We’re assuming you’ve probably listened to your fair share of “greatest hits” albums, but unlike Green Day’s International Superhits!, this is one you actually need in your life. To be clear - this isn’t meant to be a full list of every place with a historic landmark sign or a Now That’s What I Call A Restaurant 2021. The Greatest Hits list is a short and carefully chosen set of spots in Philadelphia that you should hit up first if you’re new in town (or if you’ve lived here for years and just been seriously misguided) - restaurants that are essential to the Philly experience, from old-school cheesesteak counters to seven-course tasting menus.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce someone to Bruce Springsteen by playing them his rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” you wouldn’t send someone who didn’t know Philadelphia to a new basement BYOB in Kensington without making sure they went to these restaurants first. Or at least, you shouldn’t.
If you’re looking for what’s new, head over to our Hit List - a guide to recently-opened spots that are worth your time.
Added on 9/7/21: Osteria, Stina Pizzeria, Hardena, Irwin’s, The Good King Tavern, Umai Umai, Nam Phuong, Hiroki, Dalessandro’s
Kind of like your coworker whose hair looks perfect every day, Zahav is the restaurant that every other place in town is a little jealous of. And for good reason - their food is delicious and it’s the only spot in Philly where people will willingly wait two months for a reservation. The Israeli menu is focused on small plates, and you should go with as many people as possible to split the maximum number of dishes. It’s also relatively affordable with the $72 five-course tasting menu being the best way to go. If you’re planning on eating here, either make a reservation way ahead of time or be prepared to try for a bar seat right when they open at 5:00 PM.
Even if the lines at the Liberty Bell were too long or a trip to the ballpark wasn’t kind to them, you can salvage any visitor’s time in Philly with a trip to Osteria. Like the perfect baton handoff on a relay team, the inside of this Broad Street Italian spot, which features a beautiful greenhouse, is perfectly in sync with a menu full of things like their pannocchia pizza that’s topped with melting buffalo mozzarella or our favorite, a truffle rock shrimp sweet corzetti pasta. After a few bites into the softs discs, lightly sauced with piennolo tomatoes and basil, you’ll at least be able to say you provided your out-of-towners with exceptional pasta. And since the menu is always changing, you can always do a lap and return to see what’s new when they come back.
We hate lines, but we love South Philly Barbacoa enough to stand in one. Or we come early enough to beat the line and have tacos for breakfast instead. Whichever way you do it, South Philly Barbacoa is where you should go to get the best tacos in the city. There are only three items on the menu - lamb tacos, pork belly tacos, and consome - but they’re all perfect. Top the tacos yourself and grab a seat at one of the few tables inside, or get them to go and walk around the Italian Market that’s decidedly not Italian anymore.
There are a few things that surprise us every time we end up at this South Philly spot. One is that even though they have great brick-oven pies, pizza really isn’t the focus since this place serves some of the best Mediterranean food in town. The other thing is that there’s so much framed art on the walls that it feels like you’re at a dinner party at the Philadelphia Museum of Art - or based on the size of this place, a small gallery. One thing that deserves its own exhibit is the merguez pide. The canoe-shaped Turkish flatbread has a soft dough that cradles the perfect mix of spicy lamb sausage and mozzarella. And even better, with everything on the menu under $20, it costs less to bite into one than head to the museum even on discount days.
When we’ve had a hard week of seeing all our friends’ vacation posts, the GPS talking over our favorite parts of songs, or surviving another wild trip on the BSL, we head to Hardena for a win. And with limited seating and no reservations, we suggest you plan ahead before stopping by this South Philly Indonesian BYOB. Whether we’re ordering our favorite beef rendang to-go or uncorking a bottle of wine with a few friends, the great service, massive portions, and tenderness of the caramelized beef can’t be beaten.
Vetri Cucina is more than a restaurant, it’s a Philadelphia rite of passage - kind of like running up the Art Museum steps, except with a lot more pasta. And when you leave here, instead of having a general sense of self-loathing for how out of breath you are, you’ll have eaten 15 or so courses of Italian food and you’ll feel like you belong here. Welcome. Vetri is the single best meal in the city, it’s different every time you go, and it’s really expensive, so only come here when you’re trying to celebrate something really big, like your 10th wedding anniversary, or the third anniversary of the Eagles’ Super Bowl win.
There are a lot of dim sum options in Chinatown and you’d be happy at most of them, but Dim Sum Garden earns its spot here because of its versatility. It’s super affordable, BYOB, and the food is perfect for sharing - we especially love the spicy pork soup dumplings and the scallion pancakes. They’re also open late, which means it works for everything from brunch to dinner before going out to late-night shumai.
We’d eat bowls of the bucatini at Irwin’s in the parking lot of the mini-mart nearby if we had to. But thankfully, the converted Mifflin Street school building has a gorgeous dining space full of retro furniture and an outdoor patio that’s perfect for catching the sunlight while sipping on some rosé any day of the week (except Monday and Tuesday when they’re closed). Located on the eighth floor of the Bok Building, the South Philly Italian spot has one of the best views in the city and is somewhere we can sit back and eat tasty handmade pasta or a juicy whole fish topped with citrus salsa that’s as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.
Here in Philadelphia, we take our cheesesteaks very, very seriously - like way too seriously for something that is literally chopped steak and cheese wiz on a roll. But if you want to do a classic cheesesteak the right way, go to John’s. They’ve been around forever, they know what they’re doing, and they use provolone instead of the classic “wiz wit,” which may not be the most Philly way of doing things, but it definitely tastes better.
This Bella Vista pub is the kind of laid-back place where we don’t mind hanging out until they kick us out. And since it’s the place we’d go to survive a Shaun Of The Dead-like zombie apocalypse, we’d just come back the next day anyway. This place has as many wine, beer, and cocktail options as there are flags on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and it’s become our favorite place to go when we want to sip on some wines we can’t pronounce but know taste good. And even better, the food is very solid too. From their lemony socca (think chickpea pancake) to the rotating duck of the day special, any trip The Good King Tavern involves good music, flowing drinks, and circles of friends in the corner that can help just in case the undead start roaming 7th St.
Multi-tasking is hard, like riding a bike down Broad Street while watching the Sixers game on your phone. Or in the case of Vernick, serving a wider variety of food than Reading Terminal Market in a space that can work for wildly different occasions. Because of how versatile it is, though, it can be tough to get a reservation. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to get a seat at the bar, and you can walk in on most weeknights and get a spot for two pretty quickly. The menu changes up a lot, but we’ll always go for the whole roasted Amish chicken or the sea bass in a pinch.
There’s a lot of sushi in Philly, and even quite a bit of great sushi. But we love Umai Umai because they make some of the best sushi in town, along with 10 other dishes that deserve their own historical plaques scattered throughout the city. And since it’s the kind of place that’s always more crowded than the grass in front of the Rocky statue, we recommend always making a reservation. But even if you don’t, and have to wait an hour-plus to be seated, the food at this Fairmount Japanese spot is totally worth it. With attentive service, fantastic oyster shooters, and prices that even our one friend who likes to split the bill down to the last cent can’t complain about, it’s the kind of place that really makes Philly a top sushi town.
If you can’t remember the last time you got excited about a carrot, you’re not alone, but Vedge will change that. Everything here is vegan and actually made from vegetables (besides the soft pretzel, which is a must-order), and even though you won’t find anything on the menu resembling a steak, you won’t miss it a bit. They also have a huge front bar that serves great cocktails, so even if you’re just hanging out in Midtown Village and need a spot for a quick drink with a friend, Vedge is still a good choice.
If we had a genie, our second wish (after asking for infinite wishes, of course) would be for endless portions of gà xào lăn from Dam Phuong. And even though we know that having too much of anything could get tiring, we’d happily accept the challenge. Plus, since this South Philly Vietnamese spot opens at 10am, grabbing an order of that juicy curry coconut chicken (for under $14) is not only acceptable breakfast behavior, but we added this spot to our Brunch Guide just to recommend it. Even better, the family-run restaurant has over 40 other unforgettable dishes like the banh xeo (Vietnamese crêpe packed with shrimp, veggies, and served with a fish sauce) that will put the rest of our endless wishes to work.
Parc is a special place - partially because we think it’s slowly fused into Rittenhouse Square’s permanent architecture, and also because you can pull it out of your back pocket for pretty much any situation. It’s a classic French bistro with a classic French bistro menu (think steak tartare and duck l’orange), and while none of their food comes with table-side magic tricks, everything is delicious. They also have some of the best sidewalk seating in the city, so if you’re in the mood to watch people walking their dogs who look just like them, this is the place to be.
Fitz And Starts is an all-day cafe that has more Feel Good Factor than most other places in the city combined. It also has enough hanging plants to make you consider becoming a full-time plant parent, and the only communal tables you’ll ever enjoy. They do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it all tastes like something your friend who is a really good cook would make. It’s also one of the few places in the city that you can go to for a cup of coffee and some pancakes in the morning, and then come back for dinner that night and not feel like people are going to look at you weird for it.
There are two things about Hiroki you need to know right off the bat. First, it’s expensive. Like, well, I guess I won’t be buying orchestra seats at the Kimmel Center this fall expensive. Second, it’s also home to one of the best meals of our lives. The seafood-themed seasonal omakase menu could include anything from poached quail eggs or a perfectly grilled cut of wagyu, to a toro hand roll that tastes even better than the first day of vacation. All six courses work to make you forget about the hustle it takes to snap a reservation here, but if you’re going to shell out hundreds on any meal in this city, this is the place to do it.
Laurel is a small spot in Easy Passyunk that’s both expensive and pretty formal, but they also serve one of the most interesting tasting menus in the city. It’s technically a French restaurant, and some of the things you see here will indeed feel French - you’ll probably get something resembling foie gras or escargot - but a majority of your dishes will be combinations of foods that seem to make no sense together, but end up tasting really good. The house-made kombucha shot with mustard seeds and the caviar and potato crisps dish that’s topped with ice cream and tastes like when you dip fries into a milkshake are two of our favorites.
Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies
In a town where cheesesteaks are acceptable for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we know options are never limited. But just because Philly is the place to get them, that doesn’t mean anyone should settle for sandwich mediocrity - and no one does them better than this Roxborough staple. The thing that sets the steaks here apart, outside of the perfectly soft bread and premium cuts of beef, is the variety. Every topping here is free, so you can take your buffalo chicken cheesesteak to inferno levels with crushed hot peppers or smother you cheesesteak hoagie with marinara (no judgement) on the next. Dalessandro’s is cash-only with an ATM inside, but after such a long wait in one line, just make sure to plan ahead to avoid ending up in another.