The First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Dining in Philadelphia
Welcome to Philly, would you like a sandwich?
Creating a restaurant to-do list for a first-time visitor is somewhat of a fool’s errand, since Philly is teeming with great versions of pretty much everything under the sun. (And everyone who lives here has incredibly strong opinions — you’ll figure this out soon enough.) That said, you — or your out-of-town friends who won’t stop texting you for Philly restaurant recs — have to start somewhere. Consider this highly opinionated, not-exactly-conclusive-but-very-delicious list your 101 syllabus to eating well in this city. These restaurants represent a sample of the best that Philly has to feed you, from barbacoa to phở and all the hoagies in between.
A rule of thumb: don’t come to Philly and skip over the incredible Southeast Asian restaurant scene. Sure, lots of people (including myself) will tell you to get a bowl of phở (see below) but Gabriella’s is a great place to try Vietnamese food that goes beyond the staples you might see elsewhere. Try the bánh khọt, mini coconut cakes that come with lettuce and herbs for wrapping, or bánh bèo chén, open-faced dumplings that come steamed in tiny bowls and topped with shrimp, pork and shallot. For larger dishes, share the soft-shell crab and the shaken beef made with filet mignon. More good news: Gabriella’s is a BYOB restaurant. So remember to show up with your own drinking supplies (sans glasses or opener). The history and politics of the Philly liquor laws are complicated, but the BYOB is a classic Philly phenomena that you should try once or twice or eight times while you’re here. 1837 East Passyunk Avenue, East Passyunk.
Laser Wolf or Zahav
Michael Solomonov’s Laser Wolf and Zahav are both big deals in Philadelphia — they’ve won plenty of awards for modern Israeli cuisine and excellent hospitality, and they’re both really hard to get into (though we have some tips to snagging a table). Zahav is the original, and slightly fancier; while Laser Wolf is a little more laid back. In either case, you’ll need to plan ahead. But, if you can’t get in, don’t spend too much time feeling bummed about it. Solomonov’s fast casual spots, while not as flashy, will give you a pretty decent sample of the food he’s built something of an empire around: Goldie is great for falafel and tehina shakes, Dizengoff for hummus platters and frozen lemonana, or Merkaz for pita sandwiches and gazoz. Plus, there’s always K’Far — the Rittenhouse bakery that serves great pastries and Jerusalem bagel sandwiches. 1301 North Howard Street, Kensington. 237 St James Place, Society Hill.
South Philly Barbacoa
Philly loves tacos, but there is perhaps no taco more beloved than Cristina Martinez’s lamb barbacoa version in the Italian Market — a small, historic neighborhood that runs up 9th Street, from around Federal Street to Christian Street. You might have seen South Philly Barbacoa on Chef’s Table, or read about it in any number of publications that have highlighted not just how juicy these tacos are, but the work Martinez has done to forward immigrant’s rights and food security. The lines here get long (though usually move quickly) and the cash-only restaurant is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 5 a.m. until they run out sometime mid-afternoon, but it’s worth finagling a trip here for an agua fresca, lamb barbacoa tacos (and maybe one or two of the spicy lamb offal versions, too), and a couple sweet, raisin-flecked tamales. And if this visit only inspires an even more intense taco craving, go grab a couple of carnitas tacos at Taqueria La Veracruzana down on Washington Avenue and 9th Street. 1140 South 9th Street, Italian Market.
Hardena is a Philly institution (a casual, cash-only, order-enough-to-take-leftovers-home institution, at that). This long-time favorite Indonesian spot has a hot bar ideal for getting a different meal anytime you visit. Offerings change all the time, but favorites include: fried chicken, corn fritters, beefy soto betawi, and a collard greens in coconut milk dish called sayur singkong. 1754 South Hicks Street, Point Breeze.
John’s Water Ice
For the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know about water ice: Its texture lives somewhere between a snow cone and sorbet. Water ice was created by Italian immigrants and it’s beloved by all people. Philadelphians pronounce it “wooder” ice, but you do not need to attempt that (actually don’t, please). Go to John’s (which has been around since 1945) to try it for the first time — especially at dusk in the summertime, when you can eat a lemon water ice and let the charm of the city do its Philly thing. 701 Christian Street, Bella Vista.
For anyone prioritizing a fun night out while you’re here, Royal Izakaya should be your spot. Sure, you could try to get a reservation for the elegant omakase experience in the back room, but you’ll be just as happy (possibly happier) sitting at the bar or in a roomy booth in the main dining room here. Sip a few highballs or Japanese beer, then bounce around the menu of chef-owner Jesse Ito’s izakaya fare while anime plays in the background. If you’re there for a late dinner, ask for the industry chirashi bowl, a plastic pint-container filled with sushi rice and fresh fish. 780 South 2nd Street, Queen Village.
If you’re going to the Italian Market (you probably are), end the afternoon with a sit-down meal at Kalaya — the Philly restaurant serving some of the best Thai food in the country. Yep, the country. Owner Nok Suntaranon is uncompromising in her commitment to presenting her native Southern Thai food in its most classic form. That means there are no spice level alterations available, so come ready and willing to endure the heat or don’t come at all. Ideal ordering here includes: a plate of little flower-shaped shaw muang dumplings stuffed with ground chicken, cold and crunchy laab ped, and one or two of the curry options (the scallop version with long hots and coconut cream is particularly mind-blowing). Note that this is another BYO, so grab a bottle or a couple cans to bring along. If it’s a weekend, you’ll be better off reserving a table ahead of time, and there’s also plenty of seating outside. 764 South 9th Street, Bella Vista.
If you’re coming to Philly with a focus on eating (the correct attitude) you’ve probably been led to believe you need a cheesesteak. The one at Angelo’s is one of the greatest in the city, though you’ll have to brave the phone-only ordering system to eat it. (Dedicate 10 or 15 minute to calling over and over and over and over. You will eventually get through. Or go place your order in person and walk around for twenty-ish minutes while you wait.) They also have great, thin-crust pies and stellar Italian hoagies. If these ordering hurdles seem like more trouble than they’re worth, consider opting for a roast pork sandwich from John’s, a hoagie from Antonio’s, and a slice of tomato pie from... 736 South 9th Street, Bella Vista.
Sarcone’s is one of several old school Italian bakeries in the Italian Market neighborhood. It has many delicious items, including hoagie rolls and Italian sweets, but it is also most perfectly situated to give you your tomato pie fix. For the uninitiated, tomato pie is a regional delicacy (we have a lot of those here, have you noticed?) of thick, square-style pizza topped only with a sweet, thick, tomato sauce and maybe a sprinkle of pecorino cheese — traditionally served cold or at room temperature. Sarcone’s has a very good version. 758 South 9th Street, Bella Vista.
DiBruno Bros. 9th Street Bottle Shop
Okay here it is: my single favorite way to spend an afternoon in Philadelphia. Choose a couple of the Italian Market spots on this list. Visit your picks and order everything to-go. Then take your loot to the little piazza at the corner of 9th and Montrose Streets and grab a bottle of wine or a couple of beers from the bottle shop. The outdoor seating area here has tables, chairs, and even umbrellas to shield you from the sun. It’s perfect for enjoying some of the best food that Philly has to offer, as well as some truly excellent people watching. If you’d rather skip the walking part of this expedition, you can always grab a spread of meats and cheeses from the Di Bruno Bros. cheese shop on 9th Street, and let the folks at the bottle shop recommend a pairing. 920 South 9th Street, Bella Vista.
John’s Roast Pork
I alluded to it above, by I personally believe that the roast pork sandwich (on a hoagie roll with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe) is the superior Philly sandwich to the cheesesteak. Get one at John’s and you’ll see why I’m correct. They also serve good cheesesteaks for those in need. 14 Snyder Avenue, Pennsport.
Fiore Fine Foods
A great choice for Sunday morning breakfast or brunch, Fiore serves an ever-changing and pleasantly over-the-top selection of pastries and breakfast sandwiches. Get a hash brown for the table and then walk up to Headhouse Square afterwards, where the Sunday farmers’ market will be in full swing. Fiore is all the way over by the Delaware, in a beautiful and historic part of the city. The restaurant is also a great option for an Italian group-dining experience, or a sexy date night moment. 757 South Front Street, Queen Village.
Pho 75 serves the perfect bowl of beef phở, very quickly. Pick your bowl number from the menu, choose your size (even the small is pretty filling), and pay with cash at the counter when you’re finished. You could very well be out of here in 15 minutes, or bring booze and stay for a while while a Sixers game plays on the TVs. 1122 Washington Avenue F, South Philly.
Right next door to Pho 75 is Sky Cafe, an incredible Indonesian restaurant with friendly service and a photo-heavy menu that makes this a great spot for people who might be trying Indonesian food for the first time. It’s BYO, and big enough for groups. Bring a couple people who love to share. 1122 Washington Avenue B, South Philly.
For anyone who loves smoked fish, Biederman’s will be your haven. Grab a few ounces of their hand-sliced pastrami-spiced salmon or vodka-dill gravlax for takeout, along with cream cheese and bagels. Or, for a more over-the-top spread, order one of their brunch boards, which comes complete with everything you need for a perfect breakfast. Just know you have to order those ahead of time. 824 Christian Street, Bella Vista.
Bok Bar and Irwin’s
Bok Bar and Irwin’s are both located on the top floor of the Bok Building in South Philadelphia. The building, which was once a trade high school, shuttered in 2013 and has since been converted into a mixed-use retail and work space. On the lower floors, you’ll find vintage stores, bakeries, bike shops, hair salons, and lots more tenants using the old classrooms these days. The top floor is split into two: Bok Bar, a seasonal outdoor bar with a ridiculously good view of South Philly and the city’s skyline, and Irwin’s, a modern Sicilian restaurant where you can eat some of the best Italian food in the city. If the weather permits, grab a drink at Bok Bar and watch the sunset, then head over to Irwin’s for gnocchi sardi, pasta with clams, and the finest tiramisu in all of Philly. 800 Mifflin Street, South Philly.
If you’re starting to think that Philly is all hole-in-the-walls and you need a place to sit down for somewhat of a fancy dinner, try Parc. The best Parc meals happen on the sidewalk, facing Rittenhouse Square. Order a martini and maybe a seafood tower, and enjoy the people watching on the sidewalk and in the park. You’re here for the experience, but the steak tartare and moules frites are historically pretty good, too. 227 South 18th Street, Rittenhouse.
Càphê Roasters is one of the most exciting new spots in Philly. Run by Thu Pham and Jacob Trinh, it’s a coffee roastery focused on Southeast Asian beans, with an eye toward Vietnamese drinks and food. Come for an early lunch and try a classic egg coffee with some of Trinh’s ever-evolving snacks: bánh mì using bread from the iconic Ba Le Bakery, corn cheese fries, or his jumbo chicken wings. Then grab a bag of coffee on your way out as a souvenir. 3400 J Street, Kensington.
This list focuses heavily on South Philly and Center City, but you really should cross the Schuylkill and head to West Philly at least once. Make Abyssinia your north star destination while you’re there. It’s a true institution, serving some of the best Ethiopian food in the city in a fun and friendly environment that’s great for groups. Order one of the combo platters, then head to the cash-only cocktail bar upstairs for a nightcap after dinner. 229 South 45th Street, West Philly.
Reading Terminal Market
No visitor’s trip to Philadelphia is complete without a stop at Reading Terminal Market. Partly because this indoor market is located right near all the historic stuff, and partly because the food is great. You should wander around and get whatever strikes your fancy, but here are a few of my favorites in case you get overwhelmed inside: an apple fritter from Beiler’s, a bacon, egg and cheese pretzel roll-up from Miller’s Twist (FYI, it’s only served in the mornings), a half-dozen oysters from Pearl’s Oyster Bar, and a bean and cheese pupusa from El Merkury. 51 North 12th Street, Center City.