Though the legendary Philly cheesesteak has migrated onto the menus of sandwich shops across the world, Philadelphia is home to a far more diverse, elevated and progressive food scene than its namesake hoagie would reveal. Respected as a destination for world-class chefs, recognized as the patron of the corkage-free Bring-Your-Own-Bottle restaurant and revered for helping to foster the locavore and craft-beer movements, Philadelphia continues to push boundaries and define what it means to eat and drink in the 21st century.
The latest chapter of Philadelphia’s restaurant culture can be traced to a Frenchman named Georges Perrier. Perrier, as the founder of the fine-dining icon Le Bec-Fin, is the last vestige of a generation of chefs who first expanded the city’s food identity outside the red-gravy trattorias of South Philly. The success of Le Bec-Fin, which for many years boasted one of the world’s only official five-star ratings, inspired chefs to open other temples to fine dining, and for years, the 1600 to the 2000 blocks of Walnut Street, AKA “Restaurant Row,” were admired for jacket-and-tie restaurants such as Rouge, Alma de Cuba and Il Portico.
More recently, the trend toward casual dining has compelled the grande dames of Walnut Street to gracefully make room for a younger generation of chefs and restaurants. Names like Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri and Jose Garces started creating buzz in the late 1990s and early 2000s as they fostered restaurant renaissances in and around neighborhoods like Old City (The Continental), The Gayborhood (Vetri … named best Italian restaurant on the East Coast by Mario Batali) and Washington Square (Chifa).
Now, as these nationally renowned chefs oversee restaurant empires in Philadelphia and across the United States, their protégées are leading the third, fourth and maybe even fifth stages of the city’s restaurant revolution. Mike Stollenwerk (Fish), Michael Solomonov (Zahav), Evan Turney (Varga Bar) and Valerie Safran (Lolita) are just a few of the many younger chefs whose original and follow-up restaurants are changing what, where and how Philadelphians eat.
Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney own Lolita, a bring-your-own tequila spot that helped launch Midtown VIllage as a mainstream nightlife destination — Photo courtesy of G. Widman for GPTMC
So what are Philadelphians eating and drinking circa 2012? Small plates, tasting menus, farm-to-table or peasant cooking, Belgian mussels, food trucks, classic and/or fresh cocktails and beer dinners are catchphrases any visitor to the city is sure to notice.
Honest Tom's Taco Truck announces its daily whereabouts via social media — Photo courtesy of M. Kennedy for GPTMC
BYOBs – so named because they invite guests to bring their own wine or beer to compensate for their owners’ decision not to purchase an extraordinarily expensive and hard-to-get liquor license – continue to flourish, thanks to their typically cozy vibe, superior food and relatively lower price point. For a broad survey of these trends, new and established dining hotspots like Rittenhouse Square, 7th and Chestnut, and Midtown Village offer an eclectic mix of concepts and cuisines, many of which are on fabulous display in shiny new examples of the city’s dining prowess.
On the other hand, some neighborhoods host clusters of similarly fashioned eateries and, as such, provide easy pickins for the diner who knows what he or she wants. For instance, West Philadelphia’s University City is home to innumerable restaurants of every ethnicity, many of which are quick, casual and priced for students.
Dahlak is one of many ethnic restaurants in West Philly — Photo courtesy of R. Kennedy for GPTMC
Chinatown is the place to go for inexpensive Asian food, and Center City supports several opulent steakhouses that make global economic troubles melt away.
In South Philadelphia, traditional Italian food, whether served in the form of over-the-counter pizza slices or prepared by opera-singing cooks, tastes like Nonna used to make it, though the streets of the outdoor Italian Market now welcome the dining traditions of Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants alongside of those who’ve inhabited the district for centuries. Thanks to gentrification and the migration of the young, creative class to parts of South Philly, the East Passyunk strip has adopted a craft-beer persona that shows itself in beer bars (which were called “gastropubs” until someone realized that almost all of the city’s beer bars were serving gourmet pub fare, thus rendering the term redundant and obsolete), Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants and proudly American restaurants.
Standard Tap was the first bar in the city to sell only local brews — Photo courtesy of Standard Tap
Speaking of craft beer, it’s impossible to enter any restaurant of any caliber that doesn’t sell at least one or two local brews. In Philly, the craft-beer movement started in earnest in the Fairmount section of the Art Museum area. Several years after Fairmount stalwarts like London Grill and Bridgid’s proved their longevity, restaubars popped up elsewhere to spread an ethos that shunned macro-brewed domestic beers in favor of local and artisanal beers that paired well with food. Standard Tap, which serves exclusively local beers, award-winning burgers and mussels steamed in any number of sauces, turned the Northern Liberties neighborhood north of Old City into one of the first true craft-beer meccas in the country. Around the same time, South Philly Tap Room and Pub on Passyunk East stretched the craft community to South Philly, and when Standard Tap owner Will Reed later opened Johnny Brenda’s, he opened the near-north neighborhoods of Fishtown, the Girard Corridor and now Kensington and Port Richmond to a new world of craft beer and restaurant opportunities.
Philly's not all beer and upscale bar food. Elsewhere around town, celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay (Bobby’s Burger Palace) are joining their star brethren like Eric Ripert (10Arts), Iron Chefs Garces and Masaharu Morimoto (Morimoto) and Bravo Top Chef Kevin Sbraga (Sbraga) to even further polish Philly’s reputation as a serious place for food. And though grandiose dining rooms may have fallen slightly out of fashion with today’s happy-hour, small plates and gourmet pizza crowd, stars of Philadelphia’s dining world still shine bright: In 2010, Forbes Travel Guide awarded five stars to the Fountain Restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel.