Philadelphia is a city built around its markets. It has flourished and failed on the backs of its street grocers, its farmers, and the 800 six-foot stalls that made up the original Reading Terminal Market.
That market—Philadelphia’s market—is a straight-line descendant of the original public markets that William Penn envisioned when he sketched Philadelphia into life, and of the open-air produce stands and grocers’ stalls that gave Market Street its name as they stretched six blocks from the Delaware River waterfront, arrowing right into the core of America’s first city.
Reading Terminal Market shares genetics with the Farmers’ and Franklin markets—Philly’s first indoor emporia, which opened in 1859 at 12th and Market streets—and came into its own with the advent of the railways and the Reading Railroad’s Headhouse Terminal, which opened in 1892 with a 78,000-square-foot market sprawling out below. The biggest covered market in the country, it offered delivery by rail and truck to 60 towns in the suburbs and along the Jersey Shore, and boasted the largest mechanical refrigeration system in the state. It was the throbbing, beautiful, edible heart of the city for decades.
Bad years came: the Depression, the obsolescence of the railroads. Bankruptcy and inattention nearly killed the place. But now, at 120 years old, Reading Terminal Market is more vital than it has been in half a century, sitting at the center of a conversation about food and farms in our all-local, all-artisan farm-to-table age.
It’s time to go shopping.
Stepping through the doors at 12th and Filbert [ 1 ] can overwhelm even the most seasoned Market-goer: the noise, the crowds, the shock of transition between the city out there and the city in here, remade in miniature, with its own alleys and avenues, its own neighborhoods, hot spots and smells.
There are no slow days at Reading Terminal Market. It’s a crowded street’s worth of people and produce and strollers and cell phones, sausages, Chinese noodles, neon, pretzels, men, women, hats, shrimp heads, big sandwiches, wine bottles, chickens and children and chocolate, all thrown together in one big box and shaken vigorously.
Where to begin? Well, you’re going to want breakfast. For coffee, our favorite is the La Colombe outpost at Termini Brothers Bakery [ 2 ]. Mostly, this is because standing in the line there puts you nose-up against the Termini pastry cases. If you find yourself there on a day when the almond horns are on special, go with those. All other days, you’re on your own.
If you’re looking for something more substantial, head instead to the Dutch Eating Place [ 3 ] on the Arch Street side, which slings a mean stack of pancakes, good enough to warrant their own fan t-shirts. If you’re at the Market on a Wednesday or Sunday, Beck’s Cajun Cafe [ 4 ] serves beignets, hot out of the oil and dusted with powdered sugar. Uh, yeah.
Now it’s time to grocery-shop. Iovine Brothers Produce [ 5 ], the biggest produce supplier in the Market, is a throwback packed full of local fruits, vegetables, and neighborhood grandmothers poking the melons and gossiping. Here you can buy Pennsylvania yams and potatoes at two pounds for a buck; find off-season pomegranate seeds or Jersey plum tomatoes, six types of Lancaster apples, and corn at four ears for a dollar; and see kale still speckled with the morning’s ice, while guys in black Iovine aprons and heavy winter coats push carts back and forth from the cold rooms in the basement. This is what the Market was built for—to provide the people of the city with the bounty of the country.
Pivot away from Iovine’s corner and you walk straight into the scrum of old-school butchers and meat suppliers. At Giunta’s Prime Shop [ 6 ], the beef is ground by hand every hour, and you can score a whole boneless ham for $3.99 a pound. One row over, at Godshall’s Poultry [ 7 ], they do poultry and nothing but: roasters and stewing chickens, birds broken down into every conceivable cut, bins of chicken feet and chicken livers, and even a few turkeys. No one who knows goes anywhere else.
Of course, if sausage is what you’re after (and isn’t it?), Martin’s Quality Meats & Sausage [ 8 ] is your spot. They do more kinds than we can list, but we’ll tease: Picture links of garlic sausage stacked in the cold case, fresh apple and pork sausage, lamb merquez and smoky red andouille, all lovely. To steam up the glass looking at the steaks is like watching meat porn—so many lovely cuts, all laid out with their marbling showing. Butchery wasn’t invented here, but it may have been perfected.
Winding in toward the center of the Market, Jonathan Best Gourmet Grocer [ 9 ] is impossibly small and stuffed to bursting, like the best bodega ever. Where else, in one place, can you find rice wine, pickled ginger, curry paste and digestive biscuits? Or coconut milk, bags of capellini spezzati, canned imported eggplant (with all the labels in Italian), jars of white asparagus, bagged chilies, 20 kinds of mustard, 20 kinds of barbecue sauce and 20 kinds of olive oil?
And we haven’t even talked about the fish markets yet—the multiple fish markets, each with devotees who will cut you for suggesting theirs isn’t the best. Wan’s Seafood [ 10 ] has crabcakes and fish cakes, hand-formed with uniform precision that’s scary, and giant wild shrimp that look like something that would rise out of the ocean to destroy Tokyo in a Saturday matinee. John Yi Fish
Market [ 11 ] does soft-shells, offers gorgeous lozenges of sushi-grade ahi that could make tuna freaks weep, and lists live lobsters at $11.99 a pound, while Golden Fish Market [ 12 ], way over near the Dutch Corner, has lobsters at $8.99 a pound (which is just crazy), tubs of cooked crabs, and mounds of clams stacked like stones on a beach.
Time for a drink. The new Molly Malloy’s [ 13 ], in the recently renovated rear of the Market, isn’t a bad choice, mostly because it’s the only choice. Twenty-four taps, the vast majority pumping local beers, and easy-to-get seats among the daytime drinkers, bewildered tourists, and drunken jurors out of court on their lunch break are the pluses. On the minus side, don’t bother with the food. You can do better.
Speaking of which, the two most obvious spots for lunch—both excellent options—are Hershels East Side Deli [ 14 ] (if you’re after a stacked Dagwood-style sandwich) and DiNic’s [ 15 ] (if you’re craving straight-up Philly-style roast pork). The lines at these two can be epic, but there’s a reason for that. DiNic’s roast pork was recently tagged as the best sandwich in America by some fat guy on the Travel Channel. The hot roast beef sandwich should’ve taken second.
But if you’re looking for non-sandwich sustenance, going by the lines can be deceiving. The Little Thai Market [ 16 ] always draws a crowd (and they do have good crab shu mai), but the wise consumer will pass it by in favor of a counter seat at Sang Kee Peking Duck [ 17 ], where you can eat shoulder-to-shoulder with cops and lawyers, tourists and butchers, neighborhood characters and, on certain days, a magazine food editor out for a stroll. Order anything with noodles, preferably with duck in it.
For something lighter, Miller’s Twist [ 18 ] does excellent pretzel dogs, and buttery soft pretzels of a quality wholly different from the street variety. Our affection for this place is weird and deep. No trip to the Market feels complete unless we walk out the door licking salt from our lips.
We’re winding down now—and you’re no doubt stuffed—but there is, of course, dessert. Bassetts Ice Cream [19 ] has been around for a million years, and it’s the best cone you’re going to find pretty much anywhere. Brave the line and order big. Then swing by Chocolate by Mueller [ 20 ], which has just about anything you could ever want, candy-wise, and several things (like the chocolate-covered onion) that you don’t. Buy the truffles or the pretty little marzipan fruits if you must, but don’t miss the candy fruit slices. Mueller’s is one of the few places still selling this once-popular but now disappearing candy, all sweet and gooey and shaped like actual fruit, with a stiff, sugary rind. Don’t miss out.
Now turn around. You’re more or less right back where you started, at 12th and Filbert. One last (non-culinary) stop: Pick up some flowers for Mom at Market Blooms [ 21 ]. They’re a little pricey, but after you’ve spent all that money on sushi, fat sandwiches, porno steaks, pretzel dogs, ice cream and candy for yourself, don’t you think she deserves something pretty?
Yeah, that’s what we thought.