There’s no denying that this year was a difficult one for Philly’s best, longstanding, and new restaurants. Even after the chaos of 2020, there were still closings, labor shortages, and angry guests to deal with in 2021, and it’s no surprise that some of the city’s most talented chefs and restaurant staff walked away from the kitchen or pivoted to other projects.
In the face of those stresses, though, Philly’s restaurant leaders did what Philadelphians do best and made something from nothing. The city abounded with free community fridges, food businesses focused on education around important issues, independently-owned establishments with devoted local followers, and pop-ups, pop-ups, and pop-ups galore. In 2021, Philly’s restaurant scene was as exciting to watch as ever.
Eater put the annual Eater Awards on hold last year while everyone figured out how to process this unprecedented time in history, but as we’ve seen the city bounce back, Philly’s restaurant scene deserves to be recognized. Here are the just a few of the restaurants, pop-ups, and cafes that made Philly a great place to eat in 2021.
Best New Restaurant
Chef Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnamese restaurant in the heart of East Passyunk is the perfect setting for groups (though tables of two will always make out well, have no fear). Platters — like bo luc lac (wok-charred shaken beef), salted egg fried rice with Saigon sausage, and the absolutely unreal caramelized Brussels sprouts — are meant for sharing, while the banh beo chen open-faced dumplings are a flavorful, delightful crowd-pleaser, too.
Best Better-Than-New York Bagel
The debate over which city in America makes the best bagels will undoubtedly rage on for centuries. The fact is — apologies to our neighbors north of us — Philly is actually the home to the best bagel, and there’s no debate worth having that will convince us otherwise. At Korshak Bagels on S. 10th Street, Philip Korshak’s bagels are somehow light inside, crunchy on the outside, sour, plump, and sweet — plus the toppings and schmears on offer are as original as the poet-slash-baker who runs the show. Korshak’s slogan is “we’re all in this together” and based on the masses that gravitate to his shop on weekend mornings, Philadelphians are inclined to agree.
Best Community Hub
The pandemic showed diners that going out is about community as much as food. Nowhere is that more obvious than at Mina’s World in West Philly, where rose syrup lattes pair with locally made samosas and Okie Dokie Donuts, and the welcoming staff and free community fridge out front act as pillars of the neighborhood. There are some cafes that diners don’t think twice about once they’ve picked up a latte — at Mina’s World, the colorful entrance and commitment to creating a safe space
Not only a pleasantly tongue-in-cheek name, Melissa Fernando’s Sri’s Company — a pop-up she started two years ago to showcase dishes from her Sri Lankan heritage — is comforting, creative, and above all, delicious. Think cashew curries, vegetable kotu roti, spiced fish buns, and crab curries, all rotating depending on Fernando’s mood. Fernando pops up regularly all over town, so keep a keen eye on her social media for the next chance to try her homegrown flavors.
Best Pizza With A Purpose
Pizza is a religion in Philly, and Down North, for good reason, has amassed countless devoted followers. The Detroit-style pies (crispy, cheesy, topped with Norf sauce and barbecue chicken) draw crowds, and its worthy mission — hiring formerly incarcerated workers at fair wages — puts it over the top. Executive chef Michael Carter is outspoken about his own relationship with mass incarceration, which is one way Down North educates otherwise uninformed diners on the effects of a corrupt and harmful system.
Best Converted School That’s Also a Food Business Incubator
Think of your favorite small food business in Philly and chances are it is now — or has at one point — made its home at South Philly’s Bok Building. A converted technical high school that’s just as fun to just wander around as it is to find something good to eat, Bok incubates the excellent Italian destination Irwin’s and it’s own beautiful Bok Bar on its spacious roof level, as well as baked goods legends Second Daughter Baking Co., pastry professionals at Machine Shop, coffee shop Two Persons, as well as the rising star of vegan cheese, Conscious Cultures. Not sure how to choose? Try the Bok Bar events calendar — the bar hosts pop-ups of Philly’s favorite food pop-ups nearly every week.