Meals Worth Walking for: Philadelphia Restaurants
Marion Roydhouse, December 2005
The enjoyment of eating in restaurants in Philadelphia is heightened by the variety of neighborhoods and the walks to be enjoyed after a splendid meal. This brief guide to dining discusses eating places chosen by a group of historians who like to eat and who like to explore Philadelphia's center city. All are aficionados of eating out, even if none possesses endlessly deep pockets. Although very expensive and long-famous restaurants like Le Bec-Fin and Deux Cheminees are well worth the price, this list is for those whose range is somewhat more limited—between $10 and $30 for an entrée. We have confined ourselves to places easily accessible from the meeting area.
For more choices and the most comprehensive reviews, see philadelphia.citysearch.com, and cityguide.aol.com/philadelphia, or look up the usually reliable recommendations of local people on www.chowhound.com.
The Meeting Area and Center City
Market Street between the meeting hotels and 7th Street is still awaiting rejuvenation. There are gems nearby, nonetheless. For Philly's best coffee and some fabulous Chinese dumplings, try Ray's Coffee Shop at 141 N 9th Street (between Race and Arch), where the siphon-drip coffee is very expensive (around $5 a cup) but worth every penny. Or walk toward the magnificent bulk of City Hall to Roy's (124-134 S 15th), part of Roy Yamaguchi's Hawaiian chain. It serves excellent Asian fusion cuisine. If you sit at the counter, the chefs will toss some free appetizers your way.
One of the most famous restaurants in the city is Morimoto (723 Chestnut St., 215-413-9070, $$$$) my idea of a great restaurant. As the Citysearch reviewers say, "It's a light show. It's modern art. Most of all, it's totally impressive," with the Iron Chef presiding over the sushi bar and the Japanese fusion menu.
Also relatively close to the hotels and just down the street from the Graf house (now museum), where Jefferson stayed while he wrote the Declaration of Independence is Jones Restaurant (700 Chestnut St., 215-238-9600, $$). With a combination of what some call "low brow cuisine" and others find reminiscent of TV dinners, it serves great comfort food and good chocolate cake. Popular with a wide range of people, it is generally packed with tourists and locals eyeing each other over the booths.
Further west, the Avenue of the Arts (Broad St.), leading up to City Hall, is a symbol of the rejuvenation efforts of mayor Ed Rendell. Bliss 220 S Broad St., 215-731-1100, $$$) has good French bistro food and a cool blue atmosphere. Across the road at Sotto Varalli (231 S Broad St., 215-546-6800, $$) you will find Mediterranean food, a wonderful giant squid sculpture hanging over the bar, and banquettes for groups in the back.
Put on a scarf and walk a few blocks east, past Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, to the now-fashionable restaurant and art galleries of Old City, one of the richest neighborhoods in terms of history and architecture, a once commercial and industrial area now full of young people dressed in black at night and full of "suits" from the city offices during the day. On Market St. , between Front and 5th Streets, are a multitude of eateries. These are our favorites. I start with the more expensive and very trendy.
One of the restaurant impresario Stephen Starr's many and varied eating places, Buddakan (325 Chestnut St., 215-574-9440, $$$) is well worth a visit for its 10-foot high gilded Buddha, as well as the pan-Asian fusion food. Very fashionable, it is one of Philadelphia's best restaurants. Patou (312 Market St., 215-928-2987, $$$), gives evidence of the owner's Cote d'Azur origins with classic French cuisine. Don't be put off by the bar in front, a hangout for the young drinking crowd. The dining room is airy and much quieter. The stumble up the elegant but dark front lobby is well worth the shared platters to come at Tangerine (232 Market St., 215-627-5116, $$$). "North African cuisine meets Old City cocktail in Moroccan influenced restaurant," says CitySearch. Fork (306 Market St., 215-625-9425, $$$), is so trendy that you can hardly find the front door, which is marked by a discreet fork, but good bistro/new American food makes the search worthwhile. Also in Old City, hidden on a cobblestone plaza behind the Ritz movie theater, is a Chinese restaurant that is authentic and also innovative—Pagoda Noodle Café (125 Sansom Walkway, 215-929-2320, $). Facing Welcome Plaza, it serves very reasonably priced Chinese food. Café Spice (35 S 2nd St., 215-627-6273, $$), has a menu with traditional Indian favorites that include good somosas and tandoori. The red, green, and gold décor is both modern and cheerful. Pizzicato (248 Market St., 215-629-5527, $$), is casual and good for lunch. You can sit and watch pedestrians while enjoying salad or gourmet pizza. Good service. Another ethnic restaurant, somewhat more pricey, is Cuba Libre (10 S 2nd S., 215-627-0666, $$$). It is lively, loud, and obviously Cuban.
Walnut Street, south of the Marriott, has upscale shops as well as upscale restaurants and is good for strolling, window-shopping, and people-watching as you wend your way westward. Restaurants here are more sedate and quietly elegant than in Old City. But the trendiness and varied crowd picks up again around Rittenhouse Square, now the most populated and energetic of the original squares laid out by Thomas Holme for William Penn.
Susanna Foo (1512 Walnut St., 215-545-2666, $$$$) is a long-term mainstay on the restaurant scene. It's decor is coolly understated, its Asian fusion menu innovative—for example sweet beet chutney and broccoli rabe with tea-smoked Peking duck. Striped Bass (1500 Walnut St., 215-732-4444, $$$$), boasts refined elegance as well as great seafood. Brasserie Perrier (1619 Walnut St., 215-568-3000, $$$), is chef Georges Perrier's less-expensive and more informal restaurant near his famous Le Bec-Fin. Classic French cuisine and more.
A few more informal places can be found around Rittenhouse Square. Continental Mid-Town (1801 Chestnut St., 215-567-1800, $$) populated by the young and trendy at night, features swinging basket chairs, retro décor, and an eclectic mix of food from American to Thai. Cheerful service. Its also-trendy sibling in Old City is The Continental (134 Market St., 215-923-6069, $), with fusion cuisine and cocktails. Twenty Manning (261 S 20th St., 215-731-0900, $$$), is part of a long-time set of restaurants on 20th Street. It's a hangout for the 20-somethings, with bistro style food that is good for a wider audience. Can be noisy.
Neighborhoods Farther Afield
If you are intent on looking at Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount neighborhood, try the London Grill (2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545, $$$), a neighborhood restaurant since 1991, with Asian, Latin, and Mediterranean dishes. It can also take large groups.
Still farther afield, but worth the taxi, trolley, subway, or bus trip necessary to get there, the area around the University of Pennsylvania has many good eating spots. White Dog Café (3420 Sansom St., 215-386-9224, $$$), owned by the renowned Judy Wicks, helped begin the restaurant renaissance in the 1970s. The atmosphere is friendly, the crowd eclectic, the food organic, supporting local farms. The beet and goat cheese salad is especially good. Nan (4000 Chestnut St., 215-382-0818, $$$), popular with Penn parents and University City inhabitants, serves food with Thai influences. Opinions differ over Pod (3636 Sansom St., 215-387-1803, $$$$). Undeniably a destination restaurant, its futurist décor threatens to overwhelm its food for some, while others love its sushi bar and seafood.
Wherever you end up, Philadelphia has a plethora of places where you can get good food to eat, so enjoy!
—Marion Roydhouse (Philadelphia Univ.) is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.