The search for America’s best food cities: Philadelphia

The search for America’s best food cities: Philadelphia

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Published on July 28, 2015

Fifth in a monthly series.

Never mind that grazing at the Reading Terminal Market is the equivalent of shad swimming upstream. The Philadelphia tourist attraction, an expanse of 80 or so vendors below a former train shed, is where Rick Nichols says we should meet for lunch, and if the city’s unofficial food ambassador says to eat it, you’d best bite.

Above: John’s Roast Pork inspires devotion from Philadelphia residents.

Click to play: This is Philly’s true signature sandwich — and no, it isn’t a cheesesteak.

Easy to spot in the mass of shoppers and noshers with his tuft of white hair, quick smile and eyes often set at amazed, Nichols has agreed to give me a curated tour of one of the best-known food halls in the country. Our rendezvous location: the Rick Nichols Room, an event space in the rear of the market that was named in honor of the longtime Philadelphia Inquirer columnist after his retirement. But first, my host wants to make sure the British strangers he befriended on the train from the near suburbs find their way to the market’s best attributes. The museums, he tells them, can wait.

The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I:
Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.

Within minutes of his good deed, Nichols and I are darting in and out of the aisles, “cracking open the door to see what’s in Philadelphia’s pantry,” as he puts it. Here we are, chatting up Ezekial Ferguson, the amiable cheesemonger behind the counter of Valley Shepherd Creamery, which offers classes in pulling mozzarella, one of the two cheeses produced on-site, and makes feta and halloumi for Zahav, the esteemed modern Israeli restaurant. And there we are, on (long) line at Tommy DiNic’s, asking for broccoli rabe and extra-sharp provolone on a roast pork sandwich that establishes Philadelphia as a premier sandwich town.

There’s ice cream, too, from Bassetts, the nation’s oldest ice cream company, where the many flavors (Guatemalan Ripple, Raspberry Truffle) are matched by flavored sugar or cake cones that will be rolled in crushed peanuts or sprinkles by request. Nichols tells me the blueberry pancakes at a homey lunch counter, Dutch Eating Place, are tops, and I’ll believe him later, once I try them, along with the doughnuts we watch being filled at Beiler’s Bakery.

“If you want a taste of Philadelphia,” says my genial escort as we walk into a sweltering July afternoon and on to more lunches, “Reading Market is something of a smorgasbord.”

I’m just a few days into my quest to identify another of the 10 best food cities in America, a high-calorie journey that has taken me to Charleston, S.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, Ore. It will be five months before I determine where Philadelphia will land on the list, but this much is certain: The City of Brotherly Love knows how to cook, eat and drink.

Clockwise from top: Vaibhav Amin and Neha Patel dine at chef Peter Serpico’s South Street restaurant; a classic pork sandwich from John’s Roast Pork; friends toast inside the Philadelphia Tap Room.

‘Born in a tavern’

Don’t take just my word. “Philadelphians have cookery in their blood. After all, the city was a riverfront baby, born in a tavern, close to the hearth,” writes co-author William Woys Weaver in his book-length introduction to 1987’s “The Larder Invaded: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food & Drink.”

Vedge prep

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Vegetables are the focus at Philadelphia's Vedge, a high-end, vegan restaurant in Center City. Daily prep can include slicing rutabagas, folding empanadas and smoking carrots over a wood-burning grill.

While the barkeeping was said to trump the cooking at Blue Anchor, a fish house that opened in 1682 — and enjoyed an astonishing 128-year run — Philadelphians also consumed wild pigeon, shad and sturgeon there, along with rum from jugs whose size suggests copious drinking. Weaver brings to life an 18th-century city that went on to become a center of bread baking (wheat was Pennsylvania’s cash crop), a consumer of the latest cookbooks from London (at least until the American Revolution cut off trade), an eager recipient of limes, coconuts and sea turtles from the West Indies and a welcome mat for tradesmen, including chefs, escaping the French Revolution.

In the mid-1800s, Philadelphia became synonymous with the best ice cream and other confections not just in the state, but throughout the country. Advances in technology and industry in Philadelphia resulted in coveted cookstoves and a revolution in canning jars, the purchase of which included recipe brochures.

In modern Philadelphia, small is big. Unlike in other major markets, rents here are moderate, making it easy for chefs to open personal expressions. With $100,000 and a decent piece of real estate, says chef Rich Landau of the innovative vegan restaurants Vedge and V Street, “you can snap your fingers and open in two months.” Craig LaBan, the authoritative restaurant critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says that a hallmark of the city he covers, rich with museums and historical sites, is its “accessible sophistication.”

Where Tom went:

Restaurant

Abe Fisher

The happiest happy hour around involves well-balanced cocktails in the company of chopped liver slathered on a cushion of toasted rye brushed with schmaltz. The combo will make you eager to book for dinner in this whimsical tribute to Jewish fare from the owner of the esteemed Zahav. Don't miss the rye-based Yesterday, Today and Amaro. On the menu: duck blintzes and veal schnitzel nestled in tacos with anchovy mayonnaise.

1623 Sansom St.

215-867-0088

www.abefisherphilly.com

Restaurant

a.Kitchen

A deal of a meal in Rittenhouse Square: the $15 express lunch, typically a signature sandwich accompanied by an elegant soup. Regulars know the intimate dining room as a place to see and be seen, the kitchen as a (charcoal) grill master.

135 S. 18th St.

215-825-7030

www.akitchenandbar.com

Store

DiBruno’s

Name something wonderful — wild-caught shrimp, Italian Nutella, sweet corn from Jersey — and chances are, this food emporium sells it (for a premium). The biggest branch in the bunch is in Rittenhouse Square, where the prepared foods run to chickpea-kale burgers and Italian wedding soup.

1730 Chestnut St.

215-665-9220

www.dibruno.com

Restaurant

Dim Sum Garden

“Do you know how to eat them?” a server might ask when she sets down an order of soup dumplings. Before you have time to respond, she demonstrates how to tackle the beggar’s purses filled with pork meatballs and boiling-hot broth without staining or scalding yourself. Slurp-licious! Other hits: pickled cabbage with silken bean curd, and flaky scallion pancakes.

1020 Race St.

215-873-0258

www.dimsumgardenphilly.com

Restaurant

Famous Italian Ices

The best source in the city for a signature treat with the texture of sorbet, this family-owned destination dates to 1965. The crayon-colored refreshers are made on-site, in 60 flavors. Coconut is created from the real deal; passion fruit reflects the taste of the shop’s large Hispanic fan base.

1950 E. Lehigh Ave.

215-634-8563

www.famousitalianices.com

Store

Fante’s Kitchen Shop

A one-stop shop in the historic Italian Market for just about anything a cook or host could want. Among the wares: chestnut flour, rosette irons, canning sets, terra cotta spice jars, Emile Henry tagines, hibiscus powder and cookie cutters in the shape of bikinis. Need a pick-me-up? A clerk makes a mean espresso.

1006 S. Ninth St.

800-443-2683

www.fantes.com

Restaurant

Fork

Here’s what makes this contemporary American restaurant one of the most coveted reservations in town: vitello tonnato rethought with scarlet cubes of raw tuna; gossamer ravioli stuffed with zesty lamb ragu; breads worthy of a course of their own; a birch forest painted on the wall. Chef-owner Eli Kulp, who suffered a grave spinal cord injury in the May Amtrak derailment, can be proud of the care his colleagues continue to express in every detail as he works toward recovery.

306 Market St.

215-625-9425

forkrestaurant.com

Bar

Frankford Hall

Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr's contribution to edgy Fishtown: a 400-seat indoor-outdoor German beer garden replete with linden trees in a gravel courtyard, pretzels the size of steering wheels and ping-pong games fueled by rivers of hefeweizen and other German brews.

1210 Frankford Ave.

215-634-3338

www.frankfordhall.com

Restaurant

John’s Roast Pork

Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan has said that he'd want his last meal to be at this scruffy joint, which the James Beard Foundation has recognized as an American Classic. One taste of the signature sandwich, built from garlicky shaved pork piled on a crusty roll with provolone and hot peppers, explains why the place remains busy 85 years after opening.

14 E. Snyder Ave.

215-463-1951

www.johnsroastpork.com

Store

Joseph Fox Bookshop

This gem of an independent bookstore, established in 1951, stocks a small but select collection of works by distinguished food scribes and chefs both local and world-famous. Among the authors are M.F.K. Fisher, Marc Vetri and Yotam Ottolenghi. Cool find: “How to Eat” by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a pocket-size ode to eating as meditation.

1724 Sansom St.

215-563-4184

www.foxbookshop.com

Coffee

La Colombe

The craft coffee roaster’s splashiest branch unfolds in a former warehouse in Fishtown. Among the attractions are free cuppings of single-origin coffees twice a month, an in-house bakery (check out the baguette with ham and butter) plus a rum distillery for incorporating beans into liquor.

1335 Frankford Ave.

267-479-1600

www.lacolombe.com

Restaurant

Noord Eetcafe

Herring sliders, nutmeg-laced pork croquettes and beer-battered whitefish on a mash of peas and carrots make for a Dutch delight in this tiny — and noisy — BYOB treasure. Tables near Noord’s folding cafe windows capture East Passyunk’s must-see (and hear!) Singing Fountain.

1046 Tasker St.

267-909-9704

www.noordphilly.com

Bar

The Olde Bar

Housed in the historic Old Original Bookbinder’s building, this dashing, tile-paved, wood-warmed saloon from “Iron Chef" Jose Garces summons yesteryear with a raw bar and a signboard of classic drinks. Think oysters on the half shell or beef-fat fries washed back with a Corpse Reviver No. 2 or Rusty Nail.

125 Walnut St.

215-253-3777

theoldebar.com

Restaurant

Oyster House

Hands down the finest place to slurp oysters in the city is at this power spot's cool white bar, made from pavers retrieved from Independence Mall and in view of expert shuckers. Eat like a local and ask for the fried oyster platter, served with a side of chicken salad, or the sherry-laced snapper soup.

1516 Sansom St.

215-567-7683

www.oysterhousephilly.com

Store

Premium Steap

If you like tea, you’ll love Steap, a boutique devoted to the art of making, sipping and gifting the beverage in the form of loose-leaf teas from around the world, plus lovely pots, cups and other accessories.

111 S. 18th St.

215-568-2920

www.premiumsteap.com

Market

Reading Terminal Market

Eighty or so vendors under one roof can be daunting. Cut to the chase and seek out Valley Shepherd Creamery for halloumi, feta and cave-aged blue cheese the owners make themselves; Tommy DiNic’s for a winy shredded roast pork sandwich with garlicky broccoli rabe and aged provolone on a roll from the peerless Sarcone’s Deli; and Bassetts (the first merchant to sign a lease here -- in 1892) for ice cream.

12th and Arch Streets

215-922-2317

www.readingterminalmarket.org

Market

Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market

Bordering a lush park, this Tuesday and Saturday attraction tempts shoppers not just with great seasonal produce but also with rich ice cream from Zsa’s (love the berry crisp), fresh root beer sold by Hilltop Kitchen, peach gazpacho courtesy of Good Spoon, even wines from Blue Mountain Vineyards.

18th and Walnut streets

215-733-9599

www.farmtocity.org

Restaurant/Bar

Spruce Street Harbor Park

This May-through-September pop-up park on the Delaware River waterfront has a little something for everyone: a beer garden, hammocks for lounging, ping-pong tables, shuffleboard, arcade games and eats from the local Garces Group, dispensed from converted shipping containers. A hot day calls for cold sesame noodles with peanut sauce, cabbage and mint from the boxy Chifa.

Columbus Boulevard and Spruce Street

215-922-2386

www.delawareriverwaterfront.com/places/spruce-street-harbor-park

Bar

Standard Tap

The same thought that goes into your glass goes onto your plate at this neighborly corner tavern in Northern Liberties, which features a dozen or so locally made beers on tap to accompany such eclectic pub grub as fried smelts, tamarind baby back ribs and duck liver mousse. The combination is anything but standard.

901 N. Second St.

215-238-0630

www.standardtap.com

Restaurant

Vedge

When it comes to vegan dining, Vedge sets the bar — for the country — with appetizers such as a creamy avocado filled with pickled cauliflower and entrees such as a single spicy wood-roasted carrot reclining on a slice of pumpernickel with sauerkraut puree, a riff on a Reuben. Suave service, fine wines and elegant desserts (miso custard with kaffir lime sorbet) make for an enlightened evening.

1221 Locust St.

215-320-7500

vedgerestaurant.com

Restaurant

Vernick Food & Drink

Eat in Philly for a week, and your best meal is apt to be anything prepared by Greg Vernick and enjoyed in the chef’s moody back dining room. Picture warm Parmesan custard scattered with chanterelles, Thai chilies and pistachio pesto, followed by snowy halibut set in lemon grass broth with delicate shrimp dumplings. Unusual wines — and blueberry pie with lemon verbena ice cream — will send you into the night on a sigh.

2031 Walnut St.

267-639-6644

www.vernickphilly.com

Restaurant

Vetri

Although the $155-a-head tasting menu is the most expensive in town, Marc Vetri’s cooking puts him in the company of the country’s best Italian chefs. Memories are made of a golden fritto misto starring soft-shell crab, and ricotta ravioli tricked out with orange and nutmeg, as well as grand wines to wash them back. Upstairs from the narrow townhouse setting is part of the maestro’s Whole Grain Project: a milling room.

1312 Spruce St.

215-732-3478

vetriristorante.com

Restaurant

Villa di Roma

South Philly’s no-frills, cash-only red-sauce joint has a spumoni-colored neon sign out front that hints at the time warp inside, grandmotherly service and wagon-wheel chandeliers included. Go for the spaghetti with clams and white sauce or hearty veal parmigiana, one of nearly a dozen ways to eat the meat here in the heart of the Italian Market.

936 S. Ninth St.

215-592-1295

www.villadiroma.com

Restaurant

V Street

Conceived by the husband-and-wife team behind the upscale Vedge, V Street is a (vegan) celebration of street food from around the world — jerk trumpet mushrooms, barbecue seitan tacos — in a hipster setting. The meatless version of langos from Hungary yields a pillowy round of fried bread slathered with “remoulade” and diced smoked beets, a snack best paired with a cocktail called Colonel Mustard In the Library With a Dagger: gin, Cocchi, mustard syrup — pow!

126 S. 19th St.

215-278-7943

vstreetfood.com

Restaurant

Zahav

Alone, the enticing vegetable dips and salads will make you wish there were more restaurants like this one, a contemporary tribute to the cooking of Israel. Few kitchens do better beets (with tzatziki, rhubarb and pistachio) or charcoal-grilled kebabs (try the duck) than the one piloted by chef Michael Solomonov, whose creation aptly translates from Hebrew as “gold.”

237 St. James Pl.

215-625-8800

www.zahavrestaurant.com

Marc Vetri, the maestro of Italian chefs, credits customers with an appetite for more than just what’s on the plate. “Philly is about the story,” he says. “They want to know not just when you’re opening, they want to know the story of how you made it there.” Vetri has seven restaurants in his domain, including the high-end Vetri, which in 1998 introduced sage butter sauces and roasted goat to a city where Italian meant “red gravy” and the top tables were mostly French. His long story short: Born in Philly, he cooked in Los Angeles, Italy, Alaska and New York before returning home. Oh, yeah: Early on, the guitar player almost went the musician route.

[Recipe: Vetri’s Fennel Gratins]

Today’s culinary stars tend to put out food that few other chefs in the country are making. Look no further than the modern Israeli list at Zahav by Michael Solomonov and the fascinating vegan scripts created by Landau, who, with the help of prime local produce, has spurred his peers to treat vegetables with the respect once reserved for meat and fish. (Sans earnestness: “Vegan is a diet,” he says. “Vegetables are food.” )

Meanwhile, in a market where fine-dining establishments are few, Vernick Food & Drink, opened four years ago by Greg Vernick, an alumnus of the New York-based Jean-Georges Vongerichten empire, is the contemporary American exemplar of easy class and refined creativity. No one touches toast (toast!) like Vernick, whose thrilling menu elevates spreads on breads into a category all their own.

Much of the current buzz centers on two neighborhoods that weren’t previously thought of as dining destinations — funky Fishtown and East Passyunk — but have grown more mouthwatering by the season. Fishtown finds such artisan-friendly draws as Johnny Brenda’s, beloved for its craft beer; Loco Pez, a Mexican gastropub; and Fette Sau, which some chowhounds consider the best barbecue (by way of Brooklyn, its home base) in the city. East Passyunk Avenue — hailed as Philadelphia’s new restaurant row and pronounced by locals as “Pash-SHUNK” — embraces Le Virtu and its Abruzzi menu, Noord Eetcafe for what smacks of today’s Amsterdam, and Townsend for seasonal French fare. To miss either transitional neighborhood would be to miss out on why this city has become such an important part of the national food discussion.

Clockwise from top left: Head bartender Derek Moorer creates a cocktail at the Ranstead Room; a spread of salatim at Zahav; kitchen staff expedite orders at Zahav; chef Michael Solomonov makes laffa bread at Zahav.

A big draw: BYOB

Philadelphia revels in street food: democratic eats spanning soft pretzels, water ice and a sandwich with the kind of national recognition that any presidential aspirant would envy.

How Philadelphia stacks up

Creativity

Few cities do modern Jewish food (Abe Fisher) and serious vegetarian cooking (Vedge) like this one. Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr and “Iron Chef” Jose Garces both claim the city as home but exert national influence with their interiors and menus, respectively. Chef Michael Solomonov also keeps Philly on the food map with Zahav, his contemporary Israeli expression.

Community

Ever heard of a pop-up park? The summertime Spruce Street Harbor Park on the Delaware River finds a mini beer garden and all manner of dishes served from shipping containers repurposed as kitchens. The Food Trust works with schools, neighborhoods, farmers and policy-makers to ensure access to affordable good-quality food and organizes occasional Night Markets. When the popular chef of Fork, Eli Kulp, was seriously injured in the May Amtrak derailment, the food community gathered to raise $130,000 for his medical bills.

Tradition

Among the city’s contributions to iconic eats are cheesesteaks, roast pork sandwiches, soft pretzels and the sweet treat called water ice. Bring-your-own-bottle policies have long made it affordable for restaurants to open, and for diners to eat out. Philly’s annual Beer Week — 10 days of tastings, tours and demonstrations — proves the local affection for suds. (The state brew is Yuengling.)

Ingredients

Poultry, eggs and produce from Pennsylvania farms and blueberries, tomatoes and corn from South Jersey are sought out by home cooks and chefs alike.

Shopping

Fante’s Kitchen Shop in the heart of the Italian Market may be one of the best one-stop shops for culinary fetishists in the country. While the bustling Reading Terminal Market draws hordes of tourists, locals help pack the food hall, too. (The many cops and jurors in the mix remind you how convenient the destination is to the Criminal Justice Center, where they report.) Quality farmers markets abound; the arched open-air gallery at Headhouse Farmers’ Market comes with some nice age on it, having operated on and off since 1745.

Variety

Strong on Italian establishments, both high-end (think Vetri) and “red gravy” joints (Villa di Roma). Like a number of cities, Philadelphia is enjoying a pizza boomlet; Bon Appétit recently called the pies at Pizzeria Beddia, where the owner makes every round himself, the best in the country. Notable Southeast Asian eateries, workaday seafood spots and delicatessens are rarer, as are true fine-dining establishments.

Service

Whether you are inquiring about a brew at Standard Tap, ordering an espresso at La Colombe, asking for a taste of truffled cheese at Di Bruno Brothers or curious about the pedigree of a wine at Vetri, the servers prove patient and knowledgeable.

A blue-collar sensibility runs through beer- and BYOB-loving Philadelphia, home to such iconic eats as soft pretzels and roast pork sandwiches, both of which can be found in one of the country’s best-known food halls, the Reading Terminal Market. But the city is also a trail-blazer when it comes to vegetarian and modern Israeli cooking, among other styles. The scene’s biggest names include Marc Vetri, the Italian chef, and Stephen Starr, who counts 21 restaurants in his local empire.

Outsiders think of Philly, home to the rival Geno’s and Pat’s, as a cheesesteak town. Insiders would prefer you remember the city for its roast pork sandwiches. Cheesesteaks are for when you want to fill your belly after a night on the town; roast pork sandwiches are works of art. Gut bombs vs. gustatory delights, in other words. The latter are best inhaled at the aforementioned Tommy DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market and at John’s Roast Pork, the South Philly institution honored as an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2006 (and where spinach is the green of choice inside the roll). Iterations of the staple can be found on the menus of some of the city’s upscale restaurants, including a.kitchen, the see-and-be-seen dining room on Rittenhouse Square where a recent $15 express lunch featured a roast pork sandwich with spicy mayonnaise on pillowy focaccia.

[Recipe: a.kitchen’s Lancaster Chicken Salad]

Other traditions are more fluid. Good craft beer, for one, seems to flow everywhere in this town, which for seven years has hosted what organizers say is the largest Beer Week celebration in the country, with more than 50,000 participants.

“Philly is very self-aware of its image as a blue-collar town,” says Don Russell (known as Joe Sixpack by Philadelphia Daily News readers), who counts 50 or so breweries in the area. “No drink evokes that better than beer.”

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - At right, couple Jessica Alverarez and Nate Rider enjoy friends and beer at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Pop Up Beer Garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, July 11th, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Friends enjoy beer at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s pop-up beer garden in Philadelphia.

For others, the sweetest four-letter word on the scene is BYOB (“bring your own bottle”), a long-standing custom that encourages start-ups and allows customers to eat out more economically, because the places don’t serve marked-up wines and don’t typically charge a corkage fee to customers who bring their own. (Liquor licenses are expensive, say chefs, one of whom told me about an establishment that’s shelling out $140,000 just to be able to serve booze.)

Some of the city’s most interesting fare can be found in these typically intimate settings, a list that includes the farm-fresh Helm, the seafood-themed Little Fish and the French-accented Will BYOB.

Philadelphia native Joncarl Lachman, who, facing “a significant birthday” two years ago, returned to his home town after a decade of cooking in Chicago, thinks locals are drawn to BYOBs as much for their “romance” and neighborliness as for their value. For the chef-owner of Noord Eetcafe, a 38-seat Northern European retreat in trendy East Passyunk, “it’s like having people into your home, except they bring the wine and pay for the food.”

Lachman has a second place in the works, a Parisian-North African hybrid destined for the Italian Market in September. Thanks to an investor with $92,000 to spare, Restaurant Neuf will have a full bar.

Clockwise from top left: Diners slurp on soup dumplings and other dishes at Dim Sum Garden; Lenny Peck, left, and John Bucci laugh with customers at John’s Roast Pork; adding honey to tea at La Colombe.

‘We beat you, New York!’

No discussion of the food scene in Philadelphia would be complete without a shout-out to Stephen Starr, who started in the comedy and music industries but went on to open 21 restaurants in the city (and 14 elsewhere), starting with the martini-fueled Continental in 1995, when Philadelphia was, the impresario recalls, “a frontier that was wide open.”

Through the years, Starr’s claims to fame have grown to include the pan-Asian Buddakan, the French-themed Parc and a British pub called Dandelion. “He saw what we needed and knew what should be next,” says the Inquirer’s LaBan, an observer of the dining landscape since 1998. Starr also “sparked the notion you could go out to eat for fun” as much as for food. Scenes were his initial focus; food became more important over time, evinced by hires such as Jose Garces and Peter Serpico, super-chef David Chang’s right-hand man at Momofuku Ko in New York. Success is in the numbers: Last year, the entrepreneur’s local restaurants received 2.6 million visitors, says Starr.

He begs off naming a favorite but allows that he has soft spots for the swank Barclay Prime and the “clean” Japanese food at Morimoto. (My vote goes to the serene Serpico, as misplaced as it is on South Street.)

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What, besides family, keeps the man with a score of out-of-town attractions true to Philly? “Philadelphia is this quintessentially normal American city,” he says. “It’s grounded.” He uses a rule generally applied to performers in New York when he says of chefs in the area, “if you can make it in Philly, you can make it anywhere.” Locals, he says, “are not impressed with show. They just want value and they want it to be good.”

Aspiring chefs used to go to New York to finesse their craft; the current cast of distinguished teachers in Philadelphia — chefs Garces, Solomonov and Vernick, among others — makes that step unnecessary.

As Vetri likes to joke: “We won. We beat you, New York!”

Los Angeles, too, at least as far as Vedge is concerned. Landau and his chef-wife, Kate Jacoby, originally planned to open their vegan restaurant in California, but “we couldn’t pull the trigger,” says the chef, who stayed in Philadelphia partly for “the Colonial vibe and four seasons.”

That rootedness — plus a sense of attention to detail, be it for a sandwich or a $155-a-head Italian feast — sums up the food scene in Philadelphia, where substance trumps flashiness. Landau, for one, coaches his staff to “make sure you’re cooking for Craig LaBan every night.”

And so they, and their peers all over town, do.

Where Tom went:

Restaurant

Abe Fisher

The happiest happy hour around involves well-balanced cocktails in the company of chopped liver slathered on a cushion of toasted rye brushed with schmaltz. The combo will make you eager to book for dinner in this whimsical tribute to Jewish fare from the owner of the esteemed Zahav. Don't miss the rye-based Yesterday, Today and Amaro. On the menu: duck blintzes and veal schnitzel nestled in tacos with anchovy mayonnaise.

1623 Sansom St.

215-867-0088

www.abefisherphilly.com

Restaurant

a.Kitchen

A deal of a meal in Rittenhouse Square: the $15 express lunch, typically a signature sandwich accompanied by an elegant soup. Regulars know the intimate dining room as a place to see and be seen, the kitchen as a (charcoal) grill master.

135 S. 18th St.

215-825-7030

www.akitchenandbar.com

Store

DiBruno’s

Name something wonderful — wild-caught shrimp, Italian Nutella, sweet corn from Jersey — and chances are, this food emporium sells it (for a premium). The biggest branch in the bunch is in Rittenhouse Square, where the prepared foods run to chickpea-kale burgers and Italian wedding soup.

1730 Chestnut St.

215-665-9220

www.dibruno.com

Restaurant

Dim Sum Garden

“Do you know how to eat them?” a server might ask when she sets down an order of soup dumplings. Before you have time to respond, she demonstrates how to tackle the beggar’s purses filled with pork meatballs and boiling-hot broth without staining or scalding yourself. Slurp-licious! Other hits: pickled cabbage with silken bean curd, and flaky scallion pancakes.

1020 Race St.

215-873-0258

www.dimsumgardenphilly.com

Restaurant

Famous Italian Ices

The best source in the city for a signature treat with the texture of sorbet, this family-owned destination dates to 1965. The crayon-colored refreshers are made on-site, in 60 flavors. Coconut is created from the real deal; passion fruit reflects the taste of the shop’s large Hispanic fan base.

1950 E. Lehigh Ave.

215-634-8563

www.famousitalianices.com

Store

Fante’s Kitchen Shop

A one-stop shop in the historic Italian Market for just about anything a cook or host could want. Among the wares: chestnut flour, rosette irons, canning sets, terra cotta spice jars, Emile Henry tagines, hibiscus powder and cookie cutters in the shape of bikinis. Need a pick-me-up? A clerk makes a mean espresso.

1006 S. Ninth St.

800-443-2683

www.fantes.com

Restaurant

Fork

Here’s what makes this contemporary American restaurant one of the most coveted reservations in town: vitello tonnato rethought with scarlet cubes of raw tuna; gossamer ravioli stuffed with zesty lamb ragu; breads worthy of a course of their own; a birch forest painted on the wall. Chef-owner Eli Kulp, who suffered a grave spinal cord injury in the May Amtrak derailment, can be proud of the care his colleagues continue to express in every detail as he works toward recovery.

306 Market St.

215-625-9425

forkrestaurant.com

Bar

Frankford Hall

Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr's contribution to edgy Fishtown: a 400-seat indoor-outdoor German beer garden replete with linden trees in a gravel courtyard, pretzels the size of steering wheels and ping-pong games fueled by rivers of hefeweizen and other German brews.

1210 Frankford Ave.

215-634-3338

www.frankfordhall.com

Restaurant

John’s Roast Pork

Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan has said that he'd want his last meal to be at this scruffy joint, which the James Beard Foundation has recognized as an American Classic. One taste of the signature sandwich, built from garlicky shaved pork piled on a crusty roll with provolone and hot peppers, explains why the place remains busy 85 years after opening.

14 E. Snyder Ave.

215-463-1951

www.johnsroastpork.com

Store

Joseph Fox Bookshop

This gem of an independent bookstore, established in 1951, stocks a small but select collection of works by distinguished food scribes and chefs both local and world-famous. Among the authors are M.F.K. Fisher, Marc Vetri and Yotam Ottolenghi. Cool find: “How to Eat” by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a pocket-size ode to eating as meditation.

1724 Sansom St.

215-563-4184

www.foxbookshop.com

Coffee

La Colombe

The craft coffee roaster’s splashiest branch unfolds in a former warehouse in Fishtown. Among the attractions are free cuppings of single-origin coffees twice a month, an in-house bakery (check out the baguette with ham and butter) plus a rum distillery for incorporating beans into liquor.

1335 Frankford Ave.

267-479-1600

www.lacolombe.com

Restaurant

Noord Eetcafe

Herring sliders, nutmeg-laced pork croquettes and beer-battered whitefish on a mash of peas and carrots make for a Dutch delight in this tiny — and noisy — BYOB treasure. Tables near Noord’s folding cafe windows capture East Passyunk’s must-see (and hear!) Singing Fountain.

1046 Tasker St.

267-909-9704

www.noordphilly.com

Bar

The Olde Bar

Housed in the historic Old Original Bookbinder’s building, this dashing, tile-paved, wood-warmed saloon from “Iron Chef" Jose Garces summons yesteryear with a raw bar and a signboard of classic drinks. Think oysters on the half shell or beef-fat fries washed back with a Corpse Reviver No. 2 or Rusty Nail.

125 Walnut St.

215-253-3777

theoldebar.com

Restaurant

Oyster House

Hands down the finest place to slurp oysters in the city is at this power spot's cool white bar, made from pavers retrieved from Independence Mall and in view of expert shuckers. Eat like a local and ask for the fried oyster platter, served with a side of chicken salad, or the sherry-laced snapper soup.

1516 Sansom St.

215-567-7683

www.oysterhousephilly.com

Store

Premium Steap

If you like tea, you’ll love Steap, a boutique devoted to the art of making, sipping and gifting the beverage in the form of loose-leaf teas from around the world, plus lovely pots, cups and other accessories.

111 S. 18th St.

215-568-2920

www.premiumsteap.com

Market

Reading Terminal Market

Eighty or so vendors under one roof can be daunting. Cut to the chase and seek out Valley Shepherd Creamery for halloumi, feta and cave-aged blue cheese the owners make themselves; Tommy DiNic’s for a winy shredded roast pork sandwich with garlicky broccoli rabe and aged provolone on a roll from the peerless Sarcone’s Deli; and Bassetts (the first merchant to sign a lease here -- in 1892) for ice cream.

12th and Arch Streets

215-922-2317

www.readingterminalmarket.org

Market

Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market

Bordering a lush park, this Tuesday and Saturday attraction tempts shoppers not just with great seasonal produce but also with rich ice cream from Zsa’s (love the berry crisp), fresh root beer sold by Hilltop Kitchen, peach gazpacho courtesy of Good Spoon, even wines from Blue Mountain Vineyards.

18th and Walnut streets

215-733-9599

www.farmtocity.org

Restaurant/Bar

Spruce Street Harbor Park

This May-through-September pop-up park on the Delaware River waterfront has a little something for everyone: a beer garden, hammocks for lounging, ping-pong tables, shuffleboard, arcade games and eats from the local Garces Group, dispensed from converted shipping containers. A hot day calls for cold sesame noodles with peanut sauce, cabbage and mint from the boxy Chifa.

Columbus Boulevard and Spruce Street

215-922-2386

www.delawareriverwaterfront.com/places/spruce-street-harbor-park

Bar

Standard Tap

The same thought that goes into your glass goes onto your plate at this neighborly corner tavern in Northern Liberties, which features a dozen or so locally made beers on tap to accompany such eclectic pub grub as fried smelts, tamarind baby back ribs and duck liver mousse. The combination is anything but standard.

901 N. Second St.

215-238-0630

www.standardtap.com

Restaurant

Vedge

When it comes to vegan dining, Vedge sets the bar — for the country — with appetizers such as a creamy avocado filled with pickled cauliflower and entrees such as a single spicy wood-roasted carrot reclining on a slice of pumpernickel with sauerkraut puree, a riff on a Reuben. Suave service, fine wines and elegant desserts (miso custard with kaffir lime sorbet) make for an enlightened evening.

1221 Locust St.

215-320-7500

vedgerestaurant.com

Restaurant

Vernick Food & Drink

Eat in Philly for a week, and your best meal is apt to be anything prepared by Greg Vernick and enjoyed in the chef’s moody back dining room. Picture warm Parmesan custard scattered with chanterelles, Thai chilies and pistachio pesto, followed by snowy halibut set in lemon grass broth with delicate shrimp dumplings. Unusual wines — and blueberry pie with lemon verbena ice cream — will send you into the night on a sigh.

2031 Walnut St.

267-639-6644

www.vernickphilly.com

Restaurant

Vetri

Although the $155-a-head tasting menu is the most expensive in town, Marc Vetri’s cooking puts him in the company of the country’s best Italian chefs. Memories are made of a golden fritto misto starring soft-shell crab, and ricotta ravioli tricked out with orange and nutmeg, as well as grand wines to wash them back. Upstairs from the narrow townhouse setting is part of the maestro’s Whole Grain Project: a milling room.

1312 Spruce St.

215-732-3478

vetriristorante.com

Restaurant

Villa di Roma

South Philly’s no-frills, cash-only red-sauce joint has a spumoni-colored neon sign out front that hints at the time warp inside, grandmotherly service and wagon-wheel chandeliers included. Go for the spaghetti with clams and white sauce or hearty veal parmigiana, one of nearly a dozen ways to eat the meat here in the heart of the Italian Market.

936 S. Ninth St.

215-592-1295

www.villadiroma.com

Restaurant

V Street

Conceived by the husband-and-wife team behind the upscale Vedge, V Street is a (vegan) celebration of street food from around the world — jerk trumpet mushrooms, barbecue seitan tacos — in a hipster setting. The meatless version of langos from Hungary yields a pillowy round of fried bread slathered with “remoulade” and diced smoked beets, a snack best paired with a cocktail called Colonel Mustard In the Library With a Dagger: gin, Cocchi, mustard syrup — pow!

126 S. 19th St.

215-278-7943

vstreetfood.com

Restaurant

Zahav

Alone, the enticing vegetable dips and salads will make you wish there were more restaurants like this one, a contemporary tribute to the cooking of Israel. Few kitchens do better beets (with tzatziki, rhubarb and pistachio) or charcoal-grilled kebabs (try the duck) than the one piloted by chef Michael Solomonov, whose creation aptly translates from Hebrew as “gold.”

237 St. James Pl.

215-625-8800

www.zahavrestaurant.com

Editor’s picks

Recipe: Fennel Gratins

These crisped, salty and savory slices of fennel make a terrific and unusual hors d'oeuvre.

Recipe: Lancaster Chicken Salad

Pickled celery, a sherry-shallot reduction and toasted hazelnuts elevate this beyond your typical chicken salad.

Credits

About the series

Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema explores America’s best food cities, 10 of which he’ll rate at year’s end.