22 restaurants that scream “Philadelphia”

Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Philadelphia Greats.

Philadelphia’s vibrant dining scene is right up there with historical landmarks on the list of reasons visitors come to town. The Philly food world just as important as the city’s renowned museums and concert halls, and chefs are some of our biggest celebrities.

A Top Chef winner in East Passyunk serves French American fare in a jewel box-like space. A group-friendly Chinatown favorite dishes up some of the city’s best—and spiciest—Sichuan fare. In Cedar Park, a soul food joint doubles as a beloved community hangout.

The city’s matrix of outstanding restaurants is as diverse as the people who live here, ranging from chef-driven, fine-dining spots to laid-back sports bars and cafes. Read on for a guide to 22 restaurants essential to Philadelphia.

Parc (Rittenhouse)

A mushroom tart with truffle pecorino at Parc in Philadelphia
Stephen Starr’s Parc serves French dishes reminiscent of Parisian brasseries. | Credit: Parc

Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr—known for hits such as Buddakan and Le Coucou around the country—got his start in Philadelphia. His flair for designing the full dining experience is best showcased at Parc, a Parisian restaurant literally built from pieces of restaurants imported from France. The atmosphere, both inside and outside, is spectacular: Parc’s bustling sidewalk tables sit across the street from Rittenhouse Square Park, and the restaurant takes full advantage of its lush setting. There’s no better place to enjoy a flawlessly cooked French omelet or steak frites while getting in some people-watching. Be sure to grab a baguette on the way out; Parc’s onsite bakery is one of the best in the city.

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Booker’s Restaurant and Bar (Cedar Park)

Named for Booker Wright, a server at a whites-only restaurant in 1960s Mississippi, Booker’s is more than just a place for great soul food—it’s a true third place and hang-out spot that reflects its West Philly neighborhood. It’s an ideal place to relax with friends over a craft beer or signature cocktail, such as the restaurant’s riff on a Moscow mule that swaps vodka for house bourbon. The community vibes are just as enticing as the locally famous fried chicken and blackened catfish.

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Morimoto PA (Old City)

Philly doesn’t tolerate celebrity chef outposts unless they can back up their name with some serious game. Morimoto has impressed sushi connoisseurs from its early days when the Iron Chef himself sometimes appeared behind the Old City sushi bar. Thankfully, the kitchen is on point whether or not the headlining chef is in the house. That means Morimoto’s omakase—the chef’s choice menu, known to feature dishes such as whitefish carpaccio and black cod miso—is worth the splurge.

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Laurel (East Passyunk)

Charcoal-grilled wagyu with smoked cheddar twice-baked potatoes and broccoli at Laurel in Philadelphia
Top Chef winner Nick Elmi serves modern French American fare at Laurel. | Credit: Laurel

Philly has seen more than its fair share of Top Chef talent—winners and fan favorites from Bravo’s acclaimed reality series have made their restaurants home here over the years. But Season 11 winner Nick Elmi’s jewel box, Laurel, is extra special. Chef Elmi often makes rounds in the intimate but comfortable dining room. His modern French American menu set high expectations for Laurel soon after opening in 2013, and the restaurant continues to set the standard for fine dining on East Passyunk’s restaurant row and beyond. The six-course tasting menu (there are no a la carte options) changes seasonally and is always full of surprises—plates could include brown butter-roasted monkfish with fermented chanterelle mushrooms or braised lamb coppa.

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Chickie’s and Pete’s (South Philly)

Chickie’s and Pete’s is a classic pre-game and post-game stop for beers, cheesesteaks, and tomato pie in the shadow of South Philly’s sports stadiums. Its sprawling bar food menu offers something for everyone, but no visit here is complete without the restaurant’s famous crab fries. There’s no actual crab on these crinkle-cut fries. Instead, the irresistible cheese sauce on top is generously seasoned with Old Bay.

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Le Virtù (East Passyunk)

Co-owners Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee bring the traditional dishes of Abruzzo, Italy to a neighborhood renowned for its Italian American red-sauce restaurants. Platters of antipasto, handmade pasta, and rustic braised ragus have been menu hallmarks through several chef changes over the years. Warm colors and wooden tables make the dining room and bar comfortable places to linger over a meal. And the large, garden-clad patio is one of the prettiest places to enjoy an al fresco meal in Philly.

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JG SkyHigh (Logan Square)

JG SkyHigh, one of celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Philadelphia outposts, is among the city’s most dramatic restaurant spaces. Diners are whisked up from the street to the top of the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City in a glass elevator that offers panoramic city views. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide an unforgettable backdrop for celebratory cocktails or a special occasion meal. It’s a fitting atmosphere to splurge on Osetra caviar, or you could go for something more casual but equally good, such as spicy sausage, kale, and pecorino pizza.

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Charlie was a sinner. (Center City East)

A vegan spread at Charlie was a sinner. in Philadelphia featuring “ricotta” with grilled sourdough, black pepper, lemon, and olive oil
Plant-based chef and restaurateur Nicole Marquis is the force behind Charlie was a sinner.’s inventive vegan fare. | Credit: Nate Rogers

Charlie was a sinner. is the creation of plant-based chef and restaurateur Nicole Marquis. Her dark and cozy vegan cocktail lair serves up some of Philadelphia’s freshest drinks, thanks to ingredients such as hibiscus and mint, plus the city’s most inventive dishes. The zucchini “crab cake” sliders are a menu mainstay, along with a “ricotta” toast that could charm even the most ardent dairy lover. Enjoy it all against the backdrop of black-and-white movies, which flicker on the walls.

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Kalaya (Fishtown)

Chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon takes inspiration from her mother’s home cooking, rooted in southern Thailand, and turns it into one of the most dazzling menus in Philadelphia. Expect housemade curries that simmer for hours, soups fragrant with aromatics, and stir-fries layered with complex flavors such as toasted coconut and shrimp paste. It’s worth noting that the kitchen doesn’t adjust recipes (read: spice levels) upon request. The restaurant expanded to a larger space in late 2022, adding a menu of cocktails and beer slushies to temper the heat.

Zahav (Old City)

This Israel-inspired restaurant helmed by star chef Michael Solomonov has been showered with critical acclaim, including a James Beard Award since it opened its doors in 2008. The famous hummus—satiny smooth, airy, and rich—is somehow even better than you’ve heard, but that’s just the start of what you’ll experience at Zahav. The menu changes often, and it remains as inventive today as it was at the start. The salatim, an assortment of vibrant vegetable dishes, sets a high bar at the beginning of the meal, though the courses that follow, which include the popular pomegranate lamb shoulder, always exceed expectations.

White Dog Cafe (University City)

Rigatoni with lamb bolognese, crushed tomatoes, wilted spinach, and basil ricotta at White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia
White Dog was one of Philadelphia’s first restaurants to celebrate seasonal ingredients from the area’s farms. | Credit: White Dog Cafe

The White Dog Cafe has been an icon of the local food movement in Philadelphia since opening its original West Philly location in 1983 as one of the first restaurants to celebrate seasonal ingredients from the region’s farms. When founder and farm-to-table pioneer Judy Wicks sold the business in 2009, she preserved the restaurant’s commitment to sustainability. White Dog serves as an unofficial hub for the college campuses of University City and always attracts a diverse range of diners, from students to West Philly elders. Salads showcase the farm-fresh produce and local cheeses, and the mushroom soup, made with produce from nearby Kennett Square (the self-proclaimed mushroom capital of the world) is a must.

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Emei (Chinatown)

With a dining room full of large round tables topped with rotating trays, Emei resembles other Chinatown restaurants. But its bold, regional flavors make it stand out from its neighbors. The restaurant has served some of the Philadelphia area’s spiciest and best Sichuan food since 2011. Chef Yongcheng Zhao has focused on the food of this Chinese province for his 40-year career. Whether your tastes run in the direction of pork intestine or Chongqing spicy chicken, a stir-fried dish spiked with dried Sichuan chile peppers, you’ll find appealing options on the large menu. Emei is at its most fun when you can order lots of dishes to share, so it’s great for groups.

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Amada PHL (Old City)

When James Beard Award winner Jose Garces left Stephen Starr’s nest in 2005 to launch his own splashy restaurant in Old City, it was a seismic event in the Philadelphia food world. For years, Amada was the buzziest, most sought-after reservation in town. And though newer, shinier restaurants have since arrived, the joy of a Spanish tapas night at Amada hasn’t faded. Start with a spread of charcuterie and cheeses before moving on to small plates such as garlic shrimp and albondigas (meatballs) that have been on the menu from the beginning. The Garces restaurant group has grown quite a bit since 2005, but Amada still holds up as its flagship.

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The Olde Bar (Old City)

The Olde Bar melds flavors of the moment with longstanding tradition and is set in a space that once occupied a famous 19th-century fish house, Old Original Bookbinder’s. The Olde Bar’s drinks menu channels that past, focusing on classic cocktails such as penicillins, and reliably ranks on any list of best happy hours in town. The raw bar, especially oysters on the half shell, is a menu highlight. There’s also an entire section dedicated to lobster dishes. Bookbinder’s was said to have the largest indoor lobster tank in the world, so don’t miss the lobster pot pie.

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Pumpkin (Graduate Hospital)

Every neighborhood in Philadelphia has its long-treasured, mom-and-pop-run BYOB. Helmed by owners chef Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor, Pumpkin embodies the spirit of this quintessential Philly restaurant. The 26-seat dining room is small, but the addition of a covered and heated outdoor space has expanded options. Pumpkin serves a three-course menu based on local ingredients that changes daily. Expect fresh salads, housemade pastas, plenty of seafood, and homey desserts, such as goat cheesecake and chocolate torte with passion fruit.

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South Philly Barbacoa (South Philly)

Chef Cristina Martínez is almost as well known for her activism as she is for her peerless tacos. Martínez came to the United States from Capulhuac, Mexico, as an undocumented immigrant and uses her platform to advocate for workers’ rights. At South Philly Barbacoa, tortillas are made fresh from local corn grown and nixtamalized to her specifications. They are then folded around Martínez’s slow-cooked lamb barbacoa. Freshly made salads and traditional garnishes complete this simple but sensational meal. South Philly Barbacoa is set up in a storefront on Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market with a few tables. There are no reservations and lines can get long, especially on the weekends. Plan to go early for the thinnest crowd.

Bud & Marilyn’s (Center City East)

Vanilla cake with white buttercream frosting, strawberry, and milk crumble at Bud & Marilyn’s in Philadelphia
The homemade funfetti cake is one of the must-order items at Bud & Marilyn’s, an ode to Midwestern cuisine. | Credit: Bud & Marilyn’s

Chef Marcie Turney descends from restaurant people; her grandparents (the titular Bud and Marilyn) owned a restaurant in Ripon, Wisconsin, where Turney grew up. This restaurant celebrates her family, Midwestern hospitality, and classic American comfort foods. Vinyl booths, vintage-inspired tableware, and retro TVs all add to the throwback theme. Crispy cheese curds made from Wisconsin cheddar and the housemade funfetti cake are the must-order menu items for a classic American experience.

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Fork (Washington Square West)

For 25 years, Fork restaurant has set the standards in Philadelphia. Visionary restaurateur Ellen Yin has guided the restaurant through numerous incarnations, anticipating ever-shifting culinary moods and trends. One thing unites all of Fork’s eras: From the beginning, there’s been a focus on working with local farmers and doing sustainable business. The current menu offers a mix of creative and familiar plates. Look for Brussels sprouts topped with smoked grapes and sliced pistachios, as well as a leveled-up cheeseburger (topped with raclette and caramelized onions) with fries. It’s a chameleon of a place that’s somehow perfect for both celebrating a special occasion or grabbing a bite at the bar on a random weeknight.

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Tria Rittenhouse (Rittenhouse)

This laidback wine bar was built as a place to celebrate all things fermented—especially the trio of wine, beer, and cheese. Tria has been the place to discover the most compelling vintages and unusual cheeses in town since its inception. Cheese boards are created by Tenaya Darlington, aka “Madame Fromage,” a local cheese expert, author, and educator. There are also ample soups, snacks, salads, and sandwiches. The bustling scene and people-watching opportunities—the restaurant and sidewalk seats are perched on one of the neighborhood’s liveliest corners—are almost as big of a draw as the food and drink.

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El Vez (Center City East)

El Vez, another Stephen Starr stunner, has been a popular spot for happy hours that become nights out since opening in 2003. Large booths accommodate groups of friends and colleagues who gather over platters of nachos, bowls of guacamole, Mexican chopped salads, and taco plates. The real draw here, though, is the drinks menu, which includes a variety of margaritas, all balanced and strong. Don’t miss the large selection of agave spirits, including flights for those who’d like to sample a variety of options.

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Vetri Cucina (Center City East)

Chef Mark Vetri opened his eponymous restaurant in 1998 and it still claims the title as one of Philadelphia’s most indulgent dining experiences. Vetri is known for its exquisite housemade pastas and outstanding regional Italian cooking. The sweet onion crepe with truffle and parmesan fondue is iconic, but every meal here offers new surprises. Add attentive and intuitive service and Vetri has all the ingredients for an unparalleled Italian meal.

Giuseppe & Sons (Rittenhouse)

Owned by chef, restaurateur, and television personality Michael Schulson, Giuseppe & Sons is a quintessentially fun restaurant. Aperol spritzes and martinis flow freely in the dining room and lounge, where dates and groups pile into the booths. They’re here to share well-executed Italian American standbys such as rigatoni in vodka sauce, slabs of chicken parm, and tiramisu. The dining room stays open late, as does the bar, and the happy hour deals are among the best in the city.

Tried them all? Check out other options here.

Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé is a Philadelphia-based food and beverage writer and editor. Follow along with her hijinks @awomanwhoeats.

Joy Manning contributed to this guide.

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