10 Tips for a Philadelphia “Foodie” Vacation

Love good food and planning a visit to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania? Then you’re in luck, because Philadelphia has a booming “foodie” culture with many great restaurants and specialty shops devoted to great dining, both fine and casual. But coming up with a food itinerary for exploring the city can be a daunting task for out-of-town visitors, and can depend on your tastes, objectives, and of course, your budget. What follows is my guide to ten of the highlights of the Philadelphia dining scene, from celebrity chefs to local markets to hot dining trends in the city. You can use this guide to help choose the Philadelphia dining destinations that are right for your trip – and your taste buds!

1. Check out some of Philadelphia’s BYOB Hot Spots.

The “Bring Your Own” phenomenon is huge in Philadelphia, thanks to the state liquor control board which makes it difficult – and quite expensive – for many restaurants to obtain a liquor license. As such, many chefs have small, cozy BYOBs where you can sample creative cuisine at affordable prices and in casual settings. Philadelphians will argue endlessly over which BYOBs are the best in town, so spend some time perusing menus on line and see what appeals, whether it’s the modern Italian of Melograno or Mercato, Greek Cypriot at Kanella, Mexican at Lolita, or French at Cochon or the wildly popular Bibou. Other popular, well-regarded BYOBs in the city include Modo Mio, Salento, and Pumpkin.

2. Explore the Jose Garces empire.

Iron Chef Jose Garces first came to fame here in Philadelphia, where he now has seven different restaurants under his belt. Each has its own unique style and flair, with an emphasis on small plate-style dining that allows you to try many different dishes in one meal. His first restaurant, Amada, offers traditional Spanish tapas and is still the favorite of many. For a real treat gather a group and make a reservation for Amada’s traditional roast suckling pig feast. Other Garces choices include Tinto for Basque-style tapas, Chifa for intriguing Cantonese-Peruvian fusion cuisine, Distrito for modern Mexican, and The Garces Trading Company for casual dining and retail food shopping. Just opening in October 2010 is his latest restaurant, J.G. Domestic, which will emphasize American-sourced ingredients, wine and beer.

3. Taste Marc Vetri’s Italian.

One of Philadelphia’s other star chefs (scheduled to appear as an Iron Chef contestant on October 17, 2010) is Marc Vetri. His stellar take on Italian food has been wowing Philadelphians since he first opened Vetri, which is not an inexpensive experience (the Grand Tasting dinner is $135 per person) but considered well worth it by those who rate it one of the finest Italian restaurants in the United States. For a more casual experience – and because tables at Vetri can be very hard to reserve – one may wish instead to try one of his other two restaurants in town. Osteria is known for its pizza and pasta dishes, and Amis concentrates on small plate dining, Roman-style. Amis is also a great choice for a light sampling of food and drink at the bar, before a heavier meal elsewhere in the city.

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4. Give in to a Stephen Starr experience.

Love him or hate him, Stephen Starr was a major player in revitalizing Philadephia’s restaurant scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. His restaurants always feature unique concepts and design, making for a novel dining experience – even if they do have their detractors among the Philly foodie scene. One could stop by The Continental in Old City for great drinks in a restored 1960s stainless steel diner, or Jones for comfort food in a room that looks like it came straight out of an episode of The Brady Bunch. Parc, on Rittenhouse Square, will transport you to a bustling street cafe in France while Barclay Prime is considered one of the city’s best traditional steak houses. Morimoto features the cuisine of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and some say it is the best sushi to be found in the city. Any of Starr’s restaurants are sure to provide a memorable, uniquely Philadelphia experience.

5. Take a grazing tour of the Reading Terminal Market.

No foodie tour of Philadelphia is complete without spending at least part of the day lost at Reading Terminal Market. Far more than just a public produce and meat retail spot, Reading Terminal features terrific places to eat on site – and delicious treats to take home as well. Come early in the morning to enjoy breakfast at the Dutch Eating Place, known for their blueberry pancakes and apple dumplings. Or for lunch, try the roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s, considered one of the best in the city. Amish salads and baked goods, pastries from South Philly, BBQ platters and Italian hoagies are only some of the tempting choices available here. And if you’re really hungry or traveling with friends, try to save room for a slice of Pumpple Cake from Flying Monkey, which features an apple pie and pumpkin pie, baked directly inside chocolate and vanilla cake.

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6. Go on a quest for Philadelphia’s best burger.

Hamburgers have become serious business in Philadelphia in recent years. For lovers of a good burger, this is fabulous news, although the debate over which one is the best is a heavy one. One of the top contenders is the burger from Jose Garces’ Village Whiskey, featuring sustainably farmed Angus beef from Maine. Pub & Kitchen has just replaced their notable Windsor Burger with The Churchill, featuring a custom blend of beef from La Frieda containing dry-aged meat and glazed with bone marrow butter. Good Dog Bar & Restaurant’s burger has many loyal fans who proclaim it the best, and just recently opened in West Philadelphia is Bobby’s Burger Palace, a burger joint by Iron Chef Bobby Flay. For a quick and tasty burger fix, try 500°, or sit at the bar at Noble American Cookery for their grass-fed beef burger on challah roll with Lancaster cheddar cheese.

7. The Cheesesteak.

It’s inevitable that visitors to Philadelphia want to know where to get the best cheesesteak. The sandwich that is inevitably associated with this city can be found almost anywhere, but there is no consensus as to who prepares it best. The only thing most Philadelphians will agree upon is to avoid the two places most commonly named and visited by tourists, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s. While both are certainly destinations of a kind in Philly, their steaks are often low in the taste rankings. Campo’s Deli often gets the vote for best cheesesteak in the Center City area, but Chink’s Steaks at 6030 Torresdale Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia regularly gets picked as the best in the city overall. Jim’s Steaks has numerous locations throughout the city and has many fans as well as detractors – I consider myself one of the former and give it a serious thumbs-up for a classic Philadelphia-style cheesesteak.

8. Linger at a Gastropub.

Philadelphia is very enthusiastic about better beer and quality food in its best bars, leading to an explosion of “gastropubs” throughout the city. It would be a shame not to visit at least one of them while in Philadelphia, whether just for a drink and a bite or a full dinner. The previously mentioned Pub & Kitchen is one of the city’s best, but there is also the South Philadelphia Tap Room, Resurrection Ale House, Sidecar or Johnny Brenda’s, just to name a few.

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9. Celebrate with a once-in-a-lifetime meal.

If money is no object, go all out and splurge on a meal at one of the cities few remaining old-fashioned, fine dining restaurants. The legendary Le Bec Fin practically defined fine dining in Philadelphia for many years, and may soon be closing – so enjoy Georges Perrier’s exquisite French cuisine while you can. The Fountain, located in the Four Seasons Hotel, has won numerous awards for being the best restaurant in Philadelphia and features American/French cuisine in a supremely elegant setting. If you’re in Philadelphia over a weekend, brunch at Lacroix is an absolute must. Enjoy beautiful views of Rittenhouse Square while feasting on an awe-inspiring array of hot and cold selections, including carving stations in the kitchen, delightfully different one-bite appetizers, a full raw bar with sushi, charcuterie and of course, a desert buffet to end all dessert buffets.

10. Save room for a sweet ending.

Those with a sweet tooth should find plenty of choices to satisfy their craving for delicious desserts in Philadelphia. Capogiro Gelato has locations throughout the city, serving their housemade, authentic Italian style gelato. You can sample as many flavors as you like before deciding between such exotic treats as Mexican Coffee, Pear with Wild Turkey Bourbon, Pumpkin or Black Mission Fig. Miel Patisserie serves delicious pastries and indulgent chocolates, as does The Naked Chocolate Cafe. For a lighter, more healthy treat, try Yogorino, the Italian frozen yogurt shop’s only location in the United States. Brown Betty Dessert Boutique serves decadent cupcakes, cheesecakes, cookies and more and Scoop DeVille is a fun place for blended ice cream desserts. Any of these shops would make a fabulous place to enjoy an afternoon treat or after-dinner delight.

I hope this article has given you some great ideas for how you can enjoy some of the finest dining options in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From high end gourmet dining to sandwiches and comfort food, Philadelphia has something for every “foodie” to enjoy.