Best Restaurants in Philadelphia

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Anyone who’s had a hoagie here knows that Philadelphia loves to eat. But it’s not all sandwiches. In the past few decades, the dining scene has matured from a handful of high-end houses to a cosmopolitan diversity of ambitious BYOBs, boozy brasseries and globalist gourmet kitchens. Nearby Lancaster County supplies excellent farm products to chefs, and though wine can be expensive in this liquor control state, new talent has brought a taste for fascinating bottles to go with the city’s vivacious fare. Here’s where to eat now, including some exciting new openings.

Bibou

The airy souffle from <em>Bibou</em>
The airy souffle from Bibou - Betsy Andrews

A proper French bistro, this South Philly BYOB cultivates regulars, who pair their own wines with the lavish dishes in chef-owner Pierre Calmels’ weekly prix fixe. Clad in wallpaper and wainscoting, the storefront space has throwback appeal. Servers are relaxed and humorous, without being too so.

Amuse-bouches one evening brought back the 1980s. The Parmesan tuille topped with pickled cauliflower, lamb rillette with a merguez yogurt, and a white anchovy roulade piped with avocado mousse were arranged on a glass plate with a swoop of beet coulis. It’s rare nowadays to see sauce used decoratively, but no matter: The bites were delicious.

The seven-course meal continued apace in luxurious, Francophile fashion. Creamy porcini soup hid nuggets of pickled stone fruit and duck prosciutto, and for an extra $20, shaved black truffle rained down on top of it. A sweet scallop came in a shell with room enough for sorrel, blue hubbard squash, trumpet mushroom and a healthy dose of beurre blanc. As if to acknowledge our animal natures, the house offered no utensils with it, so we slurped it up. Then came foie gras.

By the time the entrée arrived — one night it was an excellent pigeon, served rare with fall trappings of sage gnocchi, roast chestnuts, figs — you may want to cry “oncle!” But save room for Bibou’s airy soufflé. Who imagined a version with mezcal-marinated dates and a goat cheese crème anglaise? Calmels did, and it was magnifique. Dinner only; closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; BYOB. Reservations required. $115 prix fixe.

Bibou
1009 South Eighth Street. Tel. (215) 965-8290

Friday Saturday Sunday

The halibut and roasted chicken from <em>Friday Saturday Sunday</em>
The halibut and roasted chicken from Friday Saturday Sunday - Betsy Andrews

It’s back and better than ever. Hanna and Chad Williams, the young couple who purchased this restaurant, which exemplified Philly cool four decades ago, have kept its name but revamped all else, reinvigorating its creativity.

Chad Williams’ sly cooking sneaks global ingredients and methods into dishes that feel like American classics. Shrimp “cocktail” sits in ketchup-and-mayo Marie Rose sauce bolstered by yuzu koshu, an Occidental-Oriental mashup that meets the crustaceans’ richness with more of the same. The umami-packed broth that a server pours over grilled octopus turns out to be menudo, Mexican tripe soup. Some might be put off by cow’s stomach stock, but it complements the seafood beautifully.

Some surprises are less showy, but their effect is no less profound. The ragu for the gemelli with pork sugo is punctuated, intriguingly, with caraway. Williams cribs techniques from Peking duck for his exemplary roast chicken. Blanched and brined overnight to tighten its skin, the bird is lacquered with maltose and honey. The crisp, sweet skin yields to meat that’s moist as can be.

For dessert, plum tarte Tatin only looks French; its accoutrements are Japanese: white miso ice cream, shiso crumble and yuzu cream. Pair it with a nightcap that comes from an island off the northwest coast of Africa: Madeira. They pour all of Rare Wine Company’s fantastic Historic Series here. The Charleston Sercial is bright and versatile enough to drink all night. Closed Monday. Reservations recommended. $150 with drinks and tip.

Friday Saturday Sunday
261 South 21st Street. Tel. (215) 546-4232

Laurel

The artful duck confit from <em>Laurel</em>
The artful duck confit from Laurel - Betsy Andrews

Chef-owner Nicholas Elmi makes Philadelphia’s prettiest food. His 26-seat dining room on hip Passyunk Avenue is spare and quiet, the better to concentrate on the prix-fixe, jewel-box dishes, presented with polished descriptions by staff. The fare is French-influenced new American, but the precision seems inspired by Japan, as does the dinnerware. Austere and earth-tone, it lets Elmi’s artfulness shine. Small-producer wines enhance the craftsmanlike vibe.

There’s a palimpsestial quality to the food’s stratas of tastes and textures. You’ve never experienced an uni dish so multifaceted. Golden urchin, neon-pink grapefruit and ginger-pickled hazelnuts sat atop a thick celeriac “foam” suffused with a truffle-hazelnut vinaigrette that pulled the sweet, tart and umami flavors together. Dotted with microgreens, the dish looks ravishing, as does cured albacore tuna, strewn with flowers on an orange puddle of carrot juice.

The combinations are wild, but the execution is not. There’s a restraint to Elmi’s cooking that makes it feel ritualized. Duck confit arrived linked in a chain with local maitake mushrooms, bordering a pool of duck consommé. The dish is so carefully wrought that it focuses your attention and slows down your eating.

That’s a good thing because the meal here is rather dainty. Despite dessert in four parts, including housemade marshmallows, sorbet, pot de crème and mignardise, if you’re a big eater, you may be happy you’re in South Philly, where there’s a cheesesteak right around the corner. Closed Sunday and Monday; dinner only. Reservations required. $95 prix fixe, $65 additional for wine pairings.

Laurel
1617 E. Passyunk Avenue. Tel. (215) 271-8299

The Love

Restaurateurs Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy are at it again with this new American brasserie off Rittenhouse Square. It’s a buzzy spot featuring tile arches, white-washed brick and, wisely, cork ceilings, which soak up noise, so you can chat while enjoying the energy around you.

Chef Joshua Tomaszewski is from Pennsylvania but cooked in Manhattan. He brings New York City sophistication to crowd-pleasing share plates for often-breathtaking results. In a riff on a classic wedge, he tops Boston salad with fuchsia-edged pickled eggs for dazzling color. He serves gnoccho frito, delicate fried puffs, with garlicky mortadella and savory onion jam, a cocktail-party dish that pairs well with quaffable sips like a gingery Government Mule.

Among the few pasta dishes, bisque-dressed spaghetti and lobster is luxe yet light, an appropriate intermezzo before blockbuster mains, including a wonderful throwback stroganoff. The chef sous vides and pan sears short ribs to pair with the noodles, then douses the beef in red wine jus. Wild mushrooms bump up the umami deliciousness.

But nothing compares to Tomaszewski’s whole trout. Cedar-smoked to order, its deboned interior is lavished in butter and dill, its burnished skin garnished in pecans. It’s camera-ready, crave-worthy, sweet and tender.

The pithy wine list is categorized to tell compact stories — “Big, Bold Reds for Fall,” “It’s Williamette, Dammit!” A bright, earthy Paul Jaboulet Aîné “Les Jalets” Syrah 2015 from the “Classic Wines” section does the trick — until you get to the all-American desserts. Sea salt, olive oil and brioche breadcrumbs shower milk chocolate ganache in flattering flavors. But the best sweets are liquid: Hot buttered rum, Irish coffee and more warm belly and heart. You feel The Love. Dinner only. Reservations recommended. $175 with drinks and tip.

The Love
130 South 18th Street. Tel. (215) 433-1555

Vedge

Nola Mud Pie dessert from <em>Vedge</em>
Nola Mud Pie dessert from Vedge - Vedge

Diners who, on another night, might dive into a steak, thrill to the grilled Chioggia beet and other dishes at Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby’s lusty vegan superstar in Center City.

The fondue that comes with the fluffy soft pretzel is funky, creamy and thick. It’s not cheese. It’s rutabaga, nutritional yeast, miso and aquafaba — the starchy liquid from a can of beans. Sounds unappealing? Here, you welcome servers’ detailed descriptions. You want to marvel at the magic behind such wondrous plant-based dishes.

Some have an Asian bent. A quartet of radishes — sesame-dusted green radish over grilled shishito peppers; watermelon radish on yuzu and avocado; Spanish black on pickled tofu; long, pink Shunkyo atop cucumber salad — is Vedge’s version of sushi, served with housemade tamari. The char-branded tofu, glazed red with spicy Korean barbecue sauce, mimics grilled salmon.

Other preparations are Continental. Cold-smoked eggplant is rolled inside roasted sliced eggplant, mirroring the flank steak in braciola. Served in a verdant pool of salsa verde, it’s indulgent and irresistible. The black garlic tahini over medallions of “campfire” potatoes packs the umami punch of a tonnato sauce.

Cocktails are big on flavor, too. The Black Hole Sun get viscosity and smoke from scotch, burnt miso, and intriguingly, charcoal. You can drink it all the way through the Pennsylvania Dutch apple cake, with a luscious cream cheese base made of tofu, of course. Dinner only; closed Sunday. Reservations recommended. $140 with drinks and tip.

Vedge
1221 Locust Street. Tel. (215) 320-7500

Vernick Food & Drink

Fluke with sweet potatoes and ponzu sauce, and crabmeat on toast from Vernick Food & Drink
Fluke with sweet potatoes and ponzu sauce, and crabmeat on toast from Vernick Food & Drink - Betsy Andrews

James Beard Award winner Greg Vernick goes for full-throttle flavor. One fat urchin isn’t enough for his pot of scrambled eggs. Dig in, and you fish up shrimp’s-head “butter,” funky spoonfuls that taste like the tides. He nurses his own mother of vinegar for the citrus-and-mirin ponzu sauce for raw fluke. He loads so much peekytoe crabmeat onto toast, you worry for the fishery.

The exuberant cooking matches the vibe, especially at the chef’s counter, where the cooks make friendly company. Staff breezes about, describing dishes with wit. Here is scallop ceviche with ruby red grapefruit and blood orange, tobiko and tapioca pearls — bittersweet, silky and cool. Now arrives a saffron-laced chanterelle tart, a brisk frisée salad offsetting its butteriness. With delicate poached halibut come more mushrooms — porcini in their own broth, simmered over three days to pack the world’s earthiest punch.

As the dishes gain heft, the server suggests switching from Laulerie’s snappy, Sauvignon-heavy Bergerac Blanc to biodynamic Ampeleia Unlitro. An herbaceous, barnyardy, cherry-rich wine, it’s nimble enough for anything wood-fired here: turbot amandine, bone-in strip loin, even red cabbage. Roasted overnight and dressed in a golden raisin and caper vinaigrette, this humble veg is reborn as a brooding superstar.

Dessert is just as maverick. Burnt grass flavors sweet hay semifreddo, oat streusel augments the grain taste, and black Mission figs bring gooey fruitiness. It’s like an overindulgent Danish breakfast. Closed Monday; dinner only. Reservations recommended; $120 with drinks and tip.

Vernick Food & Drink
2031 Walnut Street. Tel. (267) 639-6644

Vetri

The sweet onion crepe from <em>Vetri</em>
The sweet onion crepe from Vetri - Steve Legato

Chef Marc Vetri stone-grinds his own wheat for the freshest, tastiest flour that yields the pasta of your dreams. Pumpkin cappelletti with fried sage and a gingery Gorgonzola fonduta is rich, indeed, but the vibrant dough lends it ethereality. Swiss chard gnocchi melts as you eat it, becoming one with its brown butter sauce.

The pastas anchor an opulent Italian prix fixe, with scores of wines to match, if you want. Plated on florid china in a Spruce Street row house lit by a Murano glass chandelier, this meal has an over-the-top Old World feel. It’s the kind you’d take a steamer across an ocean to eat. It can seem almost as expensive, too. But it’s a fantastic voyage.

Madai snapper crudo nods toward the fish’s native Pacific with shavings of matsutake mushrooms and hearts of palm. You taste the chef’s own South Philly roots in prosciutto cotto, topped with pickled green tomatoes to lend it the sharpness of an Italian market sandwich. Set atop fragrant white truffle cream, the caramelized onion crepe is a Vetri classic. Peter Lauer “Fass 12,” an aromatic Mosel Riesling, goes along gorgeously.

It’s difficult not to devour these and other decadent dishes, but save room for proteins. The server displays whole branzino in its salt crust before whisking it away to have it filleted and ladled with Burgundian truffle butter. Pennsylvania-raised goat is crisped on the bone and draped over house-milled polenta.

The extravagance continues through dessert’s pistachio flan or chestnut napoleon, and beyond. There are mignardises, naturally. Your last sip of Passito or Vin Santo begs to go with just one more sweet bite. Dinner only and Friday lunch. Reservations recommended. $165 prix fixe; $135 additional for wine pairing.

Vetri
1312 Spruce Street. Tel. (215) 732-3478

Walnut Street Cafe

The bar at <em>Walnut Street Café</em>
The bar at Walnut Street Café - Katie Burton

As restaurateurs migrate between New York and Philadelphia, both cities’ scenes benefit. Case in point is this new, all-day restaurant near 30th Street Station by the staff of New York’s Michelin-starred (and recently shuttered) Rebelle. Breakfast brings brioche French toast with local maple syrup. Dinner layers on steakhouse entrées: grilled pork chops, a porterhouse for two.

But lunch is possibly best. Afternoon light floods the glass-enclosed space, illuminating midcentury-style furnishings. The menu offers all sorts of classics, from oysters mignonette to pasta carbonara. Avocado toast is pared down to its purest form, just slice after slice of ripe fruit with contrasting red bell pepper on a phenomenal multigrain toast, made, as are all the baked goods, in house.

Or indulge in a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition: the pork trimmings-and-cornmeal loaf called scrapple. Here it is made with pig’s blood for boudin noir-ish depth. The Rebelle crew is known for their wine smarts, and the restaurant offers nearly 50 grapes by the glass. Bone-dry Bellwether Rosé from the Finger Lakes keeps that brawny offal in check. Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Poulsard “Pinte Bien,” a lithe, biodynamic Jura red, enhances the dish’s peppery notes.

Mains are hefty: chicken marsala, hanger steak. As for fish, the enormous rip curl of fried porgy in a crackly casing is lightest — if you don’t scoop up all the chunky tartar sauce or irresistible skinny fries.

For dessert, allow the staff to vouch for the Kouign-amann, Brittany’s scrumptious buckwheat-and-butter cake. Along with buttermilk ice cream, it tastes wholesome and decadent at once. All-day dining. Reservations recommended. $90 with drinks and tip.

Walnut Street Cafe
2929 Walnut Street. Tel. (215) 867-8067

Zahav

The piquant hummus from <em>Zahav</em>
The piquant hummus from Zahav - Stu_Spivack/Flickr

Michael Solomonov’s big, open, darkly lit Society Hill flagship bustles with diners devouring Israeli feasts. Use chewy laffa, a wood-fired flatbread, to scoop a requisite hummus. But save room for the half-dozen salatim, or salads: nutty, creamy tahini-laced beets; carrots with lemon zest, pine nuts and Aleppo pepper; tomatoey green beans bristling with heat; pickled cabbage tarted up with sumac; spicy marinated fennel; and more. So many flavors, so many plates!

All that’s just to get you going. Meze are next. Vibrant high notes are layered over caramelly basso profundo flavors. Date syrup gets drizzled over apples, walnuts and savory grilled halloumi cheese. Fried cauliflower is draped with tangy labneh, a strained-yogurt cheese, rich in fresh herbs. Brussels sprouts come with baba ghanoush and smoked shiitake, the entire dish sweetened by wood fire.

If you must have meat, coal-grilled Romanian kebabs, made of ground brisket, are loaded with paprika, and chicken shishlik is slathered in so much sumac, your mouth waters eating it. The house offers many Middle Eastern wines. An excellent Cab blend from Lebanon’s Massaya and the lauded Château Musar pairs with the big, bold flavors. Cocktails, inflected with caraway, turmeric and other regional flavors, fascinate and refresh.

Arak is traditionally an aperitif, but you can sip the anise-flavored spirits, too, with dessert. Malabi custard, made with orchid root, is strewn with huckleberries, pistachios, poached pears and architectural meringues. It’s lovely and delicate, but as enjoyable as all that’s come before. Dinner only. Reservations recommended. $100 with drinks and tip.

Zahav
237 St. James Place. Tel. (215) 625-8800

By Betsy Andrews Guest Contributor Betsy Andrews writes for The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine and many other publications. Her award-winning books of poetry are “New Jersey” and “The Bottom.”
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