6 restaurants pushing the envelope in Philadelphia

Interiors at Volvér in Center City, where chef/owner Jose Garces introduced a Chefs in Residency program spotlighting talent from underrepresented communities. | Credit: Volvér

Innovation runs deep in Philadelphia’s rich history. After all, one of the most famous Philadelphians is inventor extraordinaire Benjamin Franklin, whose innovative spirit lives on in the city’s electric dining scene.

A beloved Sichuan spot in Chinatown augments its staff with a service robot. A James Beard Award winner in Center City launched a unique chefs-in-residency program, featuring talent from underrepresented communities. A swanky Rittenhouse Square steakhouse donates a hundred pounds of oyster shells a week to restore the Delaware River shoreline.

Meet Philadelphia’s risk-takers, trailblazers, and changemakers. Read on for a list of six of the most cutting-edge restaurants to book now in the City of Brotherly Love. 

Fork – Philadelphia (Old City)

The entrance to Fork – Philadelphia. | Credit: Fork – Philadelphia

Fork debuted in 1997 and is steered by outstanding restaurateur Ellen Yin, who ensures her sophisticated New American spot evolves with the times. As the flagship venture of High Street Hospitality Group (owned by Yin and acclaimed chef Eli Kulp), Fork was a standard-setter in Philadelphia’s farm-to-table movement. These days, Yin and company, led by chef de cuisine George Madosky, are especially passionate about reducing food waste. Madosky, who regularly breaks down full and half lambs for his dishes, is known for making sausages and stocks with the off-cuts. The restaurant uses a biodigester, a system that transforms organic solid waste into water rather than composting, eliminating the need to rely on an outside company to pick up food scraps. Among other pioneering efforts, Fork also works with Too Good To Go to get surplus food to people who will use it.

Square 1682 (Center City)  

In Rittenhouse Square’s Architects Building, an Art Deco office tower, Square 1682 is Philadelphia’s first LEED-certified restaurant and bar. The menu prioritizes bold, New American plates, such as Lancaster duck confit on buttermilk toast and braised beef cheeks in habanero-carrot purée, made with locally sourced, sustainable ingredients. Even the cocktails lean seasonal, such as the London Beet, a blend of gin, spice syrup, beet juice, and cranberry bitters. Square 1682 stands out for having passed a series of stringent U.S. Green Building Council guidelines. Its kitchen uses energy- and water-efficient appliances, an in-house garden supplies the restaurant’s herbs, and the menu includes multiple gluten-free and vegetarian options, all contributing to its unique, eco-friendly existence. 

EMei Restaurant (Chinatown)

EMei Restaurant recently introduced Bella, a service robot, as part of its staff. | Credit: EMei Restaurant

Steered by chef Yongcheng Zhao, EMei has served some of the Philadelphia area’s best Sichuan food since 2011. The lively, group-friendly spot, filled with large round tables and rotating trays, is ideal for gathering over plates of Chongqing spicy chicken and pork intestine. But it’s a unique approach to the restaurant industry labor shortage that distinguishes EMei from the crowd. In September 2022, the restaurant welcomed Bella, a service robot manufactured by the China-based company Pudu. Equipped with four heat induction trays and 3D sensors, Bella saves servers trips to the kitchen and can shuttle takeout orders from the kitchen to EMei’s reception desk without human intervention. Bella can display dozens of facial expressions, making it a selfie magnet with its own TikTok account.  

Volvér (Center City) 

Shrimp toast at Volvér, which scores cutting-edge status for its unique Chefs in Residency program. | Credit: Volvér

This Kimmel Center icon dazzles with dramatic interiors decked with a marble-topped bar, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a striking curved glass bottle mural by local artist Conrad Booker. Locally sourced meats, seafood, and produce from chef/owner Jose Garces’s Bucks County farm feature prominently in the restaurant’s French-inspired dishes. The community connection doesn’t end there: Garces, a James Beard Award winner, introduced a chefs-in-residency program in 2021, spotlighting local talent from underrepresented communities for six-to-eight-week rotations. The path-breaking program returned for a second season in 2022, featuring soul food master Reuben “Big Rube” Harley of Pitchers Pub in Manayunk and Chance Anies, the owner of Tabachoy, a local Filipino food truck.

Barclay Prime (Rittenhouse Square)

Some of Philadelphia’s best steaks await at this retro-chic spot, part of Stephen Starr’s vast hospitality empire. The service sets a sophisticated, if fun and over-the-top, tone, having diners select which steak knife they prefer for their entree. Barclay Prime extends its signature thoughtfulness beyond the walls of the chandelier-filled dining room. In 2022, the restaurant started donating 100 pounds of shells a week to the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary’s oyster shell recycling program. Oysters have ecological superpowers: They can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Yet young oysters need to attach to old shells to grow. The donated shells help rebuild oyster reefs and restore the Delaware River watershed. 

Golden Dragon (Cobbs Creek)

A trio on a quest to bring passed-down family recipes to West Philadelphia launched this inventive Cobbs Creek spot in late 2021. The owners, all food justice activists, revived a Chinese takeout joint that shuttered during the pandemic. Golden Dragon’s takeout-only menu is a short and tidy list that reflects their cultural backgrounds, featuring dishes such as kimchi, egg, and cheese sandwiches; fried sweet plantains; and Thai fish cakes. Beyond the eclectic menu, Golden Dragon embraces multiple identities as a marketplace, a community hub, and a gathering place. It hosts local projects that serve free meals and provides free produce to neighbors. It also collaborates with an Emmaus-based farm to grow vegetables such as long beans and Scotch bonnet peppers for its dishes. The result is an inimitable, community-minded spot providing healthy, affordable meals to its neighbors. 

Aarti Virani is the blog editor at OpenTable. She is based in the cultural melting pot that is Jersey City, New Jersey. She has covered the South Asian diaspora for publications including Vogue India, The Wall Street Journal, and The Juggernaut, and is most energized when telling stories about communities and culinary traditions that don’t always get the spotlight. 

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