Want to be pegged as a tourist? Ask anyone in Philly "Which has better steaks, Pat's or Geno's?" The answer to that question inevitably begins, "Neither..." followed by the name of some other joint, whichever place the answerer fervently believes makes the best cheesesteak. So why is Pat's even listed here? For one thing, it is a true foodie pilgrimage site. This no-nonsense, 24-hour roadside eatery with its outdoor picnic tables was established by Pat Olivieri, the man who invented Philly’s most famous sandwich one day in 1930 when he decided to grill up some thinly sliced beef with onions at his hot-dog stand—it was years before the cheese was added. (This point will be debated by many, but Pat's has the strongest claim of any to having birthed the cheesesteak.)
Besides, the steaks at Pat's aren't bad. They're just not the greatest in town. That, too, is a point hotly contested, endlessly debated, and fundamentally unanswerable. Jim's, up on South Street, is at least a safe bet. (My money is on any of a number of steak shops way out in the suburbs.)
The menu at Pat's is pretty basic, but there are really only a few key choices. Order steaks at the first window, fries and soda at the second—and be ready with your order and your cash. Philly steak shops are by tradition quick, efficient, even brusque places, the staff trained to become crankily exasperated within two nano-seconds of any sign of dithering.
To be authentic, order your steak “wit” (that means "with onions") and Whiz (yes, as in Cheez Whiz). Other acceptable cheeses are Provolone and American. "Plain" means no cheese. Other acceptable toppings are peppers and pizza sauce. Anything else, it's just not a cheesesteak. (And it's never a "Philly cheesesteak." Where do you think you are? Kathmandu?)
In closing, you may be wondering "Yo, where's the listing for Geno's?", Pat’s bigger, brighter, across-the-street rival (1219 S. 9th St., tel. 215/389-0659). Most visitors hit both steak spots in one night—a kind of ultimate Philly taste-test. That's fine. Have at it. I simply have a hard time getting past Geno's controversial "This is America. When ordering speak English" policy—and the evident pride it continues to take in this questionable legacy of its late founder.