Elisabeth King

Philadelphia Redux – Best Eating City on the East Coast

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Philadelphia has made such a boisterous comeback in the past decade that many are declaring it's become the best food city on the US east coast.

PHILADELPHIA is less than two hours by train from New York, bypassing the traffic snarls of getting to JFK airport and the need to get there hours before your flight takes off. There’s no better time to visit the City of Brotherly Love, which is temporarily changing its nickname in 2020 to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the US. But whatever the gender of its title, currently the City of Sisterly Love to use its Twitter hashtag, Philly has plenty to offer visitors for a stay of 5 days to a week.
For starters, the city is home to “the most historic square mile in America”. It takes an entire day at least to do justice to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center and Betsy Ross’s house to track the heritage of the cradle of the American Revolution. Philadelphia also boasts the first and best African-American museum in the US, as befits the town that had the largest free black population during the war of independence.
The city’s architectural landscape is gobsmacking from the massive industrial boomtime buildings on Market Street to the oldest continuously occupied houses in America. We took an architectural walking tour led by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which weaved past the grandeur of Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill and Chestnut Hill.
The 72 steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a.k.a the Rocky Steps made famous in the blockbuster movie, is the least interesting thing about a visit to this grand repository of nearly 250,000 objects and paintings, beginning with major works by El Greco, Bosch, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and Monet. One of the largest art museums in the world, a major annexe is the Rodin Museum, the largest collection of the sculptor’s work outside France. Nearly everyone we met on our visit to the east coast almost made us promise not to miss the Barnes Foundation. How right they were. The museum’s collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art is estimated to be worth US$25 billion and includes 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 46 by Picasso, 59 by Matisse and much more.
In recent years Philadelphia has also become a foodie mecca with a culinary scene stretching from Michelin-starred chefs to its famous homegrown speciality – the Philly cheesesteak. Last year, Zahav, a restaurant focusing on Israeli cuisine, took out the prestigious James Beard Award for America’s most outstanding restaurant.
Located in Society Hill, Zahav opened its doors in 2008 and head chef, Michael Solomonov, is a culinary superstar and author of the best-selling cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cuisine. Hailed as a genius of modern Jewish cooking, Solomonov’s menu veers from mezze small plates such as grilled duck hearts with green tomato and crispy garlic and mushroom schnitzel to mains including lamb merguez with beet-pickled turnips and hangar steak with walnut muhammara and pickled pepper.
Philadelphia has made such a boisterous comeback in the past decade that many are declaring it’s become the best food city on the US east coast. Rittenhouse Square, with its almost European-style look, hosts The Love, a contemporary designer bolthole from the multi-talented Stephen Starr, who presides over 20 restaurants in his home town and seven in New York. American classics such as buttermilk fried chicken, spicy Mississippi sauce and Parker House rolls are re-invented to perfection. Michael Solomonov has also opened an Israeli-inspired bakery-cum-cafe, Z’Far, close by for traditional favourites like chocolate babka and more hearty listings such as foie gras toast with date molasses and Persian lamb shank with pickled rose petals.
Brandon McRill, who once helmed the Michelin-starred Rebelle in New York, operates the Walnut Street Cafe, where brunch is an art form. Open all day, it is a design vision of marble tables and lush blooms, an the standout speciality is fried eggs with black scrapple, a rif on a Philly favourite made from pork scraps. Other places that have taken a great idea and run with it include Middle Child, a lunch hotspot filled with merchandise from the Eagles football team and showcasing sandwiches such as the Phoagie – a Vietnamese twist on the trad Philly sandwich. Ramen seems to have taken over the world and one of the best places to enjoy the craze is Cheu Fishtown. Based in an old horse stable, there’s a vast beer list and eye-catching murals that form a slick backdrop for expertly made originals such as brisket ramen with kimchi and matzo balls.
French is on-trend again worldwide as well. Christopher Kearse, who formerly owned Will, the beloved French bistro in South Philly, has opened Forsythia in the city’s Old Town. Instead of slavish copies, there’s plenty of whimsy on the menu from crab and leek beignets with Old Bay rouille to halibut with Champagne, Napa Cabbage and citrus.
You can’t miss Philly Cheesesteak. Fridge magnets depicting the super-sized treat are everywhere. As you would expect, there’s hot competition to offer the best version and, as a visitor, you really need to sort the wheat from the chaff. A clear favourite is Dalessandro’s and their interpretation is crammed with finely chopped rib eye steak, just the right amount of cheese and chunky-cut onions.
Sonny’s Famous Steaks in Old Town is the venue most favoured by tourists because of its location close to the city’s main attractions. That’s no bad thing, though, because it looks authentic and the cheesesteaks are good. We stayed near the original Ishkabibble’s on South Street, which has been in business for 40 years, and it may seem like overload but order the cheese fries on the side. Also in South Street, you’ll find Woodrow’s Sandwich Shop which takes the concept upmarket with shaved rib eye, homemade truffle cheese, caramelised onions and cherry pepper mayo.
Pat’s King of Steaks claims to have invented the cheesesteak, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Nearby rival, Geno’s Steaks, begs to differ and says it added the cheese to Pat’s steak sandwich. In another rivalry, Chubby’s vies with Geno’s and says its beef is more flavourful because it doesn’t chop the beef as finely.
Philadelphia is awash with biergartens, craft breweries, posh cocktail bars and hidden dives. Start with McGillin’s Old Ale House, the oldest continuously operating tavern in town. Opened in 1860, the house beers are the way to go from 1860 IPA to the Real Lager. It’s like walking into a movie and everyone is welcome from young professionals to retirees.
Fishtown is one of the hippest neighbourhoods for eating, strolling and drinking. Philadelphia Distilling is a bar/lounge and production facility housed in a 1950s metal factory. Gin is the thing and comes in three Bluecoat varieties – American Dry, Barrel Finished and Elderflower – or go wild with the Vieux Carre absinthe. Johnny Brenda’s is a Fishtown institution and hasn’t bothered to gussy up its weather-beaten facade. Part gastro-pub, part music venue and part family sports hangout, there’s local brews on tap and cocktails featuring locally-made spirits.
The other unforgettable aspect of Philadelphia is its murals. To date, the city has spawned 4000 in total, including the only Keith Haring in situ in the US. A great sight to see, even when it isn’t sunny in Philadelphia.