If every museum, business, historic site and theatre in town burned down overnight, you could still have a terrific trip to Philadelphia simply by eating.
Browse through the categories on this website to see the extraordinary variety. Many of the high-end restaurants are grouped along Walnut Street between Broad Street and Rittenhouse Square
and are located in the Old City district around 2nd and Market. Everything is available here, starting with an extraordinary number of Italian and Asian restaurants. Philadelphia was also an early centre for American nouvelle cuisine and this has developed into a heritage the locals take for granted. For the adventurous traveller with a hearty appetite, try the famous Philly cheesesteak for about 4 dollars US.
Beer for Everybody
According to recent surveys, Pennsylvania has the third largest number of microbreweries after California and Colorado. And what beer! While it is to be expected that some of the microbrews are not very interesting, what's unexpected is the large number of high-quality local beers available in many of the bars and restaurants here. Philadelphians take their beer very seriously. There are also many Irish, British and Belgian pubs where the traveller will find a large international selection and an informed bartender. Here's a short list of local hot spots, though you could pass a pleasant evening searching for your own favourite:
Yuengling: This local brewery has been in continuous operation since 1823, making it the oldest in the country. The brewers make a reliable, inexpensive lager and a very good porter, but their big seller is the Black & Tan, a blend of the lager and porter in equal parts. Yuengling (pronounced "yingling") is not the greatest beer you'll ever have, but it's such a local favourite that many places stock it instead of the more popular national brands.
Victory Hop Devil: Victory produces a whole range of beers, but its most popular by far is the Hop Devil. Hops is the flower that gives beer its sweet overtones; the Hop Devil Ale is made with something like twice the usual amount of hops (the actual percentage is kept a secret). It's a very tasty ale to drink slowly. Dock Street: One of several local microbreweries where all beer is made fresh on the premises. There's a sampler available where seven small portions are brought to your table. This is always a great conversation starter and you just might end up with a new all time favourite.
The Local Food
A friend recently remarked, "If you looked at the local foods here, you'd think we lived in a circus town." It's true that the homegrown local cuisine tends to be a bit...unhealthy. It's true that Philadelphia men were recently determined to be the most overweight Americans statistically speaking, to a point where the new mayor announced he was appointing a Director of Health and Fitness. But one cannot deny that this food is tasty and traditional. The last mayor has a sandwich named after him.
Here's a guide to some local favourites, reflecting the influence of the rich immigrant history in this area. Be warned: Some of these will sound completely unattractive if you haven't grown up on them. They are all worth a try:
Cheesesteak: Thinly sliced beef is sautéed then served on a soft foot-long roll with cheese, onions, peppers, mushrooms and ketchup. There is such demand for these that two places in the Italian Market
stay open all night to supply the crowds. Discussion of who makes the best cheesesteak can be described as either friendly competition or bitter rivalry. Hoagie: A huge sandwich invented by workingmen on Hog Island in the 19th Century. Like the cheesesteak, it begins with a long soft roll, this time stuffed with cold cuts, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, oil or mayonnaise and is usually served with a thick wedge of pickle, in case two pounds of food is not enough for you. You will find the hoagie to be similar to a "sub," but with more lettuce and a more varied blend of meats and cheeses. Over the years, the basic Italian hoagie has been joined by an American hoagie (different lunchmeat) and a long list of other variations, including vegetarian and even a cheesesteak hoagie. The latest innovation is the "Rendelli," named in honour of former Mayor Ed Rendell, possibly the first politician in town to finish an entire hoagie in one sitting in public.
TastyKake: Locally produced snacks, which include cupcakes and the "Krimpet," a small sponge cake topped with butterscotch icing.
Birch Beer: Is this local? We don't know and we don't care. A contribution of the Pennsylvania Dutch, birch beer is similar to root beer except it's made from birch root instead of sassafras, giving it a more pungent edge and a reddish colour. Water Ice: An Italian contribution. Simply, it is fruit-flavoured ice that's shaved and served in a cup. You will find it to be lighter and more refreshing on a hot day than ice cream. Soft Pretzel: A German contribution. Other cities have soft pretzels too, but locals here like them with mustard. No one seems to remember how that started.
Scrapple: A Pennsylvania Dutch contribution. There are many ways to describe scrapple; it's best to think of it as a cornmeal patty flavoured with beef, pork or turkey, though you could also say it's meat "scraps" held together with cornmeal. Lightly fried, it is served as a side dish for breakfast.
A Word about State Stores
In Pennsylvania, alcoholic beverages must be purchased in state-owned liquor stores. These stores generally open at 9am and close at 7pm, or 9pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The exceptions to this purchasing rule are beer and wine coolers, which may be purchased at bars, delicatessens and "beer distributors." Beer is not available at liquor stores, though wine coolers are available.