, and warm ricotta with rhubarb and basil. For mains, you can expect grilled fish and roast meats with amazing veggies and sauces. Save room for the crème fraiche panna cotta with apricot for dessert.
A Great Girls’ Night
French wine, French bread, and French desserts — yep, this checks about every box imaginable! Parc Restaurant, Bistro, & Café is the perfect place to catch up with the girls and, um, stuff yourself silly. The atmosphere is bustling but you never feel rushed and you’ll likely find yourself ordering more wine. Their bread basket is legendary and I have no shame when it comes to asking for refills!
A good second choice is White Dog Café, which is leading a delicious farm to table food movement.
What About Cheesesteak?
I’ve yet to have a cheesesteak in Philly and it’s not my fault — locals kept steering me away from them in favor of different sandwiches! Now maybe it’s because they’re trying to keep the best sandwich joints to themselves, but I’d like to think it’s so I can see beyond the stereotype. This is a town that can do much, much more than just a cheesesteak.
If you really want one, I recommend asking based on geography. Chances are, you’ll get a much more authentic recommendation if you ask, “What’s the best cheesesteak within a five-minute walk of here?” than just asking for a general recommendation for the best place in the city.
Take a Break from Eating
If all the fiery opinions about food have you in a fighting mood, make like Rocky and hit the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. You can burn off some of the weekend’s calories by sprinting up the stairs like a champ, but don’t forget to go inside. This is one of the finest art galleries in the country and has enough exhibits to keep you mesmerized for hours.
If you’re looking for something a little more sedate (with no step running required!), visit the Philadelphia History Museum, located just around the corner from the Liberty Bell. Unfortunately, there’s no food here, but there’s tons of great political history. Looks like strong opinions run deep in Philadelphia!
For a Post Dinner Nap
Nonstop eating and naps go hand in hand and there are a number of beautiful properties in Philadelphia that fit the bill perfectly. My personal favorite is the Hyatt Regency at Penn’s Landing. There’s a fantastic view of the water, a great pool, and even a foosball table! They also have a fantastic breakfast buffet in case you didn’t get enough food the day before.
Other great choices include the Hotel Palomar, close to Rittenhouse Square, which offers free bike loans (just in case you get the urge to abandon gluttony), and the stylish Hotel Monaco, which is in the heart of the historic district.
Every time I visit Philadelphia, I leave with my trousers a little bit tighter, but my heart and spirits are always light. Philadelphia is such a beautiful, dynamic, fascinating, and delicious city and I think everyone will enjoy it as much as I do!
Photos are courtesy of the author except the 2nd one from Vernick Food & Drink.