The Best Restaurants In Old City
Old City is filled with tourists, so we put together this guide for where you can eat good food while actively avoiding them.
Between Founding Fathers' impersonators, historic sites and museums, and waterfront attractions that the entire city flocks to when the temperature gets above 70 degrees, Old City can be a pretty fun place to hang out. And after you’ve walked the cobblestone streets, you might want to grab a bite. Whether you’re looking for sushi, crispy octopus, or pizza, check out 15 of our favorites in the neighborhood.
Zahav is in Society Hill, but considering it’s about 15 steps from the Old City border (we may or may not have measured), we thought it was fair to include it here. It’s also one of the best restaurants in the whole city, so if you’re even remotely near Zahav, their tasting menu full of things like silky hummus and pomegranate-glazed lamb shoulder is worth seeking out. However, the upscale Israeli spot is notoriously tough to get a reservation at, so if you’re trying to grab dinner here, you’re probably looking at a pretty long wait unless you can get a bar seat right when they open at 5pm.
If you ask 100 random Philadelphians to pick their favorite special occasion spot, an overwhelming majority will probably say Fork. That’s because it’s a people pleaser with a straightforward but excellent American menu, and it’s a great place to go with a big group. The space has white tablecloths and definitely feels upscale, but you won’t feel like you’re at a stuffy steakhouse or, worse, The Union League. It also has a Sunday brunch with some perfect maple french toast and an eggs benedict that come with salty bits of trout that will make you want to eat breakfast for every meal (if you don’t already).
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Fat Salmon is one of the best sushi spots in the area, and it’s a great place for a small group dinner to start a night out. They serve big platters of interesting rolls that include things like plum paste and pico de gallo, and they’re perfect for sharing. Their cocktails are much better than you’d expect from a neighborhood sushi spot, and they also have pink and blue mood lighting that’ll remind you of a club, but without the loud music and people stepping on your toes with five-inch heels. So really, you should just spend your night eating and drinking here and ditch whatever plans you made. Their kitchen stays open until 11pm on weekends, so it’s totally doable.
With massive picture windows, intimate lighting at night, and a long u-shaped bar, Tuna Bar makes for a great date spot when you want a bunch of sake options and some of the best sushi in the neighborhood. Plus, you can usually stop by without a reservation, order a few small plates like crispy miso brussels sprouts and oysters, and spend the rest of the night drinking some junmai sake and eating too many spicy crab-filled liberty rolls. An added bonus if you’re here in the spring: you’ll have a great view of the cherry blossom trees or a Ben Franklin impersonator.
While Old City has a few Italian spots, like Spasso Italian Grill and Panorama, Positano Coast is one of the best. It’s one of those places where graduation parties, engagements, or date-night dinners are always going down--it's pretty much a special occasion right of passage in this town. On a sunny day, the big rooftop patio is the perfect spot to bring a group of friends and pass around some scallop crudo or squid ink pasta.
Kisso Sushi Bar
There are a lot of casual sushi spots around the city, but none of them get as crowded as Kisso. It’s in a little orange room on the corner of North 4th and Race, and the menu is straightforward, but everything is very good. This would explain why, on a random Tuesday night, you’ll sometimes encounter a 30-minute wait. If you decide to stick it out, they serve some of the freshest fish around and they have some interesting appetizers as well—like the music box (warm Alaskan king crab in a soybean wrap topped with creamy soy sauce), and a red snapper carpaccio that we still crave regularly.
Amada is a small Spanish tapas bar in Old City from the people behind Distrito and Volver. It’s been around for a while, but is still one of the best places in Old City for a last-minute date or even just an after-work Happy Hour drink with a few friends. There’s usually a wait, especially on the weekend, but it’s worth it for things like calamari and squid ink sofrito and roasted pork with a white bean stew. It’s also easy to spend a pretty absurd amount of money here, but you shouldn’t do that. And you don’t have to. They have lots of small plates that are relatively inexpensive ($8-$16), but all really good, like the beef short rib flatbread and lamb meatballs.
The Plough and the Stars
Philadelphia has no shortage of casual Irish pubs where you can catch up with a few friends over a round of beers. But only at The Plough & The Stars will you find plenty of sidewalk seating and some live entertainment during the week—which is probably why it gets as crowded as the museums nearby. When you can finally grab a seat on the balcony upstairs, go for the fish and chips. It’s a lightly battered, flaky haddock that comes with some crispy fries, and a plate of these makes for a great duo to pair with any of their draft beers.
photo credit: NICOLE GUGLIELMO
This seafood-focused Mediterranean BYOB is just down the street from the Betsy Ross House. Even though it only has a handful of wooden tables, the cozy dining room is usually full of small groups of friends, families, and a few couples hanging out. Outside of chatty dining space that will make you feel like you’re at a dinner party, they have menu options that go great with your favorite bottle of red or white. You'll want a few small plates, like octopus served with a peppery romesco sauce or mussels swimming in a limoncello pesto, but don't ignore the mains—all of them, from the seafood-loaded fettucine to the citrusy branzino, are fantastic.
While we think there are better restaurants in the area, Royal Boucherie is still a solid place to meet up with some friends or a date for a glass of wine and some oysters. They also have a good burger, and when it’s nice out, you can hang out on the roof and get subtly drunk while shoveling their entire raw bar into your mouth. The menu is French-leaning, and the dark tavern interior looks like somewhere you’d meet your cohorts after successfully robbing a bank together.
photo credit: Rachel Lerro
Sassafras is a small, romantic bar that has good bar food and even better drinks. It looks kind of like the living room of an old, expensive house that’s also definitely haunted, and the lighting is always dim, with candles on all six of the tables. The menu is heavy on appetizers and pretty basic, but they have some great burgers that can come with a spicy dry rub or get covered in a tangy tamarind and tomato brown sauce.
The Franklin Fountain
The Franklin Fountain is a classic parlor and soda fountain spot that makes the best ice cream in town. And this is a fact that everyone in town seems to know since you’re likely to always see a long line outside of it. There’s no seating inside the antique-filled shop, so this is a grab-and-go situation where you should get scoops of flavors like cotton candy, pistachio, and peanut butter served in Chinese takeout containers. Plus, they’re open until 12am, so you can get something loaded with fudge, brownie pieces, or caramel after a long day when you’ve been thinking about a scoop of ice cream since you woke up.
Han Dynasty has a bunch of locations, but the Old City original is still the best one. It’s in an old, ornate building that has a long bar where you can sit and watch whatever sports happen to be on. It also has some great Sichuan food, and you can order a whole lot of it for about $25. Their dan dan noodles are our favorite thing here (even though they’re pretty spicy), but if you can’t handle the heat, there are about 50 other things on the menu that you can get instead.
Spasso Italian Grill
Spasso Italian Grill has one very important function, and that is a weeknight Happy Hour (which is only available at the bar) where you can spend next to nothing and get a full meal. It’s every Tuesday-Friday until 7pm and includes specials like $3 beers, $7 fried ravioli and meatballs in marinara, and $7.50 martinis. You can also go for a full dinner, and while it’s not the best Italian food you’ll ever have, the pasta is good and it’s all served in a cavern-like space that kind of reminds us of the Pirates of The Caribbean ride at Disney World.
Lucha Cartel is the kind of place that you bring your college friends when they’re in town and you’re trying to show them how affordable it is to eat and get tipsy in Philly. Nearly every item on their menu, like short rib tacos and chicken quesadillas, is $5 during Happy Hour (including the deceptively strong margaritas), and they even have a porch out front with large, picnic-style tables that will work just fine for you and your senior year housemates. Just know that if you spend over $20 per person, you’ve done something wrong.
Nick's Roast Beef Of Old City
Nick’s Roast Beef feels like somewhere the It’s Always Sunny gang would sneak into and steal some ideas for Paddy’s. And maybe if they had signature slow-roasted beef and pork sandwiches with a savory au like Nick’s, they might have had a few more customers. Outside of the sandwiches, you can expect standard pub food like buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, and a few types of burgers. It’s a casual place where you and your friends can meet up and rank your favorite Dennis scenes.