The Best Places to Eat in West Philly and University City
With everything from brewpubs to Ethiopian cafes, West Philly has a wealth of places just waiting to feed you.
West Philly is Philly’s most perfect food neighborhood: It’s our culinary laboratory, where one-offs and wild knots of Asian and African cuisines feed the neighbors and try to make their marks. Our atelier, where young chefs sharpen their skills and take risks. The neighborhood isn’t a one-trick pony, offering endless repeats of a single cuisine, but contains multitudes.
It is a place for risks, for bargains, for midnight discoveries. It bridges the diverse communities of Philly’s food scene, offering a little bit of Center City’s high-rent glitz on one side, then fading into narrow streets, rowhouses, strip mall hole-in-the-walls and a roiling froth of Asian heat, Middle Eastern spice, African flavors and Indian comfort.
West Philly is the future of Philadelphia. To eat here is to taste what everyone else will be eating five or 10 years down the line. So let’s begin with…
The Restaurants You Must Try First
In a neighborhood of injera, ful and saag, perhaps the most daring restaurant is still the one that serves seared venison and mushroom panna cotta. That’s because at Marigold, chef-owners Tim Lanza and Andrew Kochan are modernist experimenters who marinate that venison in gin and juniper berries and serve it with a foie gras caramel, and pair the panna cotta with provolone gel and truffle snow.
Then there’s Aksum, which for years has been deconstructing and re-constructing Mediterranean cuisine — hewing closer to or further from Italy, diving more deeply into or pulling back from the flavors of the Middle East and North Africa. The result is a uniquely balanced blend where a curried cauliflower bisque, Roman-style artichokes, Turkish eggplant with goat cheese, Lebanese lemon chicken, and spicy Tunisian shrimp can all share turf on the same menu without any of it seeming out of place.
At Abyssinia, you can get a plate of gored gored swimming in berbere sauce and clarified butter, or a kitfo sandwich with rare spiced beef, freshly made cottage cheese and stewed collards on bread, then walk it upstairs to Fiume, one of the best whiskey bars in the city. Is there anything more Philly than that?
Sure there is: Dock Street’s brewpub at the corner of 50th and Baltimore, offering bar food, burgers, local beer and a killer flammenkuche pizza from the wood-burning oven.
And less than a block away, Taco Angeleno is like a mini-street-food empire, offering excellent SoCal-style tacos and burritos, dinner hours, lunch, and Sunday brunches when the weather is nice (generally May-October), all from a single cart on Baltimore Avenue.
The Best African Restaurants
Kilimandjaro does enormous plates of Senegalese-style roasted lamb, Thieboudiene fish stew, plantains, poulet roti with marinated onions and other dishes that sing with French technique and traditional flavor.
At Dahlak you can experience an odd blend of serious Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking (full of injera and fitfit and sambusas), plus six kinds of spaghetti, open mics, and comedy nights.
If you’re looking for something deeper and closer to the ground, check out African Small Pot, where chef Abdarahmane Diop has had decades of experience doing everything from bar food to Italian to Mauritanian fine dining. He and his crew do African comfort food out of a small storefront, their menu full of kebabs, dibi, stewed fish, and cassava over wolloff rice and onion-draped lamb shank with fried plantain.
The Best Middle Eastern Restaurants
Let’s start here because Makkah Market will serve you chicken curry or a kufta sandwich for $5.50 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They even have a breakfast menu and serve a chickpea ful with garlic, pepper, and lemon that I love.
Saad’s does two different all-halal menus — vegetarian and not-so-vegetarian. Three, I guess, if you count the American menu, too.
Manakeesh was named for the Lebanese flatbreads that are its specialty, but it also offers some of the best baklava and Middle Eastern pastries in the city.
The Best Indian Restaurants
For more than a decade, the Indian/Pakistani restaurant Kabobeesh has provided for the curry and kebab needs of West Philadelphians. The naan is baked fresh every day in tandoors, and the menu is full of comforting biryanis and lamb kabobs plus less well known dishes like haleem barley stew and paya (basically Indian trotters).
It’s a no-frills Indian grocery store with a seating area in the back sectioned off for diners looking for some of the best Punjabi eats in town.
For those of you who bought into the contention at the top of this list (that West Philly is a showcase for the flavors that will be everywhere a few years from now), Desi Chaat House is one of those places that every chef and every serious eater in town ought to check out. It specializes in Indian snacks — the kind of stuff that would be served out of roadside stalls or neighborhood shops in Mumbai, Dhaka or Peshawar. The menu is long and comprehensive but is essentially made up of dumplings, fruit, chicken fingers, and deep-fried things in powerful spices and sauces. There are chicken wraps and desserts, chai tea and biryani, but the real eye-opening dishes here are the profusion of chaats that run the gamut from nine different kinds of lentils tossed in Indian spices to a kind of mini-burger made of potatoes, fried in chickpea flour, and stuffed inside pav bread with garlic and mint.
What’s that? You’re really just interested in some Pakistani fried chicken? Yeah, then Wah-Gi-Wah is the place for you. Sure, the kitchen does other stuff, too, but did you not hear me when I said Pakistani fried chicken?
The Best Southeast Asian Restaurants
Penang curry with big chunks of potato and Thai beef jerky are two of the best things in the world, and Vientiane has both of them — plus laab and Laotian sausages and a whole bunch of other stuff that’s tough to find anywhere in Philly, but slightly easier to track down west of the Schuylkill.
This is the perfect place if you happen to need a can of Cafe Du Monde, some dried shrimp, coconut water, and a killer banh mi all at the same time. Fu Wah is rightly famous for their tofu version.
The Best Chinese Restaurants
How can you not be intrigued by a place that has both “chilled fungus” on its menu, and a noodle dish called Chengdu Ignite? This new-ish spot is doing specifically Chengdu-style cuisine, which means a lot of pepper, a lot of chile oil, noodles served both cold and warm, and a fine spread of buns and dumplings to cover the street food side of things.
Three things you have to know about Dim Sum House. First, it serves battling dim sum menus–Shanghai-style on one side, Cantonese on the other–with a few comfortably recognizable dishes (like General Tso’s Chicken) thrown in for fun. Second, this is all cooked by three different chefs who all share the kitchen at the same time. Third, it is open early for lunch and late into the night, and those night-time crowds? Well, they can get a little loud. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Chef Patrick Feury’s Danlu does an updated, fusion-y menu inspired by Taiwanese street food that strikes a balance between authenticity and oddity unlike any other restaurant in recent memory — though Aksum (mentioned above) might be the best comparison. He’s got some serious experts in the kitchen and has certainly done his research, so as fun as the weirder stuff can be, the best dishes on the board are the ones that hew most closely to the original, Taiwanese dishes they’re based on.
Chili Szechuan is just a small, unassuming Chestnut Street hole-in-the-wall that you’ve probably gone right past a dozen times without even noticing. But you should pay attention, because inside is a kitchen that’s banging out some very affordable and seriously authentic Szechuan-style cuisine. There’s an “Americanized” section of the menu, but the good stuff is all to be found under the chef’s specials, where you can get anything from Dongpo pork belly to “spicy chili frog,” and the dry pot section–dishes cooked with enough Szechuan peppercorn to set your hair on fire.
And the Best of the Rest
Want the best semi-secret pizza in the neighborhood? Head to Enjay’s at the venerable Smokey Joe’s pub on the Penn campus. It’s from the crew behind Pitruco, so the pizzas are just as crazy good as you’d imagine. But the (brief) menu is also rounded out by intriguing options like a couple fat burgers, fries with rosemary, garlic, parmesan and cherry peppers, or a fried cauliflower sandwich.
For history, there’s the White Dog, which has been serving out of three Victorian brownstones for 30-some years now. The place was farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool and remains one of the champions of the style, offering a particularly Philadelphian take on New American cuisine.
Look, this place has been serving thick deli sandwiches here since 1966. It is as much a part of the neighborhood as the sidewalks and is older than some of the trees. And when a place has been around for that long, it’s safe to say that they know a thing or two about making sandwiches. As proof, I offer you their Jewish Hoagie, made with corned beef, pastrami, spiced beef, kosher salami and American cheese. It is one of mankind’s great sandwiches, and you aren’t going to find one anywhere other than at Koch’s.
And finally, if you want to see the way Philly eats today, just go to Local 44. With a couple dozen beers on tap, a crowd of locals at the bar, a menu that comfortably encompasses bowls of ramen, Parisian gnocchi and smoked carrot flatbread with lemon tehina without seeming the least bit weird, and their own beer CSA, Local 44 is one of the restaurants that defines Philly’s scene — month after month and minute to minute.