How Philly Became the Dynamic Culinary Destination it is Today

The City of Brotherly Love is no longer just a food stop-over town sandwiched between DC and New York. Beard Foundation award winners, trendsetters, and serious cooks are making Philly more than just a town known for its cheesesteaks.

“The Philly restaurant scene has vastly improved since I started cooking back in 2001. It has quickly become one of the most dynamic food cities in the country,” said Ben Puchowitz, co-owner, and chef of Cheu Noodle Bar, Cheu Fishtown, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and Nunu. Cheu lands at the top of the list for ‘Must Eats’ in Philly. With a unique approach to menu and interior design, Cheu’s lessons in delivering memorable food experiences make him one of the operators driving the restaurant scene in Philly out of larger cities’ shadows.

Rebellious, Ironic, Different

Crab fries that don’t have crab (just ask Chicky and Pete’s, a Brotherly Loved icon) are only the start. Food anomalies are as easy to find in Philadelphia as rabid sports fans.

What is happening in this old city that is full of new thinking?

Less Fish, More Hip

Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood has morphed into a hipster haven, and proudly so. Suraya, Kensington Quarters, Cheu, Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, and Stock all call the renaissance neighborhood of Fishtown home. You know the type; old warehouses, formerly run-down storefronts, a narrow maze of streets with nearly impossible parking opportunities. Inject cash, reclaimed wood, Edison lights, and a keen sense for what Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers want for dinner, and there is little guesswork.

Fette Sau, for instance, is at the front of the counter/casual wave with good – damn good – smoked meats served by the pound on aluminum sheet trays. Part of the Stephen Starr collective, Fette Sau is everything that is right with emerging trends; there is cheap beer, whiskey aplenty, corrugated steel, and seat-yourself ambiance.

Philly’s favorite restaurant son, Starr is often credited with the tectonic shift in dining geography that has put a great big exclamation point next to Philadelphia for serious food business.

Even regional emerging superstar, honeygrow, has bloomed with a spot in Fishtown. Customizable bowls are launched with guest-facing terminals that ride the wave of fast casual crashing on the shore of a local, sustainable, and big flavor island. Tapped as one of the highlights of the fast casual scene as a serious force, honeygrow is opening spots throughout the northeast and into the Midwest, all born in 2012 from a Philly infancy.

Philly’s Real Estate is a Bargain, Well Kinda...

With metro New York real estate teetering between astronomical and complete insanity, the Philly market boasts a cosmopolitan following while enjoying nearly reasonable square-footage. A litmus test for market worthiness for larger spots? Sure. But more so, Center City has the foot traffic, median income, and upwardly mobile to foster serious concepts.

“Philadelphia uniquely combines the culinary diversity and quality of a big city with the affordability and intimacy of a small town. It is centrally located right smack in the middle of some of the most fertile land on the east coast,” said Puchowitz.

Vedge to DC, Morimoto to… everywhere, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby were and are way out in front of the veg-centric movement. As they have won over the Rittenhouse Square area of the city with their concept Vedge and the streamlined version, V-Street, spots, the vegetable-only superheroes are cutting their course into DC. The wedded duo has stretched to the south with Fancy Radish. Never ones to fall into being labeled, this third iteration is also a vegan spot. But, first, it is a hot spot. It just happens to be meatless and Philly summarily welcomed its grassy roots.

Morimoto, another of the Starr spots, has bounded from Philadelphia, firmly rooted in the success. With star chef status and aggressive styling, Morimoto’s geography has expanded to Hawaii, Dubai, Mexico City, New York, and Las Vegas, among others. All born from the original Center City spot on Chestnut St.

Ben Franklin, William Penn, James Beard

The iconic James Beard logo has been seen all around Philly. In recent history, Greg Vernick grabbed the gold with his namesake Vernick in 2017. Michael Solomonov’s hattrick of JBF wins is no joke. Half of the duo of the CookNSolo brain trust behind Dizengoff, Zahav, Abe Fisher, Goldie, The Rooster, and Federal Donuts, first medaled with 2011’s Rising Star, then Best Chef, mid-Atlantic, and most recently with gold for the Zahav cookbook. What’s more? Zahav’s Pastry Chef, Camille Cogswell, grabbed the Rising Star Chef award this past awards’ season. Israeli food is hot right now and streaking across the restaurant sky, which is more than just a coincidence and its rooted in the Philly influence.

In the first capital of the United States, Philadelphia holds historical significance as the home to Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin’s grave, and the Liberty Bell. Historical importance abounds. But what is the most traveled-to destination in Philly? The Constitution Center? The Betsy Ross House? No. Instead, it is Reading Terminal Market. Why? Because of the Food.

The impact of Philly’s culinary firepower matters.