"Native son Joshua David Stein on the city's renaissance as a food lover's paradise."
Growing up in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia—Abington, to be exact—my sense of inferiority was double distilled. First, I was among the tribe of what the poet D.C. Berman once called “suburban kids with Biblical names.” I lived in a land of lawns and zero edge. I yearned to be a city kid. Secondly, the center of my city, Center City, was Philadelphia. Laboring under the misapprehensions of youth, I thought of Philly as a knock-off New York. I was on the periphery of the periphery. As soon as I could, I split for Greenwich Village.
Philly has always been a city with great food but, for many years, there was not a great food scene. Reading Terminal Market, a vast sprawl of food vendors, has been open since 1892. There, the Pennsylvania Dutch, who arrived from Lancaster County bearing plump rotisserie chicken, jars of dilly beans and fresh apple cider, sold—and continue to sell—their wares next to fish stalls, butcher stands, used bookstores and dumpling shops.
The heavily Italian-American South Philly has always been the city’s food heart. In the summer, mom and I would go on wild hunts for the best Italian ice and cheesesteaks, bouncing between Pat’s and Geno’s. There was 9th Street, a smaller Italian-American version of Reading Terminal, open since the late 19th century, and countless Italian bakeries.
But of proper restaurants, I knew but few.
The last best meal I had in Philadelphia before I left was in 1999 when I took a girl named Donna in a limo to Le Bec-Fin, George Perrier’s now-closed, outrageously expensive and old-fashioned French restaurant on Walnut Street, for Junior Prom. We were two kids wildly overdressed—my face scrubbed red from Pernox—pretending to know what a sauce ravigote was.
Then I split for Greenwich Village and have lived (and eaten) in New York ever since. It’s funny how a city both grows on you and grows in your absence. Now I fantasize about moving back to Philadelphia all the time. Rents are cheaper, houses are bigger, and, well, it’s where I’m from. If the schools were better, I would. This yearning was heightened recently when I got a gig editing the third edition of the 1,000 page guide, Where Chefs Eat. My remit was basically to find, reach out and wrangle over 600 chefs across North and South America, asking each to recommend eight places he or she liked to go. I came away as a) much better at Excel spreadsheets b) with an even deeper conviction I’d somehow profoundly misunderstood Philadelphia.
The project cracked open a city’s food scene like a geode. When it came time to do the Philadelphia section, I was amazed at how vast and varied it was. From Michael Solomonov’s modern Israeli kitchen Dizengoff to Eli Kulp’s bread-forward High Street on Market to the various self-named restaurants like Serpico, by Pete Serpico, and Vernick, by Greg Vernick, the options seemed inexhaustible. On a recent weekend, I hopped on I-95 South to relive, to see what I missed, and eat what I’d been missing.
I am (maybe?) cooler and savvier than my teenage mid-1990’s self. But equally, certainly so is Philadelphia. As soon as I arrived, I checked into Wm Mulherin & Sons, an old whiskey warehouse in Fishtown that’s become one of Philly’s hottest restaurants since opening in 2014. Upstairs there are four rooms in which weary travelers can lay their head. The suites are like industrial lofts that your friend, who is 20% more stylish than you, lets you crash in. The floors are poured concrete and covered in antique rugs. Toiletries are Aesop, and there’s a Bonavita coffee maker with detailed instructions. In mine, Room #1, there’s a beautiful custom-made record player credenza complete with a respectable vinyl collection. I couldn’t wait to eat when I arrived, so I headed downstairs for dinner.
Wm Mulherin masquerades as a pizzeria, but the wood-fired kitchen burns just as brilliantly. I couldn’t resist a pizza named "Spicy Jawn"—which came loaded with pepperoni, hot coppa, caciocavallo, provolone and long hots—nor could I ignore the charred brussels sprouts, coated in a sheen of brown butter and accompanied by stracciatella; so rich they hardly seemed good for you.
Donna is married now, and Georges Perrier shuttered Le Bec Fin in 2013, but his spirit lives on in his protegé, Nicholas Elmi. Elmi, who was the chef de cuisine at Le Bec Fin, recently opened Royal Boucherie, an impressive two-floor restaurant in Old City. It looks like a tavern, with a pressed tin ceiling, church pew banquette, a bar as long as the Schuylkill River. But it’s anything but old-fashioned. What I love so much about Elmi in particular—and Philly in general—is the mix between high and low, between really giving a shit and not giving a shit. Royal Boucherie is a perfect example. Where else in the world can you savor champagne-braised wild snails in Chartreuse-hazelnut butter, terrines of insane and impeccable intensity and an old-school double-patty cheeseburger all while sipping an orange-hued cocktail—Vodka, Aperol, Vanilla-Orange Cordial, Allagash White—called "A Very Stable Genius"? Tremendous but not precious, swaggering but not stuck up, Royal Boucherie embodies what, in light of Superbowl LII, Philadelphians still call "Iggles Pride."
The weekend in March I was down in Philly was the weekend semi-finalists were announced for the James Beard Awards. Perhaps fittingly, 14 were from Philadelphia. There was a party being thrown at the Palizzi Social Club to toast the chefs and, though tired and full, I went. It was probably my only chance to get in the doors of this century-old social club, in a rowhouse deep in South Philly. The social club first opened in 1918, to cater to immigrants from a town in Abruzzo called Vasto. But in 2017, Joey Baldino, the nephew of an owner, took over and began turning out some of the country’s best Italian-American food. It’s like New York’s Carbone but for real. Everyone clamored to join, and today, they’ve stopped giving out membership cards—paltry pieces of paper of unbelievable social currency. In true Philly fashion, you gotta know a guy to get in.
From the kitchen comes a steady stream of flavorful swordfish spiedini, platters laden with spaghetti studded with blue crabs, and mounds of silky honeycombed tripe. Over the old wooden bar, Negronis are pushed, as crimson and lush as the red velvet wallpaper.
After the party ended, I stumbled back full and happy. I had a weekend, and perhaps a life, of eating to do in Philadelphia. It was best that I was well-rested. I slipped Bruce Springsteen’s album The River out of its sleeve and put it on the turntable, and fell asleep to the Boss singing, “The ties that bind / Now you can't break the ties that bind.”
Where Chefs Eat Vol. 3 includes over 7,000 recommendations from over 650 chefs from 70 countries. This edition includes a vastly expanded North America section with over 500 more restaurants in cities like Baltimore, Charlotte, Detroit, Pittsburgh and, of course, Philadelphia.