My wife and I were relaxing on a sunny afternoon in Stella, a gleaming-tile pizzeria whose wood-burning oven produces the kind of crusts that would curl the toes of any pizza lover, when the couple at the nearby table asked, "Do you know where you're going to eat tonight?"
I can't imagine how they pegged us for tourists, unless it was the camera on the table. Or the tablecloth-size street map we were in the midst of consulting.
Therein followed an enthusiastic but tempered recitation of one restaurant's virtues, followed by a couple more recommendations.
A few days earlier, a fellow asked if we needed directions anywhere (boy, a street map is a real icebreaker here) and gave me an insider's take on the restaurant we were occupying.
This has not been the most publicity-friendly year for the City of Brotherly Love, thanks to a surfeit of fans-behaving-badly incidents. Booing the MVP at the end of the Stanley Cup finals, getting Tased after running onto the baseball field, intentionally puking on a cop's daughter — and that's just since April. Philly fans have been making some unfortunate headlines.
But, away from their stadiums, Philadelphians are as polite and friendly as their civic nickname suggests.
And, boy, do they love their restaurants. For good reason. Beyond cheese steaks (which can be terrific if you know where to go, and I'll tell you), beyond soft pretzels, Philly is an amazing food town. And what better town to talk about for July the Fourth?
If you're heading to Philadelphia any time soon, you'll probably concentrate your sightseeing around Center City, Independence Square, Society Hill — the biggies. Accordingly, all my recommended spots are close to those tourist magnets.
Chifa — The hotter-than-hot chef Jose Garces seems to open another Philadelphia restaurant every couple of weeks; this Peruvian-Cantonese hybrid is one of the more recent arrivals. The interior looks like what I'd imagine a Shaolin temple to be — all dark wood and low-lit shadows, candles everywhere. Start with addictive manchego-cheese pao bread with a seriously spicy guava butter, then dive into Ecuadorean-style shrimp ceviche, served in a blue-glass bowl with avocado, yellow tomato and yuca chips, or a frothy red curry brimming with lump crabmeat, tofu and eggplant in a spicy broth. 707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555.
Amada — Another Garces place, this one a Spanish concept with a fair number of tapas and traditional dishes. Good dishes include the cocas (like flatbread pizzas), topped with artichokes, wild mushrooms and manchego cheese, and the goat-cheese-stuffed lamb chops, placed side by side over twin pools of romesco sauce. 217-219 Chestnut St., 215-625-2450.
Vetri — The only bigger culinary name than Garces is Marc Vetri, whose self-titled restaurant represents the absolute peak of fine dining in this town. (Yes, I've been to Le Bec Fin. It's wonderful. I'd return to Vetri first.) Go there with a fat wallet or a rich uncle, because this place is expensive. We splurged on the Grand Tasting menu ($135), and with matching wines and tax and tip, our dinner for two was $600. What did we get for that? Magnificent pastas, including deep-green spinach gnocchi covered in shaved ricotta cheese, almond tortellini with white-truffle sauce and papardelle with lamb ragu. Mesquite-roasted capretto (baby goat), its crispy exterior contrasted by creamy-soft polenta. A dark, sweet onion crepe, prosciutto-stuffed guinea hen, a who'd-a-thunk-it tartar of bay scallops and persimmon — all gems. If you can go, go. 1312 Spruce St., 215-732-3478.
Buddakan — Stephen Starr has 14 restaurants in Philadelphia, two in New York and a few more, suggesting the guy knows what people want. This theatrical pan-Asian, a block east of Independence Square, is ample proof. The elaborate decor (complete with gilded Buddha in the dining room and a sleek, am-I-dressed-OK bar) tends to upstage the menu, but it's a good time. I stopped in for some Wisdom (a bourbon-based cocktail with hits of five-spice and chocolate) and tuna tartare, a well-seasoned mound accompanied by wonton crisps delivered in a wooden sake box. And it's open for lunch. 325 Chestnut St., 215-574-9440.
Oyster House — Handy enough for a quick bite, capable enough to justify lingering. The interior is gleaming white tiles in front, wainscoted white-brick walls in back and shiny oyster bar in the middle. A chalkboard lists the day's featured bivalves and reminds you of the "buck a shuck" $1 oysters served from 5 to 7 p.m. weekdays. My oysters were brilliant, briny and ice-cold pristine, and I also polished off a plate of grilled sardines, over a tart caper-olive salsa mixed with migas (pan-fried croutons). Close to hotels in the middle of the central business district; lots of coat-and-tie types at lunch. 1516 Sansom St., 215-567-7683.
Koo Zee Doo — Philadelphia has an enviable supply of BYO restaurants, including this Portuguese marvel (the name is a phonetic rendering of cozido, the Portuguese word for "cooked"). It's a cozy place, where front-room diners are steps away from the wide-open kitchen (it looks like a converted bar) and the inspired cooking by chef/owner David Gilberg. I had wine-braised chicken gizzards that I could have eaten forever, delicious octopus fricassee, tuna-stuffed turnovers and "arroz de pato," marvelous duck with smoky chorizo and rice. Get the chocolate salami for dessert. 613 N. Second St., 215-923-8080.
Varga Bar — Named for the pinup-girl artist (which explains all the fetchingly posed cuties drawn on the ceiling) this fun hangout has a handful of Playboy-inspired cocktails (Miss January, et al.), though the locals praise the wide range of on-tap beers. The comfort-food menu is surprisingly ambitious, offering yummy dishes such as duck-confit-style chicken wings with a bourbon-molasses-pomegranate glaze. There was a truffled mac-and-cheese with a satisfyingly crunchy gratin top and a nice cheese blend amid not-at-all-gummy pasta. Someone's paying attention back there. 941 Spruce St., 215-627-5200.
Pizzeria Stella — The aforementioned Stella's wood-burning oven produces marvelous, blistered-crust pizzas — try the tartufo, with black truffle, egg and fontina cheese — with decent beers and nice by-the-glass wines in a no-pretense atmosphere. No reservations, so you'll probably wait a bit. Another Stephen Starr creation. 420 S. Second St., 215-320-8000.
John's Roast Pork — In-the-know locals say this place has the best cheese steaks in Philly, and after trying one, I'm disinclined to argue. That said, the roast-pork sandwiches are even better. The place has been at the same corner of South Philadelphia since 1930, still buys its seasonings from the same company, still doesn't take credit cards and still closes for the day at 3 p.m., except for weekends, when it isn't open at all. Out of the way but worth the trip. 14 E. Snyder Ave., 215-463-1951.
Philadelphians are at their chummy best when talking about their restaurants. No wonder.
American independence isn't the only thing to celebrate in Philadelphia; think food. (June 29, 2010)