Where to Eat in Old City: The Ultimate Guide

Fork Restaurant | Facebook

Old City Philadelphia contains multitudes. It’s the public face of our city, a central downtown neighborhood, a tourist destination, a Friday night horror show of drunken idiots, a historic call-back to our roots. It’s a place where some of the best and worst ideas Philly ever had are continuously smashed together, where the modern and the Ye Olde exist side by side in a display of pride that’s sometimes shameless and sometimes brilliant.

It also happens to be one of the most dismissed restaurant neighborhoods in the city despite being the home of some of our absolute best. Old City is where Philly began. It’s also a peek into its future. And if you’re looking for somewhere to eat, you’ve come to the right place.

Franklin Fountain | Facebook

The Places You Must Try First

Fork
Fork has been a lot of things over the years — heralded and counted out a half-dozen times each, survived things that would’ve killed any other restaurant on earth. And yet consistently, year after year, it claws its way to the top of the heap by consistently turning out one of the most interesting and innovative New American menus in the city. Plus, it’s become one of the city’s great training kitchens, something that becomes more and more important with each passing season. 306 Market Street

The Continental
Imagine a classic American diner designed by the not inconsiderable talents at Starr Restaurants. That’s what the Old City Continental is like. Unlike the Center City location (which is a bit more Mad Men), this one has a gloss of chrome and quilted aluminum, lunch counter stools and plenty of martinis per cubic foot. The menu (at both locations) is fusion-y, with wild strains of American and Italian comfort food. And the bar is formidable and often packed. 138 Market Street

Amada
Amada exists as a constant and consistent reminder to the diners of Philadelphia that small plates existed prior to 2012. And that they were invented somewhere other than Fishtown. 219 Chestnut Street

Han Dynasty
While his original Old City location definitely deserves a shout-out as one of the foundations of Philly’s most recent restaurant renaissance, he shuttered that tumble-down space in favor of this gleaming, glossy, high-ceilinged flagship. The bar is wild on the weekends. The Sichuan menu is just as fiery as you’ve heard. And honestly, if you can’t have a good time here, you might have problems that no single dinner is going to solve. 123 Chestnut Street

Franklin Fountain
Franklin Fountain exists like a museum-grade reproduction of a turn-of-the-last-century soda fountain, complete with ice cream sundaes, floats, phosphates, milkshakes, and more. The Cherry Bomb (bittersweet chocolate ice cream dropped into a cherry soda) is amazing, and the cult favorite honeycomb ice cream might be even better. 116 Market Street

Royal Boucherie’s bloody Mary and burger | Photo by Jeremy Pero

The Newcomers

Royal Boucherie
Nick Elmi’s Old City bar and restaurant remains one of the most comfortable, welcoming, strangely fancy-but-casual spots in the entire city. The menu is all French-inflected bar snacks and filling, rustic, impeccably designed dinner plates like lobster farfalle, pork schnitzel with pickled Fresno chiles and caramelized honey or steak au poivre with potatoes and a Bordelaise sauce. Go once and you’ll wish your neighborhood bar was this good. Go twice and you’ll see why people come from all over the city to make Royal Boucherie their neighborhood spot. 52 South 2nd Street

Farmicia
Local, sustainable, healthy, and creative — that’s what they’re about at FARMicia. They’ve got options for vegetarians, options for vegans, options for the gluten-averse, and just about everyone else under the sun. Plus a fine selection of cheeses, lots of vegetables given the care they deserve, a creative cocktail list, and center-plate proteins like cast-iron-seared yellowfin tuna or a 14-ounce bone-in pork chop. 15 South 3rd Street

2nd Story Brewing
Look, if you’re going to have a brewpub in this town, you’d better do something special with the menu, because the competition is fierce. Know what works well? A really good poutine. A playful adult grilled cheese with apple chutney and smoked bacon. An unexpected coconut curry stew. And 2nd Story has all of this (plus a lot more) on their surprisingly deep and well-put-together menu. Plus there’s, you know, the beer. 117 Chestnut Street

Vista Peru | Facebook

Vista Peru
This city needs more upscale Peruvian food. Downscale, too. Just more Peruvian food in general. As a matter of fact, every city needs more Peruvian food. Except maybe the cities actually in Peru — they probably have enough. But until Philly gets more yucca, ceviche, and lomo saltado in the scene, the people of Old City will be well served by Vista Peru, which does a fantastic job flying the flag of Peruvian cuisine in this town. 20 South 2nd Street

Cafe Square One
If you don’t already have a regular breakfast spot in Old City, you should check out Square One. Seriously, for the Cragel alone (cream cheese, bacon, tomato and avocado on a bagel) it’s worth a stop. Throw in the Breakfast Press — an entire breakfast, hash browns included, all pressed together into a single sandwich — and it almost becomes a morning imperative. 50 South 3rd Street

Tuna Bar
We gave it a Best of Philly award this year for being the prettiest restaurant in town. But you know what? The sushi is solid, too. 205 Race Street

Frieda
This is a coffee shop with a mission. They do breakfast and lunch, salads and wraps, fresh French pastries, and quiche Lorraine. But they’re also there to connect the community with game nights, art classes, and all manner of events and workshops designed to bring together people of all generations. The food has a French bent (that’s where the chef trained) and the culture is very inclusive. 320 Walnut Street

Commonwealth
For a brief moment in American culinary history, South Carolina’s Lowcountry cuisine was everyone’s darling. Every chef was looking to open a place featuring that distinctly water’s edge style. But that was a little while ago, and today, if you’re looking for she-crab soup, hushpuppies, pimento cheese and gumbo, head to Commonwealth. 319 Market Street

United By Blue
Because who doesn’t want to eat breakfast in a clothing store, right? The surprising thing is, once you try it, you’ll want to go back. At least for the River Hash with eggs and onions, bacon, salmon and hot honey. And some people say lunch is even better. 205 Race Street

Wister | Facebook

Wister
Once upon a time, this address was home to 26 North — a failure as a restaurant but in a beautiful space. Now, it’s Wister, a BYO with a small menu (just nine dishes listed online, not counting dessert) and the same cozy, exposed-brick-and-Edison-bulb sensibility that made 26 North so comfortable. 26 North 3rd Street

Old Thyme Cafe
This summer, Old City got a new place for smoothies, shakes, fresh juices, and all manner of Middle Eastern food. Old Thyme does fresh baked pastries, plus sandwiches, platters, and manakeesh for vegetarians and omnivores alike. 229 Market Street

Luna Cafe
Yeah, for brunch. Sure. The lines can tell you how popular it is. But this place does breakfast every day so, you know, maybe try a Tuesday? Not saying it isn’t worth waiting in line for the cinnamon apple french toast — but why do it if you don’t have to? 317 Market Street

Victoria Freehouse
The requisite British-themed restaurant for Old City. But hey, if you’ve ever wondered what Marmite wings would taste like, you can find out here. Jokes aside, this has always been a solid place to eat and drink, with all kinds of craft beer, a menu of modern British gastropub classics, and a full schedule of British-y events (think soccer and Doctor Who on the telly). 10 South Front Street

Capofitto
In a city absolutely full of Italian food, there’s still something about Capofitto that seems fresh and new. Some combination of lightness and speed, of pizza and gelato, of time and place. It feels more modern than most of the Modern Italian joints that open these days, and yet it’s making its reputation on a very traditional style of Neapolitan pizza and Italian plates. 233 Chestnut Street

High Street on Market | Facebook

The Classics

High Street On Market
An argument could be made that sandwiches form the backbone of Philly’s true cuisine. An argument could also be made that High Street (from the folks behind Fork, which is right next door) makes the best high-end sandwiches in this town. You owe it to yourself to get down there, think about the first thing, and then make your own decision about the second. 308 Market Street

La Peg
This started out as a very French-y bistro from Peter Woolsey of Bistrot La Minette. Then it became a very traditional American restaurant with some odd French influences and a menu that eats like a very American restaurant being run by a kitchen staff who know how to properly cook a French meal. The result is a surprising meld of the two, with some of the best versions of American classics in the city, all served in a gigantic warehouse space attached to the FringeArts theater. 140 North Columbus Boulevard

Sassafrass
It’s gorgeous the way a 1940’s movie star is gorgeous — timeless, but just a little bit faded. For drinking, it’s one of the best bars in Old City, staffed by a crew who know how to shake a proper cocktail. And the kitchen backing them up doesn’t try anything weird or fancy but provides ample support in the form of classic bar food and a few larger plates for those who want to stay and hang out a while. 48 South 2nd Street 

La Locanda Del Ghiottone
You want old school Italian? This is your spot. The place is a mish-mash of decades worth of decor and schlock, wine bottles and exposed brick. The menu is short and classic, with penne vodka and fruitti di mare pastas. And there’s just something so earnest and honest about the place that it’s instantly charming. 130 North 3rd Street

Buddakan
Asian fusion is still alive and well in 2018, and Buddakan is the place where it thrives. Seriously, we’re talking wasabi mashed potatoes, tuna pizza, kung pao lobster and all the greatest hits, served in a room that could’ve doubled as a set for Big Trouble in Little China. And believe it or not, I mean all this as a huge compliment — mostly because I love a place that does one thing, does it well, and won’t stop for anything short of the end of the world. 325 Chestnut Street

Cuba Libre | Facebook

Cuba Libre
Philly’s center for Cuban art, culture and food, all in a space that looks like a Cuban street scene. The empanadas are classics (pulled pork, picadillo, and others), the tapas have a distinctive Latin flavor, and the Ybor City-style Cuban sandwich is a fine example of the form. 10 South 2nd Street

Revolution House
It used to be the old Snow White Diner. For 60 years, it sat there at 2nd and Market, offering breakfast and lunch to the neighbors and workers in the area. Then it closed down for renovations, and when it re-opened in 2011 (still owned by the same Snow White family), it was a very different thing. Revolution House is a two-story bar and restaurant offering a menu of tater tots and pizzas, flatbread sandwiches and quinoa salads. There’s also a popular brunch and a kid’s menu, making it one of the rare upscale restaurants in the neighborhood that’s family-friendly. 200 Market Street

City Tavern
Because everyone should experience dinner at this Colonial Times-themed restaurant at least once. Because it’s a place where servers dressed like tavern help from the 1700’s will bring you braised rabbit and Ben Franklin’s favorite tofu like you just rented an hour on the world’s weirdest time machine. Because the place actually has been around since 1773, in one form or another. And because they take this stuff pretty seriously in the kitchen. Where else are you going to find pepper pot soup and lobster pie in Philly? 138 South 2nd Street

Cafe Olé
Waffles and shakshuka at breakfast, Israeli salad and a grilled cheese sandwich with olives at lunch, coffee and pastries all day long. What more do you need to know? 147 North 3rd Street

Kisso Sushi Bar
For 20 years, Kisso has been laying down sushi for Old City. And no restaurant lasts that long without doing something right. At Kisso, it’s a dedication to well-sourced fish, traditional skills, clever innovation, and making regulars out of just about every single person who has walked in the doors in the past two decades. Seriously, people get fanatical about this place. Check it out and see why. 205 North 4th Street

Khyber Pass Pub
The Khyber has become such a part of the Old City scene that if it didn’t already exist, someone would have to go back in time and invent it. Back in the day, before Old City got (marginally) respectable, it was the place you went when you wanted to pretend you were somewhere cooler than Old City. And these days (after a remodel almost 10 years ago that turned it into the Khyber Pass Pub it is now), it is a place to go for craft beer, good eats with a distinctly Southern accent and bowls of bacon grease popcorn. 56 South 2nd Street

Chloe
Small, local, seasonal, BYO — Chloe remains one of the overlooked gems in Old City. The kind of place where you should have a standing date every Wednesday night. 232 Arch Street

The Olde Bar
Yeah, Olde Bar is kinda new-ish. But its style, form, and inspiration are so old that I’ve put it here. Opened by Jose Garces in the old Bookbinder’s, it is a restaurant that pretends it’s been in Philly for a century, featuring oysters, lobster, crab cocktails, iceberg wedge salads, steak Oscar, snapper soup, and other flavors from Philly’s restaurant history. I’m still pissed off by the $26 lobster roll, but Olde Bar isn’t a cheap place and doesn’t pretend to be. 125 Walnut Street

Panorama | Facebook

Panorama
Homemade pastas and a big, continental wine list are kind of par for the course at Philly’s Italian restaurants. But Panorama has been upping its game recently with event menus, a revamped happy hour, and a menu that’s now focused on bold flavors and well-sourced ingredients. The polpette are made from Wagyu beef. The squash blossom fritti come stuffed with sheep’s milk ricotta and sauced with a gremolata made from local cherries. And the tortellini are filled with house-made burrata. The new menu is a remarkable achievement, so if you haven’t been to Panorama in a while, it’s definitely worth checking out again. 14 North Front Street at the Penn’s View Hotel

Gaslight
The bar here has always been fun — crowded, loud, and staffed by a team that know how to pour a fine (read: strong) drink. The bar is also the best place for filling up on snacks, everything from cheese fries and house-made chicken nuggets to fried pierogies and a good plate of nachos. 120 Market Street

Sonny’s Famous Steaks
Looking for a cheesesteak in Old City? This is your spot. 228 Market Street

Ariana
For nearly two decades, this simple, close-packed dining room has been where people have come for Afghan food in Philly. The menu is large, but just about everything on it is worth trying, from the aashak dumplings to the chicken kofta and the combination kabobs. And if you find yourself lost and not knowing what to order, the staff is always more than happy to offer suggestions (which you should absolutely listen to). 134 Chestnut Street

Race Street Cafe
Exposed bricks and a long bar, craft beers on tap and wings on the menu. Race Street Cafe is a polished version of the neighborhood bar that every neighborhood needs, with a few surprises (like a shrimp curry) hiding on a tight, uncluttered menu. 208 Race Street

Spasso
Yes, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself anywhere in this city wanting Italian food and not being able to find it. But discovering a good, inexpensive, slightly off-the-radar place where you can always get a table, a drink, and a plate of veal in a porcini and gorgonzola cream sauce is like finding buried treasure. And Spasso can be that place for you. Bonus: They’ve got a daily specials menu that’s really impressive. 34 South Front Street

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