The search for America’s best food cities: Philadelphia
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.