Dining out in Philly requires some serious decision-making. Among your choices: gourmet glamour at a celebrity chef-ed restaurant, culinary crowding at a BYOB, cocktail-infused noshing at a refined mahogany bar, Italian-American feasting at a mom-and-pop red gravy trattoria, cheesesteak-sinking into at street-side table -- and much, much more. Some dining rooms are made for special occasions: Vetri, the Fountain, Lacroix, even little Bibou. Other, more casual standouts -- Garces Trading Company, Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, Sarcone's, Tacconelli's -- are so good, diners travel from miles around to nosh there.
What You'll Really Pay -- We categorize very expensive restaurants as those charging $55 or more per person for dinner without wine; expensive as $40 to $55 per person; moderate as $20 to $40; and inexpensive as under $20. Meal tax is 8%, and standard tipping is 18% to 20% (tips are rarely included on the tab).
The service of wine and liquor in Philadelphia (and Pennsylvania) is fraught with politics. Some restaurants are BYOB due to high fees to get a license, and restaurants with licenses may charge as much as 300% what they paid for a bottle of wine. The state's Liquor Control Board allows restaurants with licenses to permit customers to bring their own bottles -- but many restaurants prohibit or discourage this practice.
Philly is rife -- in a good way -- with places to eat. Here are a few unofficial rules of thumb for patronizing area restaurants.
BYOBs: Bring-your-own-bottle restaurants are myriad in and beyond Center City. (They're a result of post-Prohibition liquor laws.) To be clear: BYOBs serve no alcohol. Instead, you bring it, they pour. Few have corkage fees. To find a state-run wine or liquor store near you, visit www.lcb.state.pa.us.
Dress: For better or worse, Philly's a casual town. Jeans are okay at most places. Sneakers or walking shoes, too, although you might want to swap them out for a slightly fancier pair of kicks. Some restaurants (Vetri, Lacroix, the Fountain) are definitely fancier dress.
Hours: Dinner hours typically kick off around 5pm. BYOBs typically close earlier (usually with a last seating around 9pm) than bistros (last seating, maybe 10, 10:30pm). Restau-bars and gastropubs stay open latest, often serving until and after midnight. Lunch hours are pretty much a little before noon to 3pm. Brunch often ends at 2pm.
Meals: Some restaurants open for both lunch and dinner close in-between. Some keep their bar open in the late afternoon, and offer a limited menu.
Menus: Even restaurants without websites have their menus online at www.menupages.com.
Payment: BYOBs and coffee shops are usually cash only. (Not all. But most.)
Reservations: Most restaurants accept reservations. (Some that might not: gastropubs, BYOBs.) Many book reservations online via www.opentable.com. Also, hotel concierges or even the Independence Visitor Center (6th and Market sts.; tel. 215/965-7676) will gladly find you a table to suit your needs.
Reviews: For up-to-date restaurant news and reviews, visit www.philly.com or www.phillymag.com.
Tips: Say what you will about our manners at football games. Philadelphians are excellent tippers. Your server is accustomed to receiving 18% to 20% gratuity, pre-tax.
Breakfast All Day
The top spots for casual but creative, first-come, first-served breakfast? Sam's Morning Glory at 10th and Fitzwater (tel. 215/413-3999; www.themorningglorydiner.com), near the Italian Market, serves coffee in cool metal cups, yummily topped frittatas, focaccia egg sandwiches, deservedly famous pancakes, and roasted potatoes with homemade ketchup. Up in Northern Liberties at the corner of 4th and Brown, Honey's Sit 'N' Eat (tel. 215/925-1150; www.honeys-restaurant.com) is another comfortably cozy spot for potato pancakes, huevos rancheros, free-range omelets, homemade veggie burgers, and limeade. In both Bella Vista (9th and Christian sts.; tel. 215/574-1599) and Fairmount (18th and Callowhill sts.; tel. 215/636-9061), eaters gladly wait hours for the cream-and-fruit-stuffed French toast, Greek salad, and mega portions at both locations of Sabrina's (www.sabrinascafe.com). Then again, if it's even the quirkiest fare and atmosphere you're after, you absolutely must squeeze into South Philly's Carman's Country Kitchen (11th and Wharton sts.; tel. 215/339-9613), a wee corner luncheonette that charms with a capricious little menu that could include conch fritters, cheddar pancakes, lima bean omelets, and more oddly delicious combinations dreamed up by Carman, the oddly delicious chef-proprietress.
Business Lunch Options
For a Sit-Down Meal --
Fork -- Take a client here, and you'll score points. Other polished Old City restaurants serve lunch. This one does it quietly and seamlessly.
Le Castagne -- The Sena family brings classy Italian west of Broad with this spare bistro. Order the gnocchi. 1920 Chestnut St. tel. 215/751-9913. www.lecastagne.com. Subway: City Hall.
Butcher & Singer -- This former brokerage house is the perfect place to schmooze without getting interrupted, while tucking into all-American steaks and sides -- and some excellent salads and sandwiches, too.
For a Casual Meal --
Continental -- Sure, it's a martini bar. But this Old City hot spot is decidedly cooler (and calmer) in the daytime, and its salads, sammies, and availability of booths make it much more comfortable. Plus, a martini at lunch can be fun.
Devil's Alley -- This laid-back spot gets crowds at noon for its comfort food. Pizzas, burgers, and, if it's been that kind of day, a beer are best bets. 1907 Chestnut St. tel. 215/751-0707. www.devilsalleybarandgrill.com. Subway: City Hall.
Giwa -- This always-packed quick Korean eatery is so comfortingly formulaic, it feels like there should be more of them. (Hopefully there will be, soon.) For now, go to 1608 Sansom St., and order the spicy and hot dol sot bi bim bap. tel. 215/557-9830.
Good Dog -- The blue cheese-stuffed burgers are famous at this always-packed, three-floor gastropub. The calamari salads and grilled cheeses are good, too. 224 S. 15th St. (btw. Walnut and Locust sts.). tel. 215/985-9600. www.gooddogbar.com. Subway: Walnut-Locust.
Eat In or Take Out --
Di Bruno Bros. -- This outpost of a South Philly cheese shop has an upstairs counter for ordering quick and delicious lasagna Bolognese, balsamic chicken, and eggplant Parmesan, plus soups, salads, and panini. 1730 Chestnut St. tel. 215/665-9220. www.dibruno.com. Subway: City Hall.
El Fuego -- With two locations, one on the edge of Washington Square and another a few blocks from Rittenhouse, this stylish little build-your-own burrito (or taco, or quesadilla) joint does Mexi-Cali right, with fresh basics and fast counter service. 723 Walnut St. (tel. 215/592-1901) and 2104 Chestnut St. (tel. 215/751-1435). www.elfuegoburritos.com. Subway: 8th St. or City Hall.
Picnic -- Just across the Walnut Street Bridge, this cheerful spot sends you home with awesome salads, savory dips, yummy sandwiches, and chocolate pots de crème. They'll also assemble a complete picnic to-go -- in a vintage picnic basket. 3131 Walnut St. tel. 215/222-1608. www.picniceats.com. Subway: 30th St.
Bring Your Own . . .
Philadelphia boasts more bring-your-own-bottle restaurants per capita than any other American city, mainly because the region's post-Prohibition laws limit the city's number of liquor licenses. BYOBs, or BYOs as most locals call them, generally fit into the bistro category. They're often small and most serve only dinner. Many are cash only. Some accept reservations; some are first-come, first-served. Below are some of my favorites, but others include Lee How Fook, Marigold Kitchen, Bindi, Fond, Bibou, Koo Zee Doo and Modo Mio.
Audrey Claire -- This stylish spot serves flatbreads topped with pears, Gorgonzola, and walnuts; grilled Romaine salads; and roast chicken with pomegranate molasses. In summer, the sidewalk tables are idyllic. 20th and Spruce streets. tel. 215/731-1222. www.audreyclaire.com. Subway: Walnut-Locust.
Bistro 7 -- This is a breath of fresh air among the crowded bars of Old City. Chef and co-owner Michael O'Hallaran works wonders with gnocchi, Spanish seafood stews, and, for dessert, Asian puddings. The atmosphere is friendly and neighborhoody. Reservations are accepted, as are credit cards. 7 N. 3rd St. tel. 215/931-1560. www.bistro7restaurant.com. Subway: 2nd St.
Chloe -- Try for a last-minute table at this lovely little Old City spot. The chef-owners love to give comfort food an elegant twist. Cash only. No reservations. 232 Arch St. tel. 215/629-2337. www.chloebyob.com. Subway: 2nd St.
Cochon -- French for "pig," this tiny space offers hearty, mostly pork-based (but also some seafood) dinners that will leave you anything but hungry. Perhaps oinking. Cash only. 801 E. Passyunk Ave. (at Catharine St.). tel. 215/923-7675. www.cochonbyob.com. Bus: 47 or 57.
Dmitri's -- This Queen Village spot is the mackdaddy of this genre. Greek, seafood oriented, and tiny, it has amazing hummus, grilled octopus, fresh bluefish, and rice pudding. Reservations and credit cards are not accepted. Expect long waits during the dinner rush. Hostesses often find waiting patrons hanging out at the bar across the street. 3rd and Catharine streets. tel. 215/625-0556. www.dmitrisrestaurant.com. Bus: 57.
Jamaican Jerk Hut -- The most casual of this bunch, the Jamaican Jerk Hut serves authentic island fare right off Broad Street. I love the salt cod and accras. Large-party reservations are accepted, but not credit cards. Try to go in the summer, when you can sit at a table on the large back porch. 1436 South St. tel. 215/545-8644. http://jamaicanjerkhutinc.com. Subway: Lombard-South.
Lolita -- One of my favorite restaurants in the city, BYOB or otherwise, Lolita serves contemporary Mexican that adds flavorful touches like huitlacoche (a fungus) to its inspired dishes. Reservations are accepted Sunday through Thursday, but credit cards aren't ever accepted. Bring a bottle of tequila, and they'll mix up a pitcher of margaritas for the table using seasonal fruit juice. 13th Street, between Sansom and Chestnut streets. tel. 215/546-7100. www.lolitabyob.com. Subway: 13th St.
Matyson -- The owners here use only the freshest ingredients, and open for lunch. Steak frites, trout over risotto, and desserts are house specialties. Reservations and credit cards are accepted. The business district location is convenient. 19th Street, between Market and Chestnut streets. tel. 215/564-2925. www.matyson.com. Subway: City Hall.
Mercato -- Just a block from Broad Street, boisterous Mercato doesn't accept credit or reservations. Specialties include scallops over spring pea risotto, pumpkin-stuffed ravioli, and short ribs. Another bonus is the olive-oil tasting menu. 1216 Spruce St. tel. 215/985-2962. www.mercatobyob.com. Subway: 13th St.
Pumpkin -- At this tiny, casually pretty spot with an open kitchen, you can watch chef Ian Moroney plate up a Mediterranean fish stew rich in saffron, or the whole fish of the day. Cash only. Reservations recommended. 1713 South St. tel. 215/545-4448. www.pumpkinphilly.com. Subway: South-Lombard.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.