Though I grew up in central Pennsylvania, my first trip to Philadelphia wasn’t until I was 16 years old. The state is basically split into two, with the eastern half more associated with Philly, and the western half more associated with Pittsburgh. I worked in both areas eventually and came to love the city of Philadelphia. Besides the historic areas of the city, I really loved the food.
With Delaware on one side and New Jersey on the other, the city of Philadelphia is one of the biggest in the country. Moreover, it is also one of the oldest and most historic in the country and has played a crucial role in the drive for independence during the colonial era. Because of this, the city is absolutely filled with rich colonial buildings, amazing museums, and important cultural landmarks.
Seeing as the city is one of the biggest by population, and also one of the oldest, it should come as no surprise that Philadelphia has an incredibly diverse population. The influence of various cultures coming to the city can be felt not only from neighborhood to neighborhood but also from street to street. Wandering through the streets visitors will come across Greek diners next to Irish pubs. Italian markets and restaurants are not too far away from Chinatown, and Amish farmers sell their fresh produce next to Mennonite goods. Eating in Philadelphia can take you through the cuisine of three continents just by walking down the street. There is a lot to eat and discover here. So don’t be afraid to dive right in with some of the best.
Let’s just get this out of the way. No trip to Philadelphia is complete without indulging in what is likely the most popular sandwich associated with the city. It should probably be pointed out that in the city, it’s not a “Philly cheesesteak” but it is simply just a “cheesesteak”. If you’re visiting and looking to spark a conversation with a local, or maybe even pick a fight, all you have to do is ask “who’s got the best cheesesteak”. While the answers may vary, there are always elements that remain the same.
First, the bread. Needs to be a long baked roll that is both sturdy enough to withstand the steak and cheese stuffing, but also soft enough on the inside to absorb the greasy goodness. Secondly, the steak. The beef needs to be chopped or sliced and fried on a griddle. Next comes the melted cheese. Whiz, melted American, or provolone is the accepted variety. Fried onions and mushrooms are typically optional, but not always needed.
Pat’s King of Steaks: If you’re going to grab a cheesesteak, you might as well go to the source. Pat’s is considered to be the inventor of the sandwich. Founded in 1930, Pat Olivieri had a hot dog stand in South Philadelphia. On his hot dog grill, he cooked shaved steak, put it on an Italian roll with some onions, and just ate that as his personal lunch. A cab driver who saw him eating it asked Pat to make him one, and the rest is history. The line at Pat’s moves quickly and they are cash only. Be prepared for what you want before you stand in line.
Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies: Located in Roxborough, Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies is a small mom-and-pop type shop that many believe to offer the best cheesesteak in the city. Eating at Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies is a sensory experience which is why it tops the list. First, you’ll see the deliveries of fresh meat, bread, and produce delivered not once a day, but several times a day. Then the sounds of the clanging spatulas in the kitchen, chopping and preparing the sandwich. Then smell wafting from the kitchen of fried steak and cheese. Finally, you’ll be able to taste the exquisite taste of cheese, onions, and beef and a soft roll.
Steve’s Prince of Steaks: Sitting on its throne in North Philly, Steve’s Prince of Steaks is one of the best in the city. For over 40 years, Steve’s has been slinging cheesesteaks and they haven’t changed a thing in over 4 decades. Their rib-eye beef is cut 1/8th of an inch and drizzles itself in a whiz, then served on a soft pillowy roll. The place lends itself to a more “local” vibe. If you’re wondering where Philly natives go, here’s one of the spots.
Donkey’s Place: This one is going to be a bit of a curveball. Why? Because it’s technically not located in Philadelphia, it’s located just across the river in New Jersey. Also, it’s not served on a classic Italian roll, it’s served on a Kaiser Roll bun. Donkey’s Place is as local as it gets and doesn’t feel at all like a place that appears on most “where to go” lists. The place is unpretentious and decorated with old boxing photos and knick-knacks. But when it comes to the cheesesteak, Donkey’s Place piles their meat high up on the bun, and seasons it so well that you’d be tempted to just order the meat and eat it like that. The meaty sandwich is then topped with American cheese and onions. It’s even been blessed by Anthony Bourdain, and they’ve been open for over 70 years.
South Philly Barbacoa
Opened on Saturdays and Sundays, South Philly Barbacoa is the premier spot in Philly to grab some authentic tacos on the cheap. Head down to 9th street and walk past all the Italian shops until you hit the large hand-painted yellow sign that says “South Philly Barbacoa”. At the helm of the whole operation is Cristina Martinez and her husband Ben Miller and the restaurant offers a slim menu. Chiefly consisting of barbacoa tacos and consomme, Martinez’s tacos are some of the best on the East Coast. In fact, they’re so good that her restaurant has gotten the attention of Bon Appétit and Netflix. Head out early and enjoy slow-roasted lamb barbacoa served on house-made tortillas and topped with fresh cilantro and onions.
Down North Pizza
At first glance, Down North Pizza looks like your run-of-the-mill pizza spot. The small and unassuming place has a handful of stools and chairs around and along with its walls decorated with works of art from Philly locals, the place has a very local feeling. Like it’s the type of spot you would only know about if you’ve lived in the area for a while. But despite its unassuming charm, Down North Pizza has a lot going on behind the scenes.
The management and cooking team behind Down North Pizza employs formerly incarcerated individuals who are paid, get culinary training, and have a place to stay above the shop, rent-free. They do this while they help get their life back on track so they can then move on to other endeavors once they’re done at Down North Pizza. The place serves Detroit-style pizzas and they all have creative names paying homage to Philly music artists. While their pizzas are stellar, you’d be amiss if you didn’t pick one of their homemade lemonades or shakes for dessert.
If you’re looking for authentically amazing Italian-American food, Fiorella has been a staple in the neighborhood for generations. If you’re a Philly resident, Fiorella is not news to you, having been around since 1892. At the end of the 19th century, Luigi Fiorella opened an Italian grocery store in this area of South Philly. The family sold Italian specialties along with their famous house-made pork sausages from the storefront for over 100 years. The family closed up shop but local restaurateur Marc Vetri took over the space, kept the charm, kept the Fiorella name, and opened a pasta bar in honor of the iconic shop that once stood there.
The indoor space feels warm and inviting or if you’d prefer, opt to dine outside on the patio and watch the world go by. The wine list here is long and extensive, dividing their list not by category but by region. “Island Whites” feature white wines from Sardinia and Sicily, while northern reds round off the selection. Pasta is the name of the game here and dishes change with the seasons. However, the one constant on the menu is their rigatoni ragu, which features pork sausage made the same way Luigi Fiorella made it a hundred years ago. Why mess with the classics?
Helmed by Kyoto-born Hiroki Fujiyama, Hiroki is one of the best omakase joints in the city. While honing his craft at other high-end sushi spots around the city, chef Fujiyama would soon open the beautiful Hiroki in 2019. For the unfamiliar, omakase-style sushi is made by the chef and there is no menu. You get what he makes. Diners start with small dishes called zensai which is made up of small locally-sourced produce, before moving onto two main sushi courses, followed by a miso soup, and then dessert.
Like traditional high-end sushi and omakase restaurants found in Japan, Hiroki feels as authentically Japanese as you get in Philadelphia. The interior is restrained and simplistic with dark tones, mood lighting, and carefully curated art that doesn’t distract from the overall atmosphere. Although, unlike other omakase restaurants, there are tables here if you’re looking for the real Hiroki omakase experience, make sure to book a spot at the bar where you can see chef Fujiyama do his work.
Get a little taste of Europe right in the middle of Philadelphia. When you approach Parc you’ll notice the large double doors resembling something out of place for the area. When you walk through them, you’ll feel like you’ve teleported straight to the streets of Paris. The ubiquitous smell of butter wafts through the air and the warm lighting and elegantly tiled floor will make you stop and wonder if you can see the Eiffel tower from here. The long windowed wall offers views out onto Rittenhouse Square or if you prefer the “authentic” Parisian experience. Grab a bistro table outside and watch the world go by while you sip on a glass of French wine.
The restaurant is helmed by James Beard award-winner Stephen Starr and expertly serves quintessential French bistro classics. Escargot, French onion soup topped with molten bubbly cheese, cheddar omelet with gruyere cheese, and fine herbs are just some of the things that top the list. There is a different special offered every day of the week, but the menu rarely changes – in this, Parc offers familiarity. It knows what it does well and doesn’t feel the need to deviate. With a long menu of French classics and an even longer menu of wines. Parc isn’t afraid to let guests in, choose their food and drinks, and just hang out. There’s no rush to order, there’s no rush to leave. At Parc, you’re invited to simply just enjoy the moment.
For those with a sweet tooth craving head over to the iconic Franklin Fountain. Philadelphia was once known as the ice cream capital of the world and places like Franklin Fountain are a testament to that.
Opening in 2004 by two brothers, Franklin Fountain has tons of ice cream flavors available as well as homemade candies and a wide selection of sweet treats. But what makes Franklin Fountain really stand out is the aesthetic of the place. Located in a turn of the century building the porcelain mosaic tile floor and decorative tin walls and ceilings give the old place an old-timey feeling. The brothers decorated the space with vintage and antique pieces and signs making Franklin Fountain look like an old ice cream shop that your grandma might have gone to. The fact that the servers wear bowties and vests is only the cherry on top of the Franklin Fountain experience.
Our Final Word
Philly is truly a foodie paradise filled with sights and sounds that will make you never want to leave. Have a cheesesteak or three and you will see what I mean.