Ah, Philadelphia. It wasn’t long ago that a disgraced U.S. president said that bad things happen here, but like any attempt outsiders make to diminish this place, its loyal residents turned what was intended as an insult into an opportunity to further shout about the city’s greatness. Philly is, after all, the sixth biggest city in the nation. Its population is as diverse as it is passionate — and Philly has the cuisine, about which everyone here has a strong opinion, to match.
You may know Philly as home to the cheesesteak, the Tastykake, and the figure-eight soft pretzel (oh, and the Phanatic and Gritty), but to really know Philly is to explore its legendary Ethiopian food, its tongue-tingling Thai dishes, its rich Mexican consommés and barbacoa tacos, its exceptional Chinatown, and its wealth of delicious vegan meals of all stripes. Philly is a city of allegiant neighborhoods, colorful and memorable, each with something different to offer.
Like everywhere, things have changed dramatically in Philly’s restaurant industry over the past two years, as the pandemic took a toll on our beloved local hangouts. A good number of them have been forced to close. In the summer of 2021, though, the city’s COVID-19 restrictions were lifted entirely, then brought back in the form of mask mandates and proof of vaccination policies instituted by restaurants themselves. By and large, the Philly restaurant scene has begun returning to some semblance of normalcy (notwithstanding a labor shortage). At least until we’re fully out of the woods, outdoor dining is still the best option for the non-or-partially-vaccinated. As we’ve seen in the proliferation of streeteries occupying precious coveted parking real estate, Philadelphians are happy to just be out and about, patronizing their favorite spots, and doing what we do best: taking pride in just being from Philly.
This regularly updated guide will show you how to eat in Philly like a local, which if you’re a visitor here, you’ll quickly learn is a very good thing to be.
—Updated by Dayna Evans
[Cue “Eye of the Tiger”]
Reader, Welcome to Philadelphia
Jogging up the Rocky steps, a cheesesteak in each hand, might fulfill a tourist’s Philadelphia fantasies, but focusing on the city’s most famous foodstuffs (cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, water ice) would mean missing out on all the epicurean splendor this city has to offer. Philly boasts Italian dishes from every part of the Boot, nationally acclaimed Israeli and vegetarian and vegan fare, Asian cuisines from Japan to Thailand to Indonesia to Korea to Cambodia and more, new American standouts, elegant French bistros, iconic and historic soul food with a side of jazz, amazing Mexican tacos, cozy Ethiopian restaurants, sandwiches as big as your head, the freshest seafood, and much more. Philly has been home to immigrants from regions all over the world throughout its 339 years, and that shows in the food in Pennsylvania’s biggest city.
As the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and which stands on traditional Indigenous territory known as Lenapehoking, Philly’s deep historical roots draw scores of tourists every year. But the city is for more than just American history buffs: It’s a cultural destination with world-class museums, theaters, and lively neighborhoods with independent characters all their own. (To some, it’s known as the Mural City because we have the most murals of any city in America.) Our neighbors north of us have been known to call Philly “the sixth borough,” but that descriptor will elicit the heaviest of eye-rolls if uttered here. The only thing the term succeeds at communicating is how a weekend trip to Philly from anywhere in the Northeast is approachable and guaranteed to be delicious. A weekend trip or a night out in Philly can mean hitting up a local dive to sing off-key karaoke, bringing an inexpensive bottle of wine to a cozy neighborhood cafe, or dressing up for a sought-after reservation at a James Beard Award winner’s hotspot.
As far as that cheesesteak goes, take your pick.
Where to Start on Eater Philly’s Best Maps
Eater Philly is the place to go for frequently updated guides about everything from the most exciting restaurants, cafes, and pop-ups offering takeout, delivery, indoor and outdoor dining. Try out our latest favorites or take in the view with a citywide special (a shot and a beer) at the best rooftop bars. Short on time? Here are some of the top destinations on Eater’s most popular maps.
Hottest Restaurants: Among the hottest new restaurants in Philly, Down North is bringing Detroit-style pizza and hot wings to Strawberry Mansion with an admirable mission on the side: to end mass incarceration. The Wayward, down the street from City Hall, offers a luxe seafood tower and American brasserie fare on the ground floor of the Canopy Hotel. Don’t miss the strong Vietnamese coffees and excellent banh mi lunch at Càphê Roasters. The ube macarons at Tambayan in Reading Terminal Market are practically perfect. La Chinesca on Spring Garden Street has refreshing palomas and fried green peppers. Salam Cafe in the oft-forgotten Northwest part of the city has fir-fir breakfast and Mediterranean platters for dinner. The younger sibling restaurant to Middle Child, this city’s beloved sandwich luncheonette, has a full bar and a giant chicken Milanese for when you’re trying to have a little fun.
Essential Restaurants: Since eating at all 38 essential restaurants in Philly in one fell swoop isn’t an option, you can’t go wrong with Gabriella’s Vietnam in East Passyunk for the open-faced dumplings and perfect gourd-steamed branzino with vermicelli noodles. South Jazz Kitchen in the Spring Garden area is the destination for great jazz sets, and the mac and cheese, gumbo, and fried chicken are real knockouts. Near the iconic Italian Market, Kalaya specializes in spicy southern Thai dishes — you can even bring their red and green curry pastes home, if you swing by Kalaya Thai Market down the street. You can also never go wrong with an empanada or alfajor from Jezabel’s Argentine Café. The water ice at Siddiq’s will keep you cool during the insanely hot months. Plan a date night at Friday Saturday Sunday, pick up a jerk chicken platter at Jamaican D’s, eat excellent Neapolitan sourdough pizza at Eeva, and don’t forget the thousand-layer bread at Rangoon.
Bars: From neighborhood dives to candlelit cocktail spots, it’s not hard to find a bar in Philly. Want to bring a libation home? Try the proliferation of bottle shops popping up everywhere. There are even local table wines being made in Kensington that are truly not to miss. Try the iconic Tattooed Mom for their signature pickletini. In the warmer months (or cooler ones, if you’re brave), outdoor drinking on a rooftop or patio or in a beer garden is the thing to do, or cool off with a frozen cocktail. In fall, look forward to getting cozy inside a bar with a fireplace.
BYOBs: Thanks to prohibitively strict liquor laws, many restaurants in Philly choose to forgo liquor licenses altogether and let customers bring their own bottles. It’s worth it for the full Philly experience.
Breakfast and Brunch: Bagels are the latest obsession in Philly right now, and while scrambled eggs don’t translate to very good takeout, pastries, donuts, and breakfast sandwiches sure do. You cannot miss Korshak Bagels for the best bagel of your life, Crust Vegan Bakery for a sweet pastry breakfast fix, and Middle Child for its legendary egg sandwich. Donuts abound. Weekend lox and smoked fish boards are a must at Biederman’s Specialty Foods, an appetizing shop in Bella Vista. No matter what your craving, you’ll never have a bad breakfast in Philadelphia.
Vegetarian and Vegan: Despite Philly’s commitment to roast pork and provolone sandwiches, herbivores have no trouble finding dedicated options here. Philly restaurants catering to vegetarians and vegans range from retro diner The Tasty to Latin flavors at Bar Bombón. Try the fine dining restaurant Vedge for fancier vegan fare and The Nile Cafe for a soul food spin. Here’s an illustrated guide to eight essential vegan dishes in Philly to get you started.
Cheesesteaks: The debate over which cheesesteak shop puts out the best version will last forever. In the meantime, diners won’t go wrong at Jim’s Steaks on South Street or Dalessandro’s in Roxborough. Even those avoiding meat or dairy, or both, can get a cheesesteak.
Sandwiches: Cheesesteaks and sandwiches are two different things, and Philly is serious about both. The classic is the roast pork with broccoli rabe and provolone, found at DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market and John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Calabrese salami sandwiches at Martha and pastrami sandwiches at Hershel’s are all great options for lunchtime. But this list will help you find a sandwich for every fancy.
Philadelphia Food Neighborhoods to Know
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and many are associated with certain styles of food. Read on for details of the key restaurant hotspots in Philly — and where to eat in each.
The heart of the city, also called Downtown, includes the Historic District (locally known as Old City), the swank Rittenhouse Square area, the overlapping, restaurant-packed Gayborhood, Midtown Village, and Washington Square West neighborhoods, and the business district. In Washington Square West, start with breakfast pastries or lunchtime sandwiches on ridiculously good bread at High Street Philly. At night, try spicy Sichuan dishes at Han Dynasty or Israeli mezze and lamb at Zahav. Either should be followed by an ice cream cone from the charmingly old-timey Franklin Fountain. Moving west to the Gayborhood/Midtown Village, choose from five restaurants from Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, including retro Midwestern fare at Bud & Marilyn’s. In Rittenhouse Square, expect a lunchtime line for falafel sandwiches at Goldie. Come evening, take a classic cocktail to-go at the speakeasy-esque Franklin Bar before dining streetside or indoors at James Beard Award winner Greg Vernick’s eponymous restaurant.
This huge, primarily residential neighborhood south of Center City is divided up into several sections. Large pockets of it are historically Italian, and there are enough red gravy Italian-American restaurants in Philly to overfeed a person for life (that’s a good thing). Sandwich shops and pizzerias offering cheesesteaks, hoagies, and slices dot the neighborhood. Vietnamese pho shops and bakeries cluster along Washington Avenue, Cambodian restaurants are farther south, and Mexican eateries are scattered throughout the area. At the southern end of South Philly is where to find the sports stadiums — grab a dog or a thing of crab fries at the Linc or Citizens Bank Park. But most visitors venturing south of South Street in search of food and drink will find themselves in Bella Vista, Queen Village, or Passyunk Square. Within Passyunk Square is one of Philly’s hottest restaurant strips: East Passyunk Avenue, a diagonal stretch lined with restaurants and cute independent shops for about half a mile. Hit up Laurel for classy cocktails and dinner, or Fountain Porter for beers and a truly excellent $6 burger before sitting for a trendy Sicilian dinner at Irwin’s on the roof of Bok Building, an old school on South 9th Street. Other standouts include Perla, also a BYO restaurant, for modern Filipino fare, Le Virtù for Italian, and Gabriella’s Vietnam for Vietnamese. Fish and chips are worth carrying out at British outpost Stargazy.
The area of West Philadelphia (born and raised) just over the Schuylkill River from Center City is University City, home to the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University — which means a lot of fast-casual eateries catering to the college crowd, including a food court with outposts of Goldie, Dizengoff, and the stellar pizza truck Pitruco. Also in University City, the bright, airy Walnut Street Cafe is a solid choice morning, noon, or night. Moving away from the river, the options get more diverse. Go for Ethiopian platters at Abyssinia, Laotian and Thai curries and rice dishes for takeout at Vientiane Cafe, or Senegalese-style fish and grilled chicken at Kilimandjaro. Fuel up with coffee (and a side of samosas) from Mina’s World.
Philly’s Chinatown is relatively small for a major city, but it packs a lot in. Make your way through Chinese hand-pulled noodles at Nan Zhou, dumplings at Tom’s Dim Sum, Japanese ramen at Terakawa, Vietnamese spring rolls and tiki cocktails at Vietnam Restaurant, or Korean sundubu jjigae at Dae Bak inside food hall Chinatown Square. At a loss for where to go? Let the real experts guide you.
Fishtown, Kensington, and Northern Liberties:
Historically a blue collar neighborhood, Fishtown’s rapid gentrification has earned it comparisons to trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods, though you’ll always eat well there, with Lebanese flatbreads and kebabs at market/cafe/restaurant Suraya, inventive riffs on Asian dumplings and noodle bowls at Cheu Fishtown, and sandwiches and more at Middle Child Clubhouse. Sustainable seafood at Kensington Quarters, pizza at Pizzeria Beddia, drinks at Fishtown Social and International Bar are also reasons to make a Fishtown stop. Then there is coffee at Franny Lou’s, bagels at Eeva, and well, a lot of everything all around in Kensington. Head slightly farther north to Port Richmond for an amazing bottle of natural wine and veggie burger at the combined Tiny’s Bottle Shop/Lunar Inn and a hand pie and coffee at Little Susie’s. Between Fishtown and the Historic District lies Northern Liberties, another gentrifying area with a 70,000-square-foot brewery and taproom courtesy of Philly’s Yards Brewing Co. for outdoor seating. Get an amazing pastry at Kettle Black and great brunch at Honey’s Sit ‘N Eat.
This sprawling neighborhood is broken up into several smaller sections with a wide range of cuisines — Eastern European, Jewish, Indian, Italian, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and more. One of the biggest draws for food-seeking outsiders in this neighborhood is Brazilian barbecue at casual spots like Taste of Brazil. For American barbecue, head to Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse. In Northeast Philly and craving a cheesesteak? Swing by Steve’s Prince of Steaks (there’s another location in Center City) or Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop (there’s also one in Fishtown).
In the Northwest, Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill are all oriented around a long stretch of Germantown Avenue, divided by the massive Wissahickon Valley Park with neighborhoods Manayunk, Roxborough, and East Falls closer to the river. Get coffee from Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, and tart cider with vegetarian hand pies at the laid-back Young American Cider in Germantown. Plus, there is no shortage of good vegan food at the Nile Cafe and All the Way Live. In Mt. Airy, the pub grub at Mount Airy Taproom is a highlight and for date night, check out Jansen. For excellent Tibetan, there’s White Yak in Roxborough, and for high-demand pizza, try Pizza Jawn. Oh, and you can’t miss locally-famous cheesesteaks at Dalessandro’s, right off the park in Roxborough. Just expect a crowd — they’re that good.
A Philadelphia Glossary of Terms
A sandwich consisting of sliced or chopped steak and melted cheese (traditionally Cheez Whiz) on a long roll. Adding fried onions is acceptable.
A request to have onions added to a cheesesteak. “One, Whiz, wit” = One cheesesteak with Whiz and onions.
Philly’s version of a sub sandwich (but better).
A breakfast staple made of pork, cornmeal, flour, and spices formed into a loaf and then sliced and fried.
Often pronounced “woo-der ice,” this frozen flavored dessert — a mix of water, sugar, and, usually, fruit — may seem like Italian ice, but it’s just a little bit more liquid-y. Think more granita than slushie.
Sprinkles (the ice cream topping).
The Philly version of a soft pretzel is more bread-y than sweet, with a salted, deep brown outside and chewy inside. Look for the kind that are shaped like figure eights, those are the real deal.
Yuengling Lager, produced in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
A restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol, where you can Bring Your Own Bottle. Philly BYOBs rarely have a corking fee and there are many of them.
A convenience store chain along the lines of (a more beloved) 7-11 with soups, salads, hot bowls, made-to-order hoagies, and a very loyal following. They even serve burgers now.
“Did you eat yet?”
A catch-all word that fills in for any noun, food-related or otherwise, as in, “Are you going to finish that jawn?”
Reservations to Make in Advance
A booking made in advance, especially for a primetime outdoor table on a weekend, is a must at Zahav, Laurel, Vedge, River Twice, Irwin’s, Friday Saturday Sunday, and Vernick Food & Drink. But sitting at the bar at least a handful of those places is a great option for walk-ins.
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