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Why Foodies Must Visit Philadelphia

Legendary cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, water ice, and sandwiches—this is how you can eat your way through this magnificent city!

Pallavi Pasricha

“I’ll have the Shaved Ham Benedict and one cheese platter for the table please!” That’s my first breakfast order in the city where I’ve barely been for a few hours. A massive platter of cheese and huge English muffins sit before me and although they look out of the world all I can wonder is, “How the hell will I finish this.” Little do I know that this is just the beginning of my love affair with food in this city.

I am excited to spend the next few days exploring different facets of ‘Philly’ or the ‘City of Brotherly Love’. This is the sixth largest city in the US and has a rich history—it’s here where the Declaration of Independence was signed. It’s a delight to walk down the streets for you’re likely to pass a stunning mural somewhere since its home to more than 4000 murals. It’s location is ideal for visitors and it’s not too far away from cities like Washington DC and New York City.

For a foodie like me, I loved the fact that I am never too far away from good food. Philadelphia has a thriving culinary scene, with each area in the city offering something unique. From local classics made with heirloom recipes such as the legendary cheesesteak, Amish pies, soft pretzels, and water ice to pizzas and other favourites—the offerings are truly diverse. This is where the country’s oldest ice cream brand has its roots, testifying to Philly’s decades-long love affair with food. When you are in the city of Brotherly Love next time, do keep these experiences in mind.

Reading terminal market

A warning: you could easily get lost in one of the country’s largest and oldest public markets and end up overeating. Opened in 1893, it has more than 80 food vendors offering a range of temptations—from cheesesteaks, ice cream, pretzels, sandwiches, meats, and cheeses to confectionery. Go when you’re starving because that’s the only way to do justice to this place. I landed up at breakfast and made my way to Miller’s Twist for their soft hand-rolled pretzels—it outdid any I had in New York. The Amish style is brushed with butter and really delicious. I went for the regular one with a dipping sauce but wished I could return to sample other options such as cinnamon and garlic. Then there are breakfast rolls that come with bacon, egg, cheese, and sausage etc. 

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Ice cream for breakfast? Oh yes, especially when it is the oldest ice cream brand in the country. Bassetts Ice Cream opened doors in 1861 and since then has been serving some really interesting flavours to Philly. I went for the Salted Caramel Pretzel ice cream that had chocolate covered pretzels with a hint of salt from the caramel.

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Wandering around the buzzing marketplace, I wanted to try so many more things—if only my stomach was an endless pit. Those who enjoy sandwiches, which Philly is famous for, DiNic’s popular roast pork sandwich is a no-brainer. The combination of juicy roast pork, broccoli rabe, provolone cheese and the bread works magic—it has been voted as the ‘Best Sandwich in America’ by the Travel Channel.

Do not forget to feed a few coins to Philbert, the lovely bronze pig who’s been the mascot for the past 20 years. Placed around the seating area, he acts as a piggy bank as well.

Geno's Steaks

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Philly, the birthplace of the iconic cheesesteak sandwich—that legendary combination of juicy grilled beef, melted cheese, and bread—dishes out the best ones I have tasted. Have them at Geno’s, which has been around since 1966, is open 24x7, and still has a constant queue! I was lucky enough to sit at the ‘hardest table to get in the city’—inside Geno’s kitchen and meet the legend himself—Geno Vento. Over a very hearty lunch, that I will remember for a long time, Geno related how his father started this business, how he is named after the restaurant (yes, that’s true), and how many celebrities have visited it. The wall behind me was proof as there were framed photos of so many of them.

The classic cheesesteak comes with the option of three kinds of cheese—American, Whiz, and Provolone—I chose mine with Whiz and fried onions as well. The recipe hasn’t changed since they started and it's super delicious.This is also the only place in the country where you can find both Coca Cola and Pepsi. I had Cherry Pepsi, since its not available in my country yet, and although it was on the sweeter side I enjoyed it. 

Chinatown

There is no doubt that many cites in the US have a Chinatown where people go to get their fill of Chinese staples. I went to Sang Kee Peking Duck House that’s been around for more than 40 years and was the first restaurant to introduce the Peking Duck to Philadelphia and since then the dish has become a city favourite. We of course ordered that and wolfed it down with baos. Seafood lovers, do not ignore the Seafood Bird’s Nest, and wash your meal down with some beer from China – Lucky Buddha.  

Fishtown

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This hip and lively neighbourhood is a huge draw for its music, cocktail bars, beer cafes, and restaurants—many of which allow people to bring their own bottle (BYOB). There are some classics such as Philly Style Bagels, pizzerias, and cheesesteaks that must be eaten at least once. I went to Elwood, which is not just a regular BYOB but focuses on Pennsylvania’s country cuisine. Chef Adam Diltz works closely with farmers to bring the freshest produce and the dishes on the menu are made with recipes that the chef grew up eating. The menu is small and limited, and so is the portion size of the appetisers—let’s just say they are good for one and not the American servings one usually gets. I had the catfish with waffles and potato rolls—both were superb. For a starter, we had venison scrapple served beautifully on a deer antler. The chicken we ordered was cooked in hay and was big enough for a family and comes with a number of condiments. If you land up in the evening, they even do a tea service.

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There is something really comforting about Middle Eastern food. I can’t get enough of it and if you’re like me as well then make your way to Suraya. This award-winning restaurant serves food from the Levant region—think Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The lunch and dinner menu differ. We were there for dinner and had the hummus that comes with warm pita bread, taboule salad, kibbeh, labneh, and some yummy melt in the mouth kebabs like Halabi Kebab—lamb brushed with muhammara and seasoned with spices. Don’t miss Abu Sayf, which is yogurt marinated halibut kebab. It is all really delicious and the cocktails are brilliant as well. If you get a chance make a reservation outdoors—it’s a lovely garden setting with a firepit.

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Frieda

Frieda is more than just your regular cafe and restaurant, it’s a place to meet like-minded people and bond over different activities—be it movie nights or workshops related to art and culture. Started by ThomasSteinborn and David Wong who are from Europe, the vibrant café is named after Steinborn’s grandmother. The artistically done up space has decorative butterflies on the ceiling and artwork on the walls that is for sale. They discourage the use of laptops and want you to engage with each other—we chatted with Thomas who told us how this entire concept came into being. The menu is seasonal and a mix of European fare like salads, quiches, pies and toasts. The avocado toast I had was exceptionally good.

Spread bagelry

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There is nothing like a good bagel for breakfast, and the ones at this cafe are different from the ones you must have eaten at New York. These are America’s first Montreal style bagels that are boiled in honey water and then baked in a wood-fired oven. Hence they are a bit on the sweeter side. Out of their seven choices for breakfast sandwiches, I went for the Nova scramble—eggs with a smoked salmon spread, tomato, and onion and it was quite nice. There are other varieties if you come at another time. The bagels range from plain, everything, sesame, whole wheat to even sweeter options like blueberry lemon and chocolate chip. 

The Assembly Rooftop

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There’s nothing like literally drinking in the city view while sipping a cocktail from the rooftop. Perched on the ninth floor of The Logan Hotel, The Assembly overlooks the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and is counted as one of the best rooftop bars in the city. For good reason—their cocktails are excellent and the firepit pods makeit weather-friendly all-year long, even in winter. Our suggestion is to go for sundowners and make it a night long affair. In summer make sure to have their frozen cocktails. The Rose Gold Margarita (not a frozen cocktail) gets a huge thumbs up.    

Urban Farmer

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Locally sourced produce and the freshest butcher cuts—this modern steakhouse at The Logan Hotel is not your usual restaurant. Be there for any meal and what one orders is top notch. I was there for breakfast and ordered the Shaved Ham Benedict—where two massive muffins came loaded with a poached egg and ham. The crab omelette was just as delicious. If you are there for lunch or dinner, don’t not miss ordering the steak. They even have a children’s menu.

Photo: Shutterstock
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