If you think you’ve conquered Philly’s food scene with a Cheesesteak, think again. It may certainly be a media darling with a constant spotlight shining on its famed buns, but there’s so much more to this city than a hoagie stuffed with shaved beef, onions, and runny cheese. After all, this is the place where the United States Declaration of Independence was signed, so consider it your patriotic duty to understand Philadelphia’s storied past by devouring the city’s classic, historical, and contemporary culinary scenes.
Tiffany Leigh is a food, drink, and travel writer. She is a James Beard Foundation Scholarship Recipient and always travels with her companions #PinchietheLobster and #PJthelobster.
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Owner Ellen Yin is a pioneer of the locavore and farm-to-table movement in Philly. Fork, a refined and elegant restaurant, has been a beloved fixture in the Old City district since it opened in the 1990s. Locals and foreigners come here for bistro fare using seasonal ingredients and seemingly simple elements transformed into textured layers of delight and deliciousness, like the 32 oz. steak for two with beef fat potatoes, maitake mushrooms, and butter lettuce.
Fork uses Nebraska cattle that they source from Debragga Meats in Jersey City–certified angus steak. Executive chef John Patterson explains the process: "It gets dry aged for 30 days and then a liberal coating of salt and pepper. The meat is seared on the plancha and finished in the oven. The key is to let the steak rest for 20 minutes so all the juices get redistributed and remain inside the meat rather than on the plate. It is finished with garlic cloves poached in beef tallow and fried rosemary."
A bite into the medieval sized steak served on a wooden plank, through the salt and peppered crust with a smoky char, unleashes succulent juiciness.
Photo courtesy of Fork Restaurant
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2. Franklin Fountain
Many mistakenly believe that this soda and ice cream shoppe has been around since the turn of the century; however, it is actually only the building that can claim that. Opened in 1899, the space once housed an old German saloon. While there are still relics that have been preserved, such as antiques, tin walls and ceilings, today, as the Franklin Fountain, the company offers cold refreshment in the form of ice cream shakes, sundaes, egg creams, and sodas. Since opening in 2004, it's been a summer staple with tourists and locals. In fact, don't be surprised to see a line snaking out the door with about a two-hour wait during heat waves.
In honor of Ben Franklin, you'll get a jolt from ordering the Lightning Rod–it includes a battery charge of homemade chocolate brownie pieces, coffee ice cream, chocolate covered espresso beans, and white chocolate shavings, and is speared by a salty pretzel rod. To finish, a shot of cold espresso is poured over clouds of whipped cream. And should you desire it, you can choose three different ice cream flavors to include (it doesn't have to be solely coffee ice cream). Go for Hydrox (a better version of the Oreo cookie), and Butter Pecan studded with whole nut pieces.
You might notice that this ice cream is a bit more voluptuous. This is because the owners source local organic cream and other dairy products from Longacres Dairy. The higher butterfat content (14 percent versus the average 12 percent) accounts for the extra silky texture. It's dangerously good because, even with all of these sugary components, it is never saccharine-sweet.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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3. City Tavern
The staff dressed in colonial garb is a bit corny, but if you can get past that and the gawking tourists, you'll realize that the food is actually quite good. In fact, the owner and chef, Walter Staib, tries to replicate dishes that were eaten during colonial times. Plus, the building is rife with historical significance and tales of the past. Built in 1773, City Tavern has attracted the likes of Paul Revere and George Washington to dine, drink, and party in the 20,000 sq. ft. space.
Should you choose to dine here, begin with the colonial ale sampler that features General Washington's Tavern Porter (a genuine recipe taken from manuscripts of the New York Public Library) and Thomas Jefferson's 1774 Tavern Ale (which uses Jefferson's formula). The former is a rich and bittersweet dark brew, and the latter boasts an unfiltered, medium-body, with a light color and taste. Then tuck into lobster potpie with homemade puff pastry.
This dish contains no cheap fillers—instead, you get tender lobster chunks and meaty, whole shrimp. Mushrooms, shallots, and sherry cream sauce pull the entire dish together and provide rich and earthy flavors. A flaky, butter-enriched puff pastry is placed on top and the entire thing is baked in a pewter casserole. You may need to be wheelbarrowed out afterward, but it's well worth it.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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4. The Little Lion
A newbie in the Old City neighborhood, this restaurant gives architectural nods to the 1847 building with chandeliers that mimic the appearance of gas lanterns from the 1800s and fine grained wood railing. The Little Lion also blends in contemporary elements, such as subway tiles, as a kind of segue to the modern food they serve.
Chef Sean Ciccarone puts his own spin on red velvet pancakes, a trending brunch dish, with red velvet French toast. Brioche slices are dipped in French toast batter that contains cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa powder, eggs and heavy cream—and to play up the frosting found on traditional red velvet cake, he then stuffs the centers with vanilla bean cheesecake filling. Each sandwiched piece tastes heavenly. Its hallmark, ruddy red hue appeals to everyone's inner child, because, who could say no to dessert as the first meal of the day?
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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Since 2008, this popular restaurant has showcased the daring and delicious ways of chef Michael Solomonov. At Zahav chef Michael breaths life into authentic Israeli and Persian dishes.
The whole braised lamb shoulder is fit for Persian royalty. Sure, it may not win a beauty contest, but what it lacks in appearances it more than makes up for in taste. A thick, lacquered crust reveals mildly gamey flesh that borders on a deep rose hue. The meat is a resplendent tangle of sweet and unctuous fattiness with flavors that meld together because of the slow cooking process. Don't forget the best part of the dish: the chewy, caramelized exterior thanks to a pomegranate molasses glaze. The lamb is all at once, smoky, soft, sweet and savory. Served with traditional crispy rice, the combination of these two textural wonders will make your eyes roll back in pleasure.
This restaurant is always bursting at the seams with hungry people vying for a table, so it is advisable to book reservations a few months in advance.
Photo courtesy of Michael Persico