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Pennsylvania is at a bit of a cultural crossroads. On one hand, you have the backbone of this country, the blue collar workers, chugging along and enjoying a cheap beer at the state’s best dive bar (McGlinchey's Bar & Grill) and eating the best pretzels in the country at Miller’s Twist. On the other hand, you have the growing metropolises of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The latter is quickly drawing in millennials and developing into what some anticipate will be “the next Brooklyn.” Thus, Philly is a bit of a growing culinary hotspot, thanks in large part to its stellar bars, such as Monk’s Café and world-class restaurants like Barclay Prime and Zahav.
But don’t think that means Philadelphia or Pennsylvania as a whole are becoming pretentious. You can still kick back with the best cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches in the whole country. To celebrate the breadth of Pennsylvania’s culinary landscape, we rounded up 30 of the state’s best dishes, restaurants, bars, and brews as a part of our first annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
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Monk’s Café is a Belgian beer emporium with a repertoire of rotating beers on tap and hundreds by the bottle, from the limited-supply Chimay Dorée, to the drier Tripel Karmeliet on tap, to Achel Blond and Westmalle Tripel by the bottle. The bar also stocks locally made Belgian-style beers, so there is something for everyone. The hearty sandwiches, burgers, and mussels pair well with the beer.
Courtesy of Voodoo Brewing Company
Voodoo Brewing Company’s ManBearPig can be quite elusive, but it’s worth tracking down a bottle. With local honey and syrup in its recipe, this beer is beautifully sweet. But don’t think that’s all there is to ManBearPig. It’s aged in bourbon barrels and brewed with smoked malts, adding layers of flavor to every bottle.
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Chef Jose Garces has won heaps of praise for the burgers he’s serving at Village Whiskey, and it’s well-deserved. His burgers are so lightly packed that they’re almost fluffy, and they come on a house-baked pain au lait bun that’s similar to brioche, but less eggy. The patties are well seasoned, super juicy, and full of flavor. If you’re looking for something especially decadent, go for the Whiskey King Burger, which is topped with maple bourbon-glazed cipollini onions, blue cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, and foie gras for good measure. It’s a wonder to behold.
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Since 1930, the corner of Weccacoe and Snyder Avenues has been home to John’s Roast Pork, a South Philly institution if ever there was one. John’s cheesesteak toiled in relative obscurity until 2002, when the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic Craig LaBan hailed it as the city’s best. And it is essentially a perfect cheesesteak. It starts with a soft and crusty seeded roll delivered fresh from nearby Carangi Baking Company every morning, which has some of its insides scooped out before being loaded with a full 12 ounces of thin-sliced loin tail (which has less gristle than the usual rib-eye). Meat is grilled to order atop diced Spanish onions and allowed to brown on one side before being flipped and separated, but not chopped. Five slices of American cheese are then added and folded in as the cheesesteak continues to cook. Fried Italian long hot peppers and ketchup are optional, but certainly don’t detract from this cheesesteak’s perfection.
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Han Dynasty is a Philadelphia legend, and it’s spawned five additional locations in the Philly area and two more in New York City. The reason for its success? It serves some of the finest Sichuan fare this side of Chengdu. Fiery chili oil bathes chicken, beef, tripe, dumplings, cold noodles, and wontons; other spot-on Sichuan specialties include dan dan noodles, tea-smoked duck, ma po tofu, and your choice of protein in styles including dry pot, dry pepper, dry fry, cumin, double-cooked, and kung pao.
Victory Brewing Company
Created in 1996 by best friends Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski, Victory Brewing Company is the toast of Pennsylvania, with a reach that spans the nation. The company uses German malted barley and both American and European whole-flower hops. (The use of whole-flower hops is unusual; the brewers insist this creates a better flavor and aroma in the beer.) Victory is well known for their Hop Devil IPA, but Belgian-style lovers flock around any tap that is pouring the fruity and spicy Golden Monkey. In 2016, Victory and New York State’s Southern Tier Brewing Company united under parent company Artisanal Brewing Ventures (ABV). “Like-minded brewers such as Victory and Southern Tier can preserve our character, culture and products by banding together,” said Bill Covaleski, founder and brewmaster of Victory.
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McGlinchey's Bar & Grill in Philadelphia is dark and dingy, and the smell of cigarette smoke from years past still lingers in the air. And that’s only the beginning of what makes this joint a spectacular dive bar. You can get hot dogs for less than $1 and beer for less than $4 while you sit among Philly’s most colorful characters.
Chef Michael Solomonov is well known for his take on Israeli cuisine at his restaurants, which include Zahav and Dizengoff, but he also mastered the art of making doughnuts. Opt for the classic "Hot Fresh" Cinnamon Brown Sugar doughnut, a fresh cake doughnut that's dredged in cinnamon and brown sugar, and cooked to order, so that it’s still comfortingly warm when you eat it.
Courtesy of Rittenhouse Farmers Market
Courtesy of Sweet Box
Sweet Box Cupcakes offers some of most the creatively flavored cupcakes in Philly. From pumpkin chocolate chip to strawberry Champagne and chocolate chip cookie dough (which has a glob of cookie dough in the middle of the cupcake), there is plenty to tempt any sweet tooth. Not to mention the bacon-flavored cupcakes like bacon maple pancake and chocolate-covered bacon. Owner Gretchen Fantini opened a storefront back in 2013, called Sweet Box Shop, but the truck is still going strong with menus that continue to change daily and seasonally.
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We have three words for you: duck fat fries. That’s right, at Village Whiskey in Philly, that’s the only kind of fries served, and they’re available on all three of the restaurant’s menus: All Day, Late Night, and Brunch. For an extra $2, you can get them topped with Sly Fox Cheddar sauce, and for an extra $7, you can add not only Cheddar but also short rib. We suggest you start with the ordinary version first, though, as you’ll most likely find there’s very little that’s ordinary about them.
Philadelphia has long been food-famous, but just for cheesesteaks and pretzels, right? Not so for the past few years, since Federal Donuts opened. While they are celebrated for their doughnuts, which come in unusual flavors like lavender, their tasty Korean-style fried chicken is also a force to be reckoned with. Every order of chicken includes Japanese cucumber pickles and a honey doughnut, and is served with your choice of dry seasoning (coconut curry or za’atar buttermilk ranch) and glaze (chili-garlic or honey ginger).
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Giant Food Stores: “Great selection of name brand and store brand items. Very nice employees and a nice interior. Although not the 'hippest' looking inside, the lower costs and excellent customer service more than makes up for a more plain looking store,” local shopper Robert Britton said.
Calling itself "downtown's oldest restaurant," Coney Island Lunch was founded (at a nearby location) in 1923. The name of the place might suggest a Coney Island-style dog, but the specialty here is the Texas wiener. That's a variety of dog supposedly invented by a Greek diner owner in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1918, and considered an authentic regional hot dog style in the Altoona-Scranton-Philadelphia triangle today. What makes it "Texas"? A slathering of chili. At Coney Island Lunch, the meat is a half-sliced Berks all-beef wiener from Reading, south of Scranton, grilled and served on a steamed non-traditional bun made by Scranton's own National Bakery. Düsseldorf mustard and onions diced on a 1928 Hobart chopper complete the package.
McGillin's Olde Ale House
Going strong since 1860, McGillin’s is Philly’s oldest tavern, and it’s also one of the city’s very best, frequented by locals, including city politicians, and visitors alike. Be generous to your server: The ship's bell behind the bar tolls for bad tippers. It’s also a perfect place to catch a Phillies game in the summertime.
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In this little jewel box of a place, chef Marc Vetri offers diners sophisticated, hand-crafted Italian and Italianate specialties, served only in the form of six-course, $155 tasting menus. Available items are listed under Antipasti, Pasta, Secondi, and Dolce (dessert); chef de cuisine Joe Delago will personalize the menu to your taste. You might end up with, for instance, roasted cauliflower with bagna cauda, lumache with duck ragù, guinea hen with seasonal mushrooms, and chocolate polenta soufflé for dessert. All is served with precision and grace, and there is a wine cellar of more than 2,500 bottles to choose from.
At Oyster House, freshness and authenticity are key. Owner Sam Mink ships in fresh lobster from Maine daily, along with buns made by New England’s JJ Nissen. This means that the lobster in your roll was in Maine waters less than 24 hours ago, and these rolls, which contain about a third of a pound of meat, are treated with as much reverence as they deserve: Warm rolls are topped with a citrus-kicked butter, cold ones are tossed with a little bit of mayo, diced celery, and a pinch of salt.
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Chicago-born Ecuadorian Iron Chef Jose Garces (who runs some of Philly’s most acclaimed restaurants, like Amada, Village Whiskey, and Volver) serves nachos, ceviches, huaraches, tamales, enchiladas, and moles here that Philadelphians recognize as some of the most satisfying versions on the East Coast. The somewhat gaudy, pink, loud, huge restaurant is dedicated to the cuisine of Mexico City, which is a rich source of inspiration.
Volver / Yelp
Chef Jose Garces has the Philly dining scene on lock, and his concepts range from inexpensive fast casual (Buena Onda) to very expensive fine dining (Volver). At his highest-end restaurant, a journey through his 10-course tasting menu will set you back $125, plus tax and 20 percent gratuity.
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Meltkraft is run by Valley Shepherd Creamery, and they’re using their high-end cheeses to turn out some astounding creations. There’s the Melter Skelter (three month raclette, pickled green tomatoes, jalapeños, barbecue potato chips, and watercress) and the Somerset (12- to 18-month Gruyère, cured ham, cornichons, and whole-grain mustard), but the Valley Thunder is the real scene-stealer: 12-month Cheddar, beef brisket, and baked macaroni and cheese.
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A Philly favorite for nearly 10 years, Le Virtu specializes in the cuisine of Abruzzo, and it turns out some of the best handmade pastas you’ll ever try night after night. Executive chef Joe Cicale keeps it simple, focusing on classic flavor combinations, high-quality ingredients, and an insane amount of skill. That’s best displayed with his maccheroni alla mugnaia: One long hand-pulled strand of pasta, simply dressed with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, hot pepper, and pecorino. It’s a dish you’ll be remembering for a long time.
Laura M / Yelp
There are just four pies, currently: No. 1 (tomato, whole-milk mozzarella, Old Gold aged cheese, and extra-virgin olive oil with the suggestion to add cremini, pepperoni, roasted onion, anchovy, pickled chiles, and/or sausage); No. 2 (asparagus, fresh cream, oyster mushroom, and ramps); No. 3, the “Arrabbiata” (labeled "angry"); and No. 4 (tomato, anchovy, garlic, oregano, and Old Gold).
Angry is what you may become when trying to sample this ballyhooed pizza. Pizzeria Beddia is only open Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., they don’t have a phone, only take orders in person, have a maximum order of two pizzas per party (not per person), and are cash-only. Keep in mind that there’s also no public restroom. This is important given that Beddia only serves 40 pies a night and that people start lining up as early as 2:30 p.m. “If there are more than 25 to 30 people in line, we are likely sold out,” warns Beddia’s site with “peace and love.” The place could be described as a millennial version of Brooklyn’s Di Fara.
Modern Israeli in Philadelphia? What does that entail? A melting pot of Middle Eastern and Central European cuisines, interwoven with a fine hand to create a feast of flavors by chef-owner Michael Solomonov (born in an Israeli town south of Tel Aviv called G'nei Yehuda, and raised in Pittsburgh). Settle into the warmly lit casual dining room at Zahav (“gold” in Hebrew) and start by ordering the hummus with house-baked laffa flatbread or ethereally silky hummus with butter and grilled garlic. If you’re in the mood for small plates, Zahav offers crispy grape leaves with ground beef and tomato; grilled duck hearts with pickled green tomatoes, green matbucha (a Moroccan sauce of tomatoes and peppers), and shabazi (a fiery Yemeni spice blend) onion rings; and crispy haloumi cheese with dates, pickled onion, walnuts, and Turkish Urfa chile flakes, among other dishes. Move on to the duck leg kebab with pistachio pilaf, pickled onions, and fig jam; kofte (ground beef and lamb) with peppers, carrots, and flageolet beans; and chicken shishlik and root vegetable tagine with Moroccan couscous and pickled mushrooms. Israeli Goldstar beer, imaginative cocktails, and one of the largest arrays of boutique Israeli wines outside of Israel complete the picture.
Maisha R / Yelp
DiNic’s serves a handful of classic hot Italian sandwiches such as slow-roasted brisket of beef and Italian-style pulled pork. The must-order, however, is DiNic’s roast pork sandwich. To make this beauty, a mound of juicy, thin-sliced, falling-apart pork is pulled from a tub of its own juices and added to thick slices of sharp aged provolone on a semolina roll then topped with slightly bitter, garlicky, tender, chopped broccoli rabe. The hot pork slightly melts the cheese below it, and the rabe ties it all together.
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Philly has no shortage of great soft pretzels, but the best just might be found inside Reading Terminal Market, at Miller’s Twist’s stand. Pretzels are made in full view of the public throughout the day, and the end result is a perfect representation of the Pennsylvania Dutch style: big, brown, soft, and topped with just the right amount of salt. They’re malty, buttery, slightly crisp on the outside, and warm and chewy on the inside. They’ll completely spoil you for all other pretzels.
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Snapper soup (made with snapping turtle, not the fish) is a lesser-known local Philadelphia delicacy popularized by the now-defunct Old Original Bookbinder’s. While Bookbinder’s famed version is now sold, sadly, only in a can, you can still find a stellar rendition at The Oyster House. The rich, deeply flavorful soup is loaded with turtle, chopped carrots, and celery, and hard-boiled egg, and a little sherry on the side kicks up the classiness factor.
This Philly neighborhood spot draws in a crowd of loyal locals for its great happy hour, Thursday quiz night, and 20 percent discount for industry folk. The menu is also a whole lot of fun (think mac and cheese croquettes, Buffalo fried cheese curds, General Tso’s wings, and Sunday gravy), and super-inexpensive, with entrées topping out at 22 bucks. The $19 steak frites, a hanger with bordelaise and shoestring fries, just might be the city’s best steak deal.
Sure, this Stephen Starr steakhouse on Rittenhouse Square might boast a selection of as many as seven different steak knives and a $100 wagyu ribeye and foie gras cheesesteak that comes with a half-bottle of Perrier-Jouët, but that doesn’t mean it’s gimmicky. Described as a "luxury boutique steakhouse" on its website, the restaurant replaces red leather with green and yellow suede, a clubby soundtrack, and slightly incongruous crystal chandeliers. While the setting is undoubtedly twenty-first century, the menu is as classic as can be: Steaks are dry-aged for 28 days, and the rib-eye, from New York's Gachot & Gachot (which supplies the legendary Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn), is arguably the best steak in the city — and there's world-class service to boot. Don’t forget to order the shrimp cocktail; these monsters come four to a pound.
Lucy T / Yelp
Restaurateur Stephen Starr knows what people love to eat, and at Philadelphia’s El Vez he’s bringing top-notch Mexican food to the hungry masses. An order of the tacos al carbon is enough to feed two, and the grilled shrimp is the way to go; it’s a masterpiece. Homemade flour tortillas get filled with slightly spicy and super flavorful shrimp that are hot off the grill, and you can customize how much poblano, pico de gallo, guacamole, and queso fresco you want to add. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2018.