I visited Philadelphia with a simple goal—report on historic and cultural sites that might interest travelers. That article is coming, I promise.
However, while engaged in sightseeing—by car, double-decker bus, taxi and on foot—I kept getting hungry, and the City of Brotherly Love had no problem filling my belly with finger-lickin’ eats.
Located approximately 100 miles from New York City and 140 miles from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia is the kind of town that has something for everyone from a culinary perspective—fine dining in stylish settings, street food from vendors in mini-trailers and push-carts, iconic cheese steaks from a legion of competing eateries (most claiming to be the best), restaurants where live music shares billing with chef specialties, gastropubs, bustling markets, gourmet food trucks and ethnic food of every stripe.
Philadelphia—which was founded by William Penn in 1862 and was the capital of America in its early years—is now home to hundreds of restaurants and eateries.
In fact, it probably isn’t surprising that in a city so richly steeped in history (the U.S. Constitution was signed here, the Liberty Bell is also enshrined here and Betsy Ross’ Philadelphia home still welcomes visitors) there’s even a historical figure’s connection to one of America’s favorite foods. Dolley Madison, wife of fourth U.S. president James Madison, served ice cream at her husband’s inauguration.
But back to Philly’s abundance of food.
One sign of Philadelphia’s love affair with food is the B-Y-O-B (bring your own bottle) trend. Many restaurants in the city and surrounding areas encourage patrons to bring a bottle of their favorite alcoholic beverage to dinner.
While my visit was limited to a weekend, I give high-fives to all the establishments at which I dined:
The large red striped mahogany doors at Buddakan, (www.buddakan.com) 325 Chestnut St. in Ole City, hint that one is in for a treat. This restaurant serves an inventive array of Asian-fusion dishes, including dim sum, sushi, sashimi, tofu and more. I enjoyed the bold décor (a giant gold leaf Buddha set against a red backdrop dominates the room) as much as the food. For lunch there are several options, but I chose a Bento Box ($20) with Kobe beef slider, lamb pop and spicy Caesar salad. Yum!
Open daily, the Reading Terminal Market (www.readingterminalmarket.org) at 12th and Arch streets is just one of several markets in Philadelphia. However, this market, which has a history stretching back to 1863, is the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers market. It is large, covering 1.7 acres, with 80 vendors (including 30 restaurants) offering local produce, seafood, meat, cheeses, bakery items, candy, candles, jewelry, clothing and a seemingly endless array of prepared food. The variety ranges from soul food to Asian to Middle Eastern to Pennsylvania Dutch. And it’s not hard to tell which stalls are the favorites. It’s the ones with the crowds and lines. One crowd-pleaser was so congested I couldn’t even get close enough to figure out what they were selling.
Instead, I ordered saucer-size cookies from 4th Street Famous Cookies (cinnamon walnut raisin, chocolate chip walnut and butter almond), which I liked so much I returned the next day for an encore.
There must be hundreds of steak sandwich vendors in Philadelphia in sit-down restaurants, food trucks, the markets and hole-in-the-wall eateries. Most offer classic cheese steaks (beef, onions, cheese on a hoagie roll), but some offer chicken and/or pork as well as accoutrements such as peppers, mushrooms and choices of cheese wiz, provolone or American cheese.) My husband and I foolishly thought we would dash in to Jim’s, one of the popular spots on South Street. Jim’s reputation is apparently the reason for the out-the-door-around-the-block line of eager patrons. We walked back to our car and drove instead to Geno’s (www.genosteaks.com) at 1219 South St. Located directly across the street from one of its fiercest rivals, Pat’s King of Steaks, Geno’s became our pick frankly because their line was a tad shorter. The outdoor places to sit are limited at the colorful blazing orange eatery where you get in one line to order your sandwich (most $9) and another line for $4 Freedom Fries and $2 soft drinks. Both lines moved quickly. We headed back to our car to devour our lunch. I found the steak to be tender and juicy and wished I had ordered two instead of sharing one.
Soulful sounds and soul-filling eats
As a lover of live music in intimate settings, I was in heaven on Friday and Saturday nights when I visited two Philadelphia restaurants that perfectly melded dining and entertainment.
Chris Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St., is small and intimate, which was to our advantage since my husband and I arrived without a reservation. We were seated at a back table that thanks to the size of the place still gave us a great view of the stage. The jazz quartet hit all the right notes, the cocktails were decent and the service friendly and attentive. I thoroughly enjoyed the salmon set atop a crispy potato croquette with a creamy pernod sauce ($26). Other selections include a lamb shank over Tuscan white beans ($20) and jambalya ($21).
Chris Jazz Café (chrisjazzcafe.com), which has received “best of” honors from numerous publications, schedules live jazz Monday through Saturday. The entertainment cover charge varies. It was $15 per person the night we visited.
Once again without a reservation on Saturday night, my husband and I were seated at a decent table at Warm Daddy’s, 1400 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd. Our line of sight to the stage was excellent and the raucous group jamming was on fire; however, our chairs and limbs kept getting bumped by patrons and servers. That did not, however, take away from the overall good time we had rocking to the music and sampling catfish ($16.99), tilapia with shrimp and crab etoufee ($17.99), collards, green beans, mac and cheese and rice.
Musical acts at Warm Daddy’s (www.warmdaddys.com) range from up-and-coming local artists to nationally known legends such as Roy Ayers, who was booked for two nights in late November. Cover on the night on my visit was $15 per person.
I also give two thumbs up to the Downtown Marriott at 1201 Market St., which was an ultra-comfortable home away from home. The view of the city from my room on the 23rd floor was the icing on the cake.
Even here I sampled libations in the circular no-walls lounge located in the middle of the lobby and enjoyed the treat-of-all-treats breakfast in bed, which arrived on time, beautifully presented and with generous portions.
Philadelphia is also known for its hard and soft pretzels, hoagie sandwiches and those sweet treats, Tastykakes.
Word to the wise: bring cash—the old-fashioned paper and coin kind. Several places we visited did not accept debit or credit cards (Geno’s, entertainment cover at Warm Daddy’s).
For more information on the tastes and sights of Philadelphia, visit www.visitphilly.com.