Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Philadelphia Greats.
It’s no secret that Philadelphia is a city that loves to eat. The vibrant restaurant scene is right up there with historical sites on the list of qualities that draw visitors to town — food is a strand of culture just as important as the museums and concert halls, and chefs are the city’s big celebrities.
Just ask any Philadelphian about their favorite thing about where they live, and you will invariably get a restaurant for an answer. The city’s matrix of outstanding eateries is as diverse as the people who live here, ranging from chef-driven fine dining spots and family-owned regional specialties to sports bars and cafes. The restaurant scene in the City of Brotherly Love is a huge part of what gives it a sense of place unlike any other.
Several of the restaurants that have defined Philadelphia have already closed amid the pandemic. But many more have been fighting hard for their existence. Now more than ever, it’s time to support them by making reservations or ordering takeout or delivery. Without these restaurants, Philly’s neighborhoods are just a collection of high rises and brick row homes. Restaurants infuse the entire streetscape with personality that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
These are the restaurants that make Philly great.
Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr — known for hits such as Buddakan, Serpico, and Le Coucou around the country — got his start in Philadelphia. His flair for designing the full dining experience might be best showcased at Parc, a French restaurant literally built from pieces of restaurants (and, originally, a chef) imported from France. The atmosphere, both inside and outside, is spectacular: Parc’s bustling sidewalk tables sit across the street from Rittenhouse Square Park and Parc takes full advantage of its setting. There’s no better place to enjoy a flawlessly cooked French omelette or steak frites while getting in some people watching. Be sure to grab a baguette on the way out; Parc’s bakery is one of the best in the city.
Dining at the restaurant: Parc is taking reservations for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Parc offers takeout and delivery.
White Dog Cafe (University City)
Since opening the doors to the original West Philly location in 1983, the White Dog Cafe has been an icon of the local food movement in Philadelphia. Founded by farm-to-table pioneer Judy Wicks (who sold the business in 2009 in such a way that it preserved the restaurant’s commitment to sustainability), White Dog was among the first restaurants to celebrate seasonal ingredients from the region’s farms. An unofficial hub for the college campuses of University City, it’s always attracted a diverse range of diners, from students to West Philly elders. Salads really showcase the farm-fresh produce and local cheeses, and the mushroom soup, made with mushrooms from nearby Kennett Square, is a must.
Dining at the restaurant: White Dog Cafe is taking reservations for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: White Dog Cafe is offering takeout and delivery.
Booker’s Restaurant and Bar (Cedar Park)
A restaurant, hangout, and community hub, Booker’s is more than just a place for great soul food. It’s a true third place that both reflects its West Philly neighborhood and contributes to its strong sense of place. It’s the ideal place to relax with friends over a craft beer, signature cocktail, or thoughtful nonalcoholic libation. The community vibes are just as enticing as the locally famous fried chicken and blackened catfish.
Dining at the restaurant: Booker’s is accepting reservations for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Booker’s offers takeout.
Morimoto PA (Old City)
Philly doesn’t tolerate celebrity chef outposts unless they can back up their name with serious game, and Morimoto has been impressing sushi connoisseurs from its early days, when the Iron Chef himself sometimes made an appearance behind the sushi bar in Old City. Thankfully, like other great restaurants, the kitchen is on point whether or not the headlining chef is in the house.That means Morimoto’s omakase — when diners luxuriate in a multi-course tasting that represents the best the kitchen has to offer — is worth the splurge.
Dining at the restaurant: Morimoto is taking reservations for indoor and heated outdoor dining.
Takeout: Morimoto offers takeout and delivery.
Moshulu (Old City)
The Moshulu is, in addition to being an iconic restaurant, the “world’s oldest and largest square rigged sailing vessel still afloat,” according to its website. Acting as a floating restaurant since 1975, it’s also been the site of countless big dates, parties, proposals, and birthdays for multiple generations of Philadelphians. While many flock here for the boat atmosphere and waterfront views, Moshulu chef Anthony Bonett brings years of fine dining experience to bear on the menu. As you might expect, there’s an emphasis on seafood. Order the crab cakes or the swordfish surf and turf.
Dining at the restaurant: The Moshulu is taking reservations for indoor and heated outdoor dining.
Takeout: The Moshulu offers takeout and delivery.
Estia (Center City)
It can be hard to pick a restaurant for dinner before a show on the Avenue of the Arts, but you cannot go wrong with Estia. There’s a homey, Mediterraean feel to the place, and Estia specializes in Greek cuisine, especially grilled whole fish, many of which are flown in from the Greek islands. To start, try the avgolemono, a Greek chicken and rice soup bright with fresh lemon, and some of the spreads served with grilled pita. (The htipiti, with roasted red peppers and feta, is a fan favorite.) Or, after the pandemic, when you do have tickets to a show, order the prix fixe especially for theater-goers so you can taste a little bit of everything without missing your curtain.
Dining at the restaurant: Estia is taking reservations for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Estia offers takeout and delivery.
Cheu Fishtown (Fishtown)
When Center’s City’s tiny Cheu Noodle Bar closed last year, it was a loss. But fans could still visit Cheu Fishtown for the signature noodle soup fusion — think brisket broth, kimchi, and matzah ball ramen — that first put owners Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh on the map. Cheu Fishtown is bigger and more ambitious than its namesake, and there’s much more than noodles on this menu. Go for the black garlic wings or fried chicken steamed buns to get a sense of Cheu’s rule-bending food sensibilities.
Dining at the restaurant: Cheu Fishtown is currently taking reservations for its heated patio.
Takeout: Cheu Fishtown offers takeout and delivery.
Fond (East Passyunk)
At the beginning of East Passyunk’s current restaurant renaissance, a few small chef-driven places set the standard, and Fond was one of the first and best. Most of the other chefs of that era have moved on, but Fond’s Lee Styer and Jesse Prawlucki’s are stalwarts. They have since moved up to a larger space right on the fountain, and it’s no longer a BYOB, but the new American dishes — such as pork belly with kimchi fried rice and skate wing with corn risotto — are still drawing diners to the Avenue.
Dining at the restaurant: Fond is currently hosting a series of sidewalk popups with casual grilled dishes such as cheesesteaks and sausage sandwiches.
Takeout: Fond offers some select menu items for takeout.
Perla (East Passyunk)
Perla chef Lou Boquila, born in the Philippines, honors his mother (Perla) and his culinary heritage with this very personal restaurant. Boquila started his culinary career as a dishwasher, working his way up to building this vital restaurant that brings beloved Filipino flavors to Philly. The Kamayan dinner is an unusual and welcome addition to the dining scene: a multi-element feast of fish, rice, chicken, and pork eaten without the aid of utensils (though you can get them upon request) directly off of a banana-leaf strewn table. For now, Perla is only offering pickup and delivery.
Dining at the restaurant: Perla is currently closed for on-site dining.
Takeout: Perla is offering takeout and delivery.
Amada PHL (Old City)
When James Beard Award winner Jose Garces left Stephen Starr’s nest in 2005 to launch his own splashy restaurant in Old City, it was a seismic event in the Philadelphia food world. For years, Amada was the buzziest, most difficult-to-get reservation in town, a must for visitors and locals alike. And though newer, shinier restaurants have come after it, the fun of a night of Spanish tapas at Amada hasn’t faded; the restaurant still offers excellent food and a great time. Start with a spread of charcuterie and cheeses before moving on to small plates like garlic shrimp, albondigas (meatballs), and “Amada’s empanadas,” which are inspired by Garces’s grandmother’s recipe and have been on the menu from the beginning. The Garces restaurant group has grown quite a bit since 2005, but Amada still holds up as his flagship.
Dining at the restaurant: Amada is taking reservations for indoor dining. Outdoor dining will resume early spring.
Takeout: Amada offers takeout and delivery.
Lolita (Midtown Village)
The Center City neighborhood where Lolita stands was once something of a red-light district in Philadelphia. The area is now known as Midtown Village, and it’s a shopping and dining destination for locals and visitors alike — something that Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s restaurant empire had a lot to do with remaking. Opened in 2004, this city-changing restaurant remains a choice spot for a round of margaritas alongside modern Mexican dishes such as fish tacos, carnitas, veggie nachos, and guacamole.
Dining at the restaurant: Lolita is taking reservations for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Lolita offers takeout and delivery.
Chickie’s and Pete’s (South Philly)
In the shadow of South Philly’s sports stadiums, Chickie’s and Pete’s is a classic pre- or post- game stop for beers, cheesesteaks, mozzarella sticks, and tomato pie. The sprawling menu of classic bar food offers something for everyone, but no visit here can be considered complete with the restaurant’s famous crab fries. Counterintuitively, there’s no actual crab on these crinkle-cut cheese fries; rather, the irresistible American cheese-based sauce on top is seasoned generously with Old Bay. For another quirky Chickie’s and Pete’s classic, try the meatball salad, a Caesar topped with — you guessed it — two meatballs in red sauce.
Dining at the restaurant: Chickie’s and Pete’s is taking reservations for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Want to watch the game at home? Chickie’s and Pete’s offers takeout and delivery.
Le Virtu (East Passyunk)
Co-owners Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee bring the traditional dishes of Abruzzo, Italy to a neighborhood once known for its Italian-American red gravy restaurants. Platters of antipasto, handmade pasta, and rustic braised ragus have been hallmarks of the menu through several chef changes over the years. Warm colors and wood tables make both the dining room and bar comfortable places to linger over a meal.
Dining at the restaurant: Le Virtu will soon be taking patio reservations for dates after March 15.
Takeout: Le Virtu offers takeout and delivery.
After leaving its longtime home in South Philly at Reed Street and Columbus Boulevard last year, Warmdaddy’s moved to Fairmount this fall. Because of the pandemic, indoor dining, including Warmdaddy’s famous Sunday jazz brunches, have yet to resume, but you can still place an order for takeout while you wait for the restaurant/music venue’s eventual full reopening. The braised turkey wings, iron skillet fried chicken, and honey buttered cornbread are among the most popular of the soul food dishes.
Dining at the restaurant: Warmdaddy’s is currently closed for on-site dining.
Takeout: Warmdaddy’s offers takeout and delivery.
Laurel (East Passyunk)
Philly has seen more than its fair share of Top Chef talent, with both winners and fan-favorite cheftestants from the Bravo reality series making their restaurant home here over the years. But season 11 winner Nick Elmi’s jewel box, Laurel, is extraordinarily special. The small dining room is comfortable and intimate, with Elmi himself often circulating among the tables. The modern French-American menu set high expectations for Laurel immediately upon opening, and the restaurant continues to set the standard for fine dining on East Passyunk’s restaurant row and beyond. The six-course tasting menu (there are no a la carte options) changes seasonally and is always full of surprises.
Dining at the restaurant: Laurel is taking reservations for indoor dining.
Takeout: Laurel is dine-in only.
Jezabel’s (West Philly)
This welcoming Argentine cafe is a West Philadelphia treasure. Chef-owner Jezabel Careaga’s food is inspired by her grandmother’s cooking. The restaurant doesn’t do dinner — just breakfast, snacks, and lunch — but you’d be hard pressed to find a better midday meal or snack. Try any of the half dozen empanadas that are typically available or an Argentine-style ham and cheese croissant.
Dining at the restaurant: Jezebel’s is currently open for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Jezebel’s is offering takeout and delivery.
JG SkyHigh (Logan Square)
JG SkyHigh, one of celebrity chef Jean-Georges’s Philadelphia outposts, is among the most dramatic restaurant spaces to open in Philadelphia in years. Diners are whisked up from the street to the top of the new Four Seasons Hotel in Center City in a glass elevator that offers a panoramic view of the city. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide an unforgettable backdrop for celebratory cocktails or a meal. It’s a fitting atmosphere to splurge on Osetra caviar, or you could go for something more casual but equally good, such as broccoli rabe and pepperoni pizza.
Dining at the restaurant: JG SkyHigh is taking reservations for indoor dining.
Takeout: JG SkyHigh offers select menu items for takeout.
Charlie Was A Sinner (Midtown Village)
Charlie Was A Sinner is the creation of plant-based chef and restaurateur Nicole Marquis. Her dark and cozy vegan cocktail lounge serves up some of the freshest drinks and most inventive dishes in Philadelphia. Through the winter months, Charlie’s carpeted and heated chalets have been an especially appealing place to sip hot cocktails served in thermoses and with blankets to ensure maximum winter coziness. The zucchini “crab cake” sliders are a menu mainstay, along with a “ricotta” toast that could charm even the most ardent dairy lover.
Dining at the restaurant: Charlie Was A Sinner is currently taking reservations for outdoor dining.
Takeout: Charlie Was A Sinner offers takeout and delivery.
Lacroix (Rittenhouse Square)
Perched above Rittenhouse Square park, Lacroix serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a French flair from chef Jon Cichon. A wall of windows in the understated, chic dining room provides expansive views into the park’s treetops. Justifiably famous for its extravagant Sunday brunch and traditional afternoon tea service, Lacroix is one of the few restaurants remaining to whole-heartedly embrace a tradition of French-inspired fine dining in Philadelphia that dates back to legendary Le Bec-Fin.
Dining at the restaurant: Lacroix is currently in hibernation due to COVID-19 pandemic.