In the city where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed, culinary giants like Marc Vetri, Stephen Starr, Michael Solomonov, Eli Kulp, and Jose Garces are building a community that stands tall next to any of the food havens across the U.S. Craft beer and epic wine lists are commonplace, as is a bold cocktail culture that offers a little bit of everything for even the most refined drinkers. The working-class vibe presents a perfect backdrop to this summer’s Democratic National Convention.
Notable: A wine and cocktail list that syncs with a charcoal grill
This dual concept from High Street Hospitality Group—the Philly team behind Fork, a 2016 James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant, as well as High Street on Market and High Street on Hudson in New York City, could be the group’s most interesting.
The separate but synced units (a.bar is next door), feature powerhouse talent, with Jon Nodler, a 2015 James Beard: Rising Star Chef semifinalist as chef de cuisine, and 2016 Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic finalist Eli Kulp serving as executive chef. Beverage director Mariel Wega and bar manager Dan Hamm direct a program that led Wine Enthusiast to name it the second Best Wine Restaurant in America last year.
The beverages play off the charcoal grill in the kitchen, like a cocktail with grilled cinnamon syrup. The restaurant features a long, inventive wine list, fitting beer selections (five taps and five bottles/cans), and classic cocktails that also typically showcase 10 to 12 seasonal concoctions.
Notable: Around 100 beer bottles and cans with Italian nods
Marc Vetri, whose Vetri Family group operates six concepts, is one of the city’s true culinary moguls.
He won the 2005 James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic and has been a recurring nominee for years. Vetri is perhaps best known for his namesake Vetri, which opened in 1998. For a more casual spin with a focus on the beverage side, Alla Spina bears the distinction of being an Italian gastropub.
There are 20 taps, two casks, 100 bottles and cans, and a reserve beer list. Beverage director Steve Wildy’s program also offers five white and red wines by the glass, as well as Italian cocktails, beer cocktails, and a large amaro and brown spirits focus. For an adventurous spin, there’s Negroni and Fernet-Branca on tap. The food is crafted by Chef Julie Kline, and check averages run a reasonable $35.
American Sardine Bar
Notable: Sixteen rotating taps and up to 50 cans of craft beer
Martin O’Malley, a former candidate for the Democratic presidential bid, was singing Irish songs at the Point Breeze hangout back in September.
If that isn’t American enough, consider the craft-focused bar, named the No. 1 option in the city, according to Foobooz, a food and drink publication presented by Philadelphia Magazine. Sample the first-rate and rotating beer list, or order a sandwich that could hold its own just as well on a white tablecloth as it does in the spot’s legendary backyard. There are four kinds of sardines menued by Chef Scott Schroeder, and novelty selections like the Apple Pie Biscuit. John Longacre’s locale has two beverage managers, Kathryn Wiggins and Chris Lillis, who determine the 16 taps and 25 to 50 cans featured.
Notable: More than 400 wines served in a refined setting
This posh steakhouse, located in the historic Barclay Building, doesn’t hold back. Not that you would expect a Stephen Starr restaurant carrying a $150 check average to come up short in any regard.
We’re talking more than 400 wines, immaculate service, and yes, a few gimmicks worthy of the city’s most famous restaurateur, who has opened 19 concepts in Philadelphia and was named a finalist for the 2016 James Beard: Outstanding Restaurateur.
Look no further than the Barclay Prime Cheesesteak featuring wagyu ribeye, foie gras, and truffled cheese whiz on a fresh-baked sesame roll, served with half a bottle of Champagne for $120. Executive Chef Mark Twersky is at the controls with wine director Stephen Flis curating the daunting list, which earned the restaurant a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2015.
The restaurant unrolled a new cocktail program inspired by the concept of “classic restoration.” The idea is to bend the classics, offering creative takes like The Walking Dead (Bacardi Rum trio, mango-passion infused tea, fresh lime, almond foam, star anise, and fennel bitters), and Ryes & Shine (coffee-infused Bulleit Rye Whiskey, amontillado sherry, luxardo cherry liqueur, and black walnut bitters).
Notable: More than 750 wines and 150 spirits
Housed in an early 1700s building built for a wealthy shipping merchant, Bistro Romano can tell a story or two.
These days, the more than 750 wines—recognized by a 2015 Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence—can be sipped in a subterranean cellar for two that was once part of a network of underground tunnels. It’s a storied setting: Like the bar, which was once a fixture aboard a passenger steamer from 1912, and the building itself was even a terminus on the Underground Railroad.
The restaurant also hosts a mystery theater and a piano bar, made possible by Executive Chef Michael DeLone, Wine Director Michael Granato, and Sommelier Anthony Santini. If vino isn’t top of mind, there are 150 spirits focusing on whiskeys, vodkas, craft labels, and amaros.
Some food offerings for dinner include the restaurant’s award-winning Bistro Duck and Filetto Mignon Padre.
Notable: Rare beers, Margarita pitchers, and plenty of tequila
Sometimes it just doesn’t get any better than $10-off Margarita pitchers during happy hour. But that’s hardly the only reason to visit the Center City Mexican restaurant owned by Casey Parker and Joe Gunn.
There are 24 different tequilas, 12 mezcals, a dozen taps of craft beer, traditional Belgian and German options, and four wines—all curated by beverage director Adam Anderson. There’s also an extensive bottle and can beer list with rare selections. Check out the Weird Countries section or sample something from the special menu, such as a 2012 Rodenbach Vintage.
Chef Adan Trinidad’s menu is renowned for the tacos, which range from goat to lobster to Brussels sprouts, with check averages about $20 a person.
Lacroix at The Rittenhouse
Notable: A wine list above 1,000, plus cocktails and an afternoon tea program
The elegant setting inside The Rittenhouse Hotel has been a Philadelphia staple since Esquire named it the Best New Restaurant in America in 2003.
Since then, the concept has reeled in AAA Four Diamond Award ratings for a decade, and recently caught the fancy of Wine Spectator to the tune of three consecutive Best of Awards of Excellence.
In 2015, that recognition reflected the work of Advanced Sommelier Justin Timsit, who put together a monumental list that needs a table of contents to navigate. There are more than 1,200 selections, focusing mostly on France, as well as Germany and Austria, and the U.S. Not to mention, an afternoon tea program to slow things down. Food wise, Executive Chef Jon Cichon crafts a menu best described as progressive international cuisine. Dinner holds an average check of $85 and can be enjoyed as a four-course or chef’s-tasting menu.
Notable: Extensive wine list with Italian roots
It might be easier to sprint up the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky-style, than it is to settle on an Italian restaurant for dinner in this town. Chef Joe Cicala’s concept, which has managed to stand tall by remaining loyal to Abruzzo cuisine and history, is always a solid option.
The idea, rooted in the unpretentious and unspoiled heritage of the Italian region’s shepherds, farmers, and fishermen, earned Cicala a finalist bid for the 2015 James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, as well as a 2016 semifinalist nod. It’s also a great place to sample an extensive list of wine, many from the region of Abruzzo, located east of Rome and on the Adriatic coast.
There are also six craft beers on tap and over 20 bottles and cans.
Notable: More than 300 bottles of beer hailing from around the globe
Fergus Carey, labeled the city’s “most beloved Irish barman” by Philadelphia Magazine, is the fitting personality behind Monk’s Café, a beer-seeker’s nirvana that seems to have fallen straight out of an Amsterdam postcard.
The Belgian brewpub has some serious credentials, with a bottle list that sits in the mid-300s and a beverage professional with James Beard backing. Tom Peters was named an Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional semifinalist for the third straight year in 2015, lifting the concept, which serves eight kinds of mussels, to legendary status. Take a gander at the Beer Bible for inspiration, or just point and choose from the concept’s prodigious collection, named one of the Top 100 Beer Bars in America by Draft Magazine.
Notable: More than 150 wines by the glass and 120 on tap in record-setting fashion
A wine bar with a page in The Guinness Book of World Records, the Old City Italian restaurant, located in the Penn’s View Hotel since 1990, is an impressive operation.
The restaurant found out in 2010 that it had the largest wine preservation and dispensing system in the world, with a setup that pours 120 wines on tap and more than 150 by the glass, from a list that changes weekly.
Wine Spectator handed William Eccleston’s vision a 2015 Best of Award of Excellence in response to the more than 800 selections featured. The signature Panoramic Flights offer a sample of five different wines within a select group. Signature cocktails, six rotating beers plus bottles, and an extensive list of after-dinner drinks also dot the menu. Pastas and Italian classics from Chef Matt Gentile, like Veal Scallopine, round out the experience.
Notable: Whimsy cocktails and wines, picked with pairings in mind
Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga has begun to branch out geographically recently, opening Sbraga & Company in Jacksonville, Florida. But the Philadelphia native’s deepest hooks still remain in his hometown, and especially at his namesake on the Avenue of the Arts (his group also runs the Fat Ham).
Sbraga is a 60-seat restaurant that serves a $55 four-course prix fixe menu or a $75 six-course option. The modern American cuisine focuses on seasonal fare and floats around from one genre to the next, seemingly nightly.
Craft cocktails and an extensive wine selection anchor the beverage program. Some examples include the Rum Raisin Daiquiri—Don Q Rum, raisin apple syrup and lime—and the appropriately named The Hammer—bourbon, Dubonnet Rouge, Drambuie, and bitters. A unique take on sangria features Apple Jack Brandy, wine syrup, Combier, and lemon. There are four beers, two sparkling wines, and four red wines by the glass, as well as a vino bottle list that ranges in price and region.
The Olde Bar
Notable: Eleven pages of drinks with a nod to the classics
Jose Garces, the 2009 winner of the James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, has 10 Philadelphia restaurants. Olde Bar, which was a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard: Outstanding Bar Program and carries a check average of less than $30, might be the most nostalgic, bringing the Old Original Bookbinder’s building back to life with an oyster saloon that would satisfy even the most traditional and grizzled cocktail drinker.
The list, developed by Erich Weiss, is 11 pages long, with interesting signatures from the Sparkling Ode to Lysicrates—vodka, cassis, pamplemousse cordial, orange juice, and sparkling wine—to punches, a page of classics, sherry’s, ports, and every spirit conceivable. Pair that with oysters on the half shell or Snapper Turtle Soup to bring the night back a few decades.
For a different restaurant experience, Garces’ Volver has a wine list of nearly 900 selections that earned a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence in 2015, and his first concept, Amada, has more than 700 wines.
Notable: Carefully curated wine list with pairings in mind
Chef Townsend Wentz opened his eponymous concept in May 2014 and it has been an undeniable hit. The French spot features updated takes on classics like Rabbit Pot au Feu, running a check average of $44 to $68.
Wentz brought Sommelier Lauren Harris along from his stops at Twenty21 and McCrossen’s. Pairings are the major focus, not numbers. There are currently five sparkling, 13 white, four rosé/orange, and 13 reds on the menu.
Notable: Extensive Negroni list and nostalgic Adult Water Ice
It doesn’t get more South Philly than Water Ice. The sugary shaved dessert, originally introduced by Italian immigrants, is a summer staple in the City of Brotherly Love.
The Triangle Tavern, a local institution since 1933, serves an alcoholic version in six flavors, presented as Adult Water Ice and poured in a goblet or pitcher.
The drink tastes like a frozen lemon sorbet, just with vodka. Owners Dave Frank and Stephen Simons also dedicate a part of the menu to Negroni cocktails—traditionally made with equal parts gin, vermouth rosso, and Campari. Three taps flow with wine and 12 with beer. Chef Mark McKinney serves an iconic dish: Sunday Gravy—rigatoni and meat sauce with bone-in pork chop, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and meatball. The group also runs Khyber Pass Pub, Royal Tavern, Cantina Dos Segundos, and Cantina Los Caballitos.
Notable: Inventive cocktails and 22 craft beers on tap
The offbeat name should be an instant indicator. The retro space is inspired by the pinup paintings of Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas. Co-owner/chef Evan Turney (George Anni is the other owner) keeps the theme pulsing with dishes like Duck Confit Wings. Beverage manager Rich Colli’s cocktail list is fittingly eclectic and catered around the seasons, such as the Miss April Ma’s Rootbeer Float—whiskey, coffee liqueur, splash of milk, and draft root beer. There’s also house-made spiked cider, 22 rotating taps of beer, and an extensive bottle list.
Notable: Vegan bar featuring drinks not filtered with animal ingredients
It’s hard to put a label on Vedge’s cuisine. Vegetable, vegetarian, plant-based, new American—all could describe the acclaimed restaurant from husband-wife team Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby.
Favorites include Rutabaga Fondue, Spicy Grilled Tofu, and Grilled Seitan. Landau, a finalist for the 2015 and 2016 James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, served the first vegan dinner ever held at the James Beard House in 2009. Jacoby was named a 2016 semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef as well.
The restaurant runs a vegan bar to complement the vegetable-forward menu, which means none of the beers (six drafts and around five bottles) or wines are filtered with animal ingredients. The average check runs $50 to $60 a person. There are about 12 wines by the glass and around 100 different labels on the bottle list.
Vernick Food & Drink
Notable: Cocktail list with a focus on classic, current, and seasonal
Since opening in May 2012, Greg and Julie Vernick’s restaurant has stockpiled accolades. It was named one of The Best New Restaurants in America by Bon Appétit and a semifinalist for James Beard: Best New Restaurant. Greg was a finalist for the 2015 and 2016 James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. The dishes are simple yet refined, like the 28-ounce dry-aged bone-in strip loin roasted in a wood-fire oven, presented cleanly with charred lettuce and lemon. Ray Gazdzinski heads the wine program, which features 14 offerings by the glass, along with some dessert wine selections. Beverage manager J.B. Bernstein crafts cocktails in Classic, Current, and In Season lists. A Classic example is the Army & Navy—dry gin, orgeat, citrus, and spice.