It’s a city that typically conjures up images of the Liberty Bell and Benjamin Franklin, but there’s more to Philadelphia than hundreds of years of American history–though it has that, too, of course.
For months, my good friend, Kate, has been singing the praises of her newly-adopted city, telling me of the many amazing restaurants, beautiful alleys, and quiet sidewalks that are a far cry from the busy streets of New York, the city we both once called home. While I certainly trust her judgment–culinary matters, in particular–I still had my doubts that Philadelphia’s food scene could rival that of New York’s.
I vowed to put that to the test this week, during a two-day visit to the city in which we crammed as many gastronomic stops as possible. Our first: a late lunch at Caribou Café, a cozy French café on Walnut Street in the Midtown Village neighborhood. Though we arrived only minutes before the kitchen shut down for dinner preparation, the salade maison and eggplant and roasted pepper soup of the day served as a welcome introduction to Philadelphia cuisine. The food and atmosphere were as authentically French as you can get this side of the Atlantic.
Fortunately, we were only able to get a late dinner reservation at the trendy Barbuzzo, a recently-opened Mediterranean small plates place on 13th Street, which allowed us a fair amount of time to enjoy a glass of wine and a selection of delicious bruschetta (pistachio herbed ricotta with lavender honey, truffled mushroom with fontina cheese) at Tria, a wine bar with locations in Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square West. Every day from 5 to 7 pm, Tria has a happy hour with a selection of two wines, two beers, and a cheese plate for $5 a person. We arrived with just minutes to spare before 7 pm–and were lucky to find a place to sit.
Barbuzzo is owned by Chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, two women who have together revitalized the small stretch of 13th Street in Midtown Village into a chic destination. They also own two other restaurants on the street, Bindi (modern Indian cuisine) and Lolita (modern Mexican), as well as a number of boutiques and Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates.
The menu at Barbuzzo is quite expansive, from a various array of cheeses, to salads, pastas, pizzas and large plates. There’s a chalkboard at the front of the restaurant that highlights the produce and meat that have been locally sourced for the evening’s menu. Kate and I had a hard time deciding, but finally selected the delicious sheep’s milk ricotta with toasted bread, parsnip risotto, roasted heirloom squash and parsnip salad and Calabrian-style sautéed local greens. And we had to save room for dessert: the salted caramel budino may just be one of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted (and that’s not a statement made lightly).
I’m not quite sure how we woke up hungry the next day, but we did, and so we wandered over to Rittenhouse Square where we had breakfast off the lunch menu at Parc, yet another authentic French restaurant (even more so, Kate remarked, than the famed Pastis of NYC). Our meal was good, but the bread basket was amazing, the cranberry walnut bread, in particular. We left with an entire container of that delectable bread, courtesy of the very generous busboy who took notice of our love.
We had no need for lunch after our carbo-loaded start to the day, and we worked up our appetites for the next stop with an all day walking tour of Philadelphia, starting in Rittenhouse Square and ending in Washington Square. We wandered through the Old City, including Franklin Court, the site of Benjamin Franklin’s once residence, as well as Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continually residential alley in the country, where, yes, people actually still live. As we strolled through Society Hill and the oldest tavern in the city, Man Full of Trouble, I couldn’t help but be reminded of London. The architecture of the buildings, the row houses, was simply so British, so old and classic. The streets were absolutely less crowded than the streets of New York, and I found myself feeling more as though I was in England rather than America.
After a day of walking we rewarded ourselves with a petit cup of hot chocolate at Naked Chocolate on Walnut Street, where you can get your hot chocolate European or American style with a variety of twists. We both opted for the thick, soupy European drinking chocolate, Kate with salted caramel and sea salt, me with peppermint. It was the perfect chocolate kick, and reminiscent of chocolat chaud at Café Angelina in Paris.
Vintage Wine Bar is another wine lover’s destination in a city more known for its beer and cheese steaks than its vino. The bar offers over 60 wines by the glass, as well as a selection of small plates. The red brick wall behind the bar and chandelier of empty wine bottles made for a warm and inviting atmosphere on a chilly winter’s night, as we sipped on Rioja and Dolcetto before dining.
Our second night’s dinner was at Fork, on 3rd Street in the Old City. It was recently declared one of the city’s 50 best restaurants by Philadelphia Magazine–and the food without a doubt justified that accolade. Though the menu is small–and changes daily–there were so many delicious-sounding options that Kate and I each had to order different starters and mains so we could share and, thus, try as many dishes as possible (all the while her boyfriend, Peter, stared at us marveling in disbelief and ate his salmon, which he said was very good). We were impressed with the lemon ricotta fritters in the baby lettuces salad, as well as the wild striped bass with parsnip purée, Brussels sprouts leaves, Meyer lemon jam and truffle sauce, and the acorn squash risotto. We shared a trio of small desserts, my favorite of which was the mint chocolate bread pudding.
We topped off the evening at Continental, a martini bar that is part of Stephen Starr’s kingdom, the restaurateur who made his start in Philadelphia’s version culinary scene (he also owns Parc, as well as Buddakan and Morimoto, among others). I decided to live out my fantasy that I was in the UK by ordering a Pimm’s Cup–which was served to me in a Martini glass, shattering my dream of pretending I was in an English pub (Pimm’s would never come in a martini glass!).
On the morning I was to leave, I woke up stuffed. I hadn’t just eaten a lot; I had eaten well, just as Kate had promised. What’s more–I left with a list of dozens of other restaurants I must try the next time I’m in town.
Before heading out, we made one final stop at Reading Terminal Market, a giant indoor farmer’s market in Center City. It was the perfect last gastronomic experience to tie it all together, and to remind me that there’s more to Philly’s food scene than meets the eye. I’m convinced–and will definitely be back.