With its buzzing food scene offering up Italian, Israeli, French, and yes, an upscale cheesesteak, the City of Brotherly Love has lots to adore. From locally sourced, fresh cheeses and veggies — including Pennsylvania-grown Kennett Square mushrooms—to some big personalities able to make names for themselves and their menus, thanks to lower rents than other foodie hot spots like New York, there are plenty of hot Philadelphia restaurants that give locals reasons to rejoice and for travellers to plan a weekend getaway.
It’d be hard to visit Philly without hearing the name of chef Marc Vetri, a locally raised son whose time abroad inspires his menus — especially at flagship Vetri Cucina, which celebrates 20 years in 2018. The spot, in an old townhouse with seating for just 32, makes it an intimate affair, with hand-blown Murano glass chandeliers, porcelain, and Venetian glassware as conversation starters. Each multi-course meal here on the $165 tasting menu (the only one that’s offered) focuses on local, seasonal, and specialty ingredients, with mostly Italian flair and starts with drinks and snacks. Make a reservation at Vetri Cucina.
Barclay Prime makes headlines by giving Philly’s signature gooey indulgence – the beloved cheesesteak – a high-class makeover, but the steakhouse is also an institution in its own right. Regulars swear by the $120 Wagyu ribeye with foie gras and truffled cheese whiz on a fresh-baked sesame roll (served with a half bottle of Champagne), though there are plenty of other steakhouse staples worth coming back for: Wagyu cuts from Japan, caviar, brown-butter-poached lobster, and Kennett Square mushrooms, produced in state. The setting in Rittenhouse Square is one to write home about, too: contemporary bright-green chairs and old-fashioned bookshelves as artwork. Make a reservation at Barclay Prime.
Celebrating 10 years in business but celebrating of the most ancient cultures and diverse food traditions on Earth, Zahav tickles the palate and the eye with a rainbow of spices and textures from Eastern Europe to North Africa and from Persia to the Eastern Mediterranean. Scoop up creamy hummus with laffa bread, which you can probably find chef Michael Solomonov, a trained baker, making just about any day of the week in the open kitchen (perfect for pairing with Israeli wines). The cocktail menu and marble bar are worth checking out, too, since you may have to wait a bit for a seat. It’s worth it once tucking into sizzling Romanian kebabs or eggplant with black lentils, harissa, and pistachio. Make a reservation at Zahav.
Executive chef Terry White puts a creative spin on one of his city’s most infamous mains with a cauliflower steak served over a warm lentil salad with chickpea chutney that spotlights the best of the field that’s brought to the table at Urban Farmer. Craving something more hearty? There are plenty of butcher’s cuts of heritage-bred beef, with grass- and corn-fed varieties available, too. Cocktails are made with local craft spirits and neighboring breweries top the beer program. Make a reservation at Urban Farmer.
This garden isn’t so secret, but, thankfully, the word is out about Talula’s, the brainchild of Aimee Olexy. A Pennsylvania native and daughter of hippies who raised her to eat natural and organic ingredients, today those ideals are presented on the plate in a slightly elevated but still unpretentious form — think a winter salad with shaved root veggies and ricotta or pan-roasted Pennsylvania trout. Turophiles delight can delight in a delightfully long and local cheese list, and everyone wins with one of the city’s best spots for outdoor dining and Sunday brunch. Make a reservation at Talula’s Garden.
Don’t have time for an epic tasting menu at Laurel? Or not in South Philly, where creative small plates are the name of the game at ITV Wine Bar? No matter—Top Chef Nick Elmi’s Royal Boucherie is Philly’s hottest newcomer in Old City, serving up a French-inspired menu with charcuterie, shellfish, and classic cocktails. Champagne-braised escargot shines with chartreuse-hazelnut butter or Swedish duck meatballs with fresh herbs and Dijon make you forget whatever your grandma had cooking up in a Crockpot, and the lobster farfalle brings it with truffle butter, chili, fresh herbs, and rye breadcrumbs. Don’t miss the late-night menu’s indulgent foot-long hot dog with boudin blanc and grain mustard or the butcher melt with air-cured pork loin and fig jam. Make a reservation at Royal Boucherie.
The Victor Cafe
You don’t have to sing for your supper — anymore, that is. Victor Café has always had strong ties to music since back in the ‘30s when owner John DiStefano merged his gramophone shop with a restaurant; patrons often performed impromptu songs. A new tradition was born in 1979 when an opera student started performing to earn money for school, and today, every 20 minutes or so waitstaff take a pause to sing a tune for guests. Even Sylvester Stallone gets in on the performance action here, filming both Rocky Balboa and Creed in the restaurant. This year Victor’s celebrates 100 years in business, serving up traditional red-sauce plates like ravioli and tortellini. Don’t miss the housemade gorgonzola dressing on the iceberg salad. Make a reservation at The Victor Café.
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Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Alexandra Hawkins (Zahav).