We traveled down the New Jersey Turnpike in search of the best places to eat in Philadelphia. We found a vibrant and burgeoning food scene. And as a bonus, in the process we discovered that there is a lot to learn about America from how Philadelphia came to be.
It was in 1681 that King Charles I gave a young William Penn a large tract of land in the New World in payment of a debt owed to Penn’s father. He could never have imagined that he was planting the seeds of a new nation that would eventually exert its independence from all the European powers that sought to rule it.
Penn, a Quaker, was not a fan of big cities and looked on his early years in London with some considerable disgust. Setting off for the New World in search of religious freedom, he left London with grand ambitions to create the ideal city. On arrival, he quickly set about testing his revolutionary ideas about how a city should be structured.
The first thing to do for any new endeavor is name it. Hopefully this helps to imbue the venture with the best attributes from the start. So Penn set his agenda by calling his city “Philadelphia”, meaning “Brotherly Love” (phileo “to love” and adelphos “brother”). And to a large extent, from Penn’s city of brotherly love flowed a nation, originating many of the unique attributes which today are admired the world over.
One of those attributes was to embrace successive waves of immigration. And Philadelphia’s vibrant, eclectic and diverse food culture mirrors its rich history of welcoming people from all over the world. Each new wave of immigrants making their home in Philadelphia found a bounty of edible resources to recreate their traditional cuisines in a new land. The city is uniquely situated with easy access to a wide variety of produce: fresh seafood of the coast of New Jersey, oysters from Long Island Sound, fresh poultry, meat, dairy, and vegetables from the rich farmlands of Pennsylvania. All these ingredients make their way each day into restaurants serving the great places to eat in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is a city of American firsts: first bank, first library, first museum, first theater, first university, first correctional facility. So, of course, it is not surprising that you can find one of America’s oldest and longest running farmers’ markets.
… fresh poultry, meat, dairy, and vegetables from the rich farmlands of Pennsylvania. All these ingredients make their way each day into restaurants serving the great places to eat in Philadelphia.
For the quickest survey of Philadelphia’s food scene make sure you spend some time in the historic Reading Terminal Market. It opened its doors in 1892 as the terminus of the iconic Reading Railroad which ran through the Pennsylvania countryside picking up produce as it moved along. Today it covers a vast 1.7 acres with 80 vendors representing hundreds of East Coast food producers. The place is constantly buzzing with activity. Walking through the crowded aisles you can survey all the Philadelphia food traditions. Amish, Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, whatever your taste you can find it here.
1 Federal Donuts
Perfect for early risers, Federal Donuts opens its doors at 7am. Serving fresh cake-style doughnuts for as long as supplies last. The tasty little treats are mouthwateringly delicious, especially with a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
Offered in two varieties, the fresh hot option comes rolled in vanilla spice or cinnamon sugar. Or you can opt for a fancy icing-covered donut with exotic toppings like lemon Meringue or the tried-and-true old-fashioned glaze. One word of caution, the donuts sell out fast and once there are gone for the day you are out of luck. So plan to visit first thing.
At 11am when the donut supply is waning a big surprise is revealed. Federal Donuts also serves chicken? What? Chicken and Donuts? It’s one of those combinations that defies logic but once you try it, it all makes so much sense. When the menu changes the line starts to build with all the regulars queuing for the day’s comfort food fix.
Federal’s fried chicken is not run of the mill. The batter has a fresh and spicy taste, unlike any fried chicken we have tasted. The team tells us their secret formula came after much experimentation. We think it was well worth the effort. The result is exceptional.
You can choose between a half order (a breast, thigh or drumstick) or a whole order (two split breasts, two thighs or two drumsticks). Of course, all chicken orders come with a delicious honey donut.
Worried you won’t make it before the food runs out? No worries, you can preorder and spare yourself the disappointment of missing out.
Federal Donuts is the latest venture of Philadelphia food scene veteran chef Michael Solomon. A native of Israel, Solomon’s first restaurant, Zahav, is just steps away from Federal Donuts. Zahav serves an amazing menu featuring contemporary Israeli cuisine. That’s on our list for next time.
2 High Street on Market
Heading over to Philadelphia’s Old City, we take a slight detour through Franklin Court, where you can see where Benjamin Franklin’s house stood, as well as a complex of museums and historic sites that are part of Independence National Historical Park.
Benjamin Franklin lived here from 1763 until his death in 1790. During most of that time he was overseas but in his final years, he lived here. Unfortunately, in 1812, the original house was demolished and now all there is to see is an underground museum with the building’s archaeological remains topped by a “ghost structure” designed by the famous Philadelphia modern architects Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.
We exit the courtyard through the small Market Street brick passageway walking on the very bricks that Franklin would have trod. Just a few more steps and we arrive at High Street on Market, a restaurant opened in 2013 by restaurateurs Ellen Yin, Roberto Sella and Chef Eli Kulp.
High street serves up fresh food daily, making the most of Philadelphia’s bounty of local farmers and fisherman. Looking for a great breakfast dish? Try “The Forager” with seared oyster mushrooms, braised kale, farm eggs, Green Meadows young swiss cheese, and black trumpet mayo.
Or try one of High Street’s amazing sandwiches, all prepared with freshly baked bread by famed baker Alex Bois. Alex works with local grain mills to get the best flours for High Street’s bread. Great ingredients make this bread a whole different animal than commercially baked bread. Forget the no-gluten craze for just a moment and remember the good old days when good bread was good for you. High Street bread is still like that.
Heading over to the bread counter to pick up a loaf of Alex’s bread to take home, Ellen suggests that I can get their bread fresh every day at their new Manhattan location. Wow, looks like I will be frequenting High Street more than I expected.
Since this is our first Philadelphia food exposé I feel I would be remiss if I did not give the best known Philadelphia dish of all, the Philly cheese Steak, a mention. At the same time, I must confess I have never experienced the world-renowned sandwich. But walking to an appointment at another of Philadelphia’s great places to eat I happened to walk by the famous dueling sandwich shops Pat’s and Geno’s.
Watching the efficient prep teams knocking out sandwich after sandwich for their hungry and enthusiastic customers did not sufficiently tempt me into giving it a try. So instead of commenting on the food I will just say that in architectural terms, I much prefer Pat’s more authentic looking early 20th-century fast food outdoor dining room to Geno’s more “free-form” neon extravaganza. If I were going to try the cuisine I would do it at Pat’s. Also, Pat’s is the original cheese steak and from the looks of it, it doesn’t appear that Geno’s has taken the sandwich in a new direction warranting a taste comparison. So there you go. We’re going to err on the side of authenticity. Pat’s it is!
3 Bing Bing Dim Sum
A short walk south and we are into Rocky Balboa’s old stomping grounds. However, Italian fare is not what we are looking for. We’re meeting up with Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh, the two young proprietors of Bing Bing Dim Sum.
By their own admission, the two owners don’t know much about the technicalities of Asian cooking. But they were mad about Dim Sum and convinced they wanted to make a living out of preparing Asia food. Ben tells me that they set out on a quest of sorts to pursue their passion and to discover the mysteries of Asian cuisine. Heading first to Japan they ate their way through several cities without being struck by inspiration.
Then closer to home, Ben decided to approach some local Asian restaurants with hopes of an apprenticeship … or at least an internship. Nothing doing. Apparently the chefs of Philly’s Asian restaurants guard their ancient cooking techniques jealously.
So with a freedom that only comes from starting anew, Ben and Shawn decided to do their own South Philly take on some of their favorite Asian dishes. For instance, Bing Bing’s scarlet dumplings made from red beets and tofu. It’s a super tasty vegetarian dish, like no dumpling you have ever had in an Asian restaurant. Or give the Passover brisket congee a try. All Bing Bing’s dishes are like that: original, delicious and distinctively homegrown.
Equally original, the decor falls somewhere between a Shanghai Opium Den and a 1980’s graffiti covered club. Sounds crazy, but it really works. The odd triangle shaped building only adds to Bing Bing’s eccentricity.
The whole team at Bing Bing are a blast and very welcoming. A visit feels like a great time out at a good friend’s house. Like everything else at Bing Bing, the crowd is diverse. Locals of all ages, happy hour marauders and business diners, all happily contributing to the eclectic mix.
During the warm season, the windows all open up, connecting Bing Bing to the bustling neighborhood. Sitting outside, ordering family style, sharing and sampling, that’s the best way to experience Bing Bing Dim Sum.
For the last stop on our Philly culinary tour, we head back up to Market Street where we find Fork, the older sister to adjacent restaurant High Street on Market. For many years, Fork has collected top honors whenever the best places to eat in Philadelphia have been stacked up against one another. And the kudos are well deserved.
Fork is another creation of restaurateur Ellen Yin and her long time collaborator Chef Eli Kup, two of the driving forces behind Philadelphia’s dynamic food scene. And with the recent addition of Chef John Patterson as Chef de Cuisine, Fork is really hitting its stride.
Ellen’s career started far from the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant kitchen. Rather than keeping a kitchen and dining room humming along, her days were spent deep in the cubicles and conference rooms of corporate America. But she finally found her true calling, tapping into her passion for serving inspiring food and delighting guests. No doubt her detour through the corporate world provided valuable experience that Ellen has put to good use in developing her growing portfolio of eateries.
John previously worked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. And like all the best chefs, he is a diligent seeker of great produce as a foundation for his work. Toward that end, he has sought out and developed relationships with a close-knit group of Philadelphia purveyors to supply Fork’s kitchen with fresh and unique seasonal produce. John’s dishes are innovative and inspired but grounded in the flavors and textures of simple fresh produce. That’s what makes John’s work such a treat.
If you happen to be in town on a Wednesday you should check out Fork’s special Wednesday night dinner menu. A one-night-only dinner menu, each week it’s based on a different theme. For instance, this week’s dishes were inspired by Van Gogh. Checking Fork’s twitter feed this week I was a quite disappointed that I could not be there. The images alone are mouthwatering.
Fork takes farm-to-table to a whole new level, turning simple quality ingredients into an elegant fine dining experience. A perfect treat for your Philadelphia trip, reserve a table and take home a great memory.
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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