Once upon a time, I lived in the land of cheesesteaks — Philadelphia, PA. And I used to eat out a lot and write about it.
But before we proceed with the Top 15, a little warning: this list is shamefully biased toward the Rittenhouse Square area of the city (where I used to live), as well as restaurants that I’ve visited multiple times. It is neither fair nor objective.
1. Marigold Kitchen (BYOB)
Simply one of the best meals I’ve had in Philadelphia. I went with a party of three others and got to taste everybody’s apps and entrees. Not a clunker in the bunch, although the desserts were a bit underwhelming.
You can read more about this excellent tapas joint elsewhere on the site, but suffice to say, you can’t go wrong. Bold flavors, inventive dishes and a great wine list make this Jose Garces restaurant a place to beat.
3. Melograno (BYOB)
Until recently, I never had anything less than stellar meals at Melograno, the best of both the oodles of BYOBs and plethora of Italian restaurants I’ve been to in Philly. The space is small and it can be hell trying to get a seat (especially on a weekend), but you’re in for a treat when the food finally arrives. I had to drop it a few notches after an only average dinner my last time there, but I’m pretty sure that was a fluke.
4. Matyson (BYOB)
It is virtually unnoticeable on the ugly block where it resides, but if you find it, you’re in luck. The nouveau-American cuisine is beyond tasty and, like Melograno, you can’t go wrong with the specials. It may be a little more expensive than it should be, but you can’t complain about the return on investment.
5. Alma de Cuba
I’ve only been to this Cuban restaurant once. And even though it has some of that Stephen Starr gaudiness on display, the meal was simply fantastic. Presentation is surely a strong suit, with the food arranged in all manner of interesting, geometric shapes. If you can get past the clubby atmosphere, your stomach will thank you.
6. Rae (closed)
A small but unique menu, cosmopolitan ambiance and a superlative wine list makes Gayle’s younger (but bigger) sibling the new place to dine in style.
7. Lolita (BYOT)
Why BYOT? Because this fun nouveau-Mexican joint encourages you to bring your own tequila and combine it with one of their refreshing margarita mixes. The food is just as awe-inspiring, with elegant takes on south of the border cuisine. I’ve had many a great meal here.
8. Le-Bec Fin
The king of Philadelphia fine dining, this icon lives up to its reputation for fancy French food. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to its reputation for hand-and-foot service (despite a great effort from the sommelier), and my seared scallop appetizer was a big, fat miss. Still, the rack of lamb was phenomenal and you can’t argue with the sublime dessert cart.
9. Django (BYOB)
Yes, its website needs some work (badly!), but this quasi-French bistro is the real deal for Philly foodies. Using only fresh, seasonal ingredients, the guitarist-named restaurant is definitely a step above the rest, despite the absence of its pioneering founders (who left town a few years back). I’ve only gone once, but it’s on the top of my “must return” list.
10. Caffe Casta Diva (BYOB)
Often overlooked as just another Italian BYOB in a city teeming with them, Caffe Casta Diva has delivered dish after dish of succulent surprises. Granted, it doesn’t look like much inside (or out), but I’m continually impressed by the food that’s put in front of me. Skip the appetizers, and just bask in one of their delicious main courses.
11. Caribou Cafe
A perfectly executed casual French bistro, Caribou excels in all courses. You can’t go wrong with the $30 prix-fixe, although you may find some more interesting items on the regular menu. Anything chocolately and/or creamy for dessert is a must.
Not a BYOB, but might as well be, judging from the tiny space. There’s nothing fancy in the decor here; in fact, they could do a bit more work in that department (the fluorescent wipe-board menu has got to go). But this restaurant really delivers where it counts. The menu is diverse (if not wholly unique) and I’ve had a few fantastic desserts here. A great neighborhood place.
This tiny bar specializes in the so-called “fermentation three”: beer, cheese and wine. They excel in all three of them and the staff are experts in pairings. While the wine and beer are kept in liquid form, the cheeses are incorporated into all manner of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and even desserts. Unfortunately, the past few visits have been a mixed bag in terms of preparation and taste, which I hope is not a trend.
I’m beginning to hate the term “gastropub” but it’s the best word to describe these two Northern Liberties eateries. The emphasis is most definitely on imbibing, but the elegant American dishes elevate the cuisine beyond run-of-the-mill bar food. Forget the fries, and get yourself a piece of perfectly cooked piece of seafood. I promise, it’ll still go with the beer.
15. Fuji Mountain
I’ve written before about this three-floor Japanese place before, but it deserves the kudos. The sushi is consistently tasty and the rest of their menu ain’t too shabby either. Try a few dumplings and maybe some soup before you wolf down the chef’s selection of tuna, salmon and all the uncooked regulars.
Other Philly Superlatives
Best Burger – Rouge
This place is a little too trendy for me, but their burger is amazing. Gruyere cheese, an amazing bun and a side of London-style chips (fries) makes the glaring eyes worth it.
Best Breakfast/Brunch – Marathon on the Square
You can’t go wrong with this place; that’s why there are lines around the corner every Sunday. Come for the eggs, stay for the Bloody Mary’s.
Most Inconsistent – Audrie Claire (BYOB)
You’re either going to get an amazing meal… or something else. I’ve had a terrible tuna steak here, but some spectacular pork chops. It’s like the restaurant with two brains.
Best Cheesesteak – Jim’s Steaks
I’m probably one of the most unqualified guys to make this call, but I like Jim’s the most. Gino’s and Pat’s are pretty good, and Tony Luke’s certainly has the best cheese (sharp provolone), but Jim’s really brings it together the best.
Best Pizza – Tacconelli’s
Read all about it here.