With the constant climb of New York City’s living expenses, young professionals hoping to start families are fleeing in droves for the nearest urban center: Philadelphia. Long known for greasy cheesesteaks and the Museum of Art steps climbed by working-class (yet fictional) hero Rocky Balboa, the recent explosion of spendable income has rebirthed Philadelphia as a world-class and multi-ethnic dining destination. In no particular order, here are 15 places you shouldn’t miss, none of which even existed 10 years ago.
Numbered establishments on the map correspond to information below for easy reference.
Zahav means gold in Hebrew, a name completely deserved by Chef Michael Solomonov’s flagship Middle Eastern eatery. With both modern and traditional takes on Israeli cuisine, Zahav is set to show the diaspora that New York is no longer the best place to get your fix. From the opening salvo of baked-to-order Laffa Bread with Hummus, through the crumbling Carrot Basboosa at dessert, the menu’s impressive variety provides winning options for all eaters. But in-between kebabs of garlic duck with pistachio and grilled eggplant spiced with harissa, make sure not to miss Chef Solmonov’s own cocktail creations. Zahav’s bar menu is rivaled by only the best high-end bars in town, and the pumpernickel & caraway-infused Marble Rye cocktail stands as my favorite drink in all of Philadelphia.
MUST ORDER: Crispy Haloumi, Sweet Bread Schnitzel, Kofte, Ma’amoul, Marble Rye
As a proud carnivore, I’ve long accepted that the vegetarian handicap of even the best “green thumb” chefs must be what prevents them from truly competing with their omnivore peers. But Chef Kate Jacoby and husband/partner Richard Landau have now violated that rule in such an excellent manner as to prove it completely false… and they did it while also being vegan. Meat-eaters be reassured, Vedge stands among the most exciting meals anywhere. Period. Home-run regulars include light but woody Portabella Carpaccio, as well as the Sweet Potato Pate with Jerk Cashew Crostini – a dish that provides a surprising fulfillment for the pangs of any meat craving. But what Chefs Jacoby and Landau whip-up with their daily market-fresh “Dirt List” is not to be missed. If you have time for only one meal in Philadelphia, make it Vedge. Just make sure to book your reservation as far out as possible.
MUST ORDER: U-Peel Lupini Beans, Sweet Potato Pate, Portabella Carpaccio, Fancy Radishes, Carrot “Tagine”
Not everywhere in Philly’s new restaurant scene requires you to double check your bank account first. Tucked inside the people packed maze of Reading Terminal Market, pass over DiNic’s roast pork and the famous Hershel’s pastrami and you’ll find a small stand with some of the best tasting lamb you’ve ever had. For the cost of a meal at McDonald’s, Border Springs Lamb Farm serves up blue and white corn tortillas, filled with shredded neck meat that’s been braised for 12 hours in soy, apple and orange, then caramelized on the grill. These perfectly prepared tacos come topped with onion and cilantro, appear with a wedge of lime, and have become a regular lunch stop on my trips to Philly.
MUST ORDER: Lamb Neck Tacos. And get some lamb jerky sticks to go.
Much attention has been given to the delicate soup dumplings of Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles, or the thick-skinned variety found at Joe’s Shanghai in New York. But the perfectly doughy skin of Dim Sum Garden’s Steamed Pork Soup Dumplings keeps warm an impressively porky soup that rivals either coastal competitor. Once located in a hole-in-the-wall under a smoggy bridge near a bus terminal, Dim Sum Garden now sports some shiny new digs on the outskirts of Chinatown. Here at the new Race Street location, the Shanghai Fried Pork variety of soup dumpling has come into its own, each crispy little bun topped with a few black sesame seeds. The Beef Brisket Noodles are hand-cut thick strands, with just a little toughness on the bite. And the Seaweed and Egg Soup makes for a soothing choice on a sick or rainy day.
MUST ORDER: Shanghai Steamed Pork Soup Dumplings, Shanghai Fried Pork Soup Dumplings, Beef Brisket Noodles, Shanghai Fried Rice Cakes
Talk to the menacing bouncer on the street about a table and he’ll lead you down a staircase and into a sunken narrow bar with a dark, speakeasy vibe. With help from the acclaimed team behind New York’s Death & Co, Franklin Mortgage is Philly’s cocktail mecca – a place for after-work business drinks, or a first-date you’re trying to impress. The drink menu is split into sections with names like, “Required Reading,” “The Flowing Bowl,” and “I asked her for water, she brought me gasoline.” Those familiar with some of the rarer spirits and mixers are welcome to order with a waitress, but the controlled door keeps this spot from ever getting too crowded, so chat up the expert behind the bar. Tell them what tickles your tongue and you’ll be happy with what they mix for you.
MUST ORDER: Bespoke. Give the bartender a hint, and trust them to impress.