Philly's food is far more than cheese steaks.
Food is serious business in Philadelphia - and I'm not just talking about the city's famed cheese steaks and soft pretzels. While you can get those delectables on almost any block, take delight in the fact that Philly's restaurant scene has exploded in recent years. Diners can now choose from an outstanding range of cuisines, styles and prices.
Restaurateurs and chefs are celebrities in Philly these days. Neil Stein runs a string of upper-end restaurants, as does George Perrier. Stephen Starr specializes in a blend of food and theater, while Delilah Winder leans toward Southern soul food. And all of Philly know who these people are.
Philadelphia takes its chefs and its food so seriously that the city is host to an annual cookbook festival each March, the Book and the Cook Festival and Fair.
With the restaurant scene as hot as it is, places are opening - and sometimes closing - with lightning speed. Getting a table at the most popular dining spots is often tricky. If you want to try a restaurant you've heard about, call as far ahead as you can and make a reservation. It's not uncommon for some of the city's better-known restaurants to book more than a month in advance.
So, where to go? The choices are almost endless. The hot new trend is Cuban food, which features long cooking times, subtle spices and Caribbean fruits. Three Cuban restaurants have opened this year alone: Alma de Cuba (1623 Walnut St., 215-988-1799), Cuba Libre (10 S. 2nd St., 215-627-0666) and CafM-i Habana (102 S. 21st St., 215-561-2822). These are some of the hottest new restaurants in town, so again I say, book your table early.
Before you have dinner, though, you'll want to get breakfast and lunch. For a fun, inexpensive breakfast, try the Down Home Diner (Reading Terminal Market, 215-627-1955). For $5 you can enjoy a hearty, home-cooked breakfast in diner style. The French toast is rich and buttery, and the fresh-squeezed juices are fantastic. A note: Bring cash; the diner doesn't take credit cards.
Another breakfast option is to stroll around the market area, selecting pastries and coffee from the many vendors. Or, if you want to people-watch as you wake up, choose a coffee house on Walnut Street or Rittenhouse Square and have a latte and a muffin.
If getting up early isn't your thing but dining in elegant surroundings is, you can't beat the Ritz- Carlton's outstanding lobby restaurant (10 Avenue of the Arts, 215-735-7700). You can have tea Mondays to Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The Ritz isn't the cheapest place in town, but the luxurious setting is worth the splurge.
For lunch, try one of the town's famous cheese steaks, if you are so inclined. There's always wild debate over where the best cheese steaks can be found, but go ahead and ask some of the workers at your hotel for their favorite places. Or, go to the Reading Terminal Market, South Street or the Italian Market (Ninth and Christian streets).
If you're looking for a more exotic lunch choice, Chinatown provides blocks of choices, with food styles from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and other places.
In the Washington Square district, you might want to check out the Middle Eastern cuisine at Sahara Grill (1334 Walnut St., 215-985-4155). For less than $10 per person, you can enjoy an appetizer and a very ample sandwich or entree. The place isn't fancy, but the service is good and the food is perfectly prepared. The hummus is highly recommended, as are the chicken kebabs.
For an upscale lunch choice, mingle with the people on Rittenhouse Square. Rouge (205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622) and its sister restaurant, Bleu (227 S. 18th St., 215-545-0342), are both creations of Neil Stein, one of the city's most highly regarded restaurateurs. The menus are French-tinged, with a hint of Asian fusion style. While the food is not cheap, you do get to feel as if you're basking in a Parisian cafe.
If you want the feel of the Rittenhouse Square district, without the prices of Rouge or Bleu, or if you have kids with you, try San Marzano (1509 Walnut St., 215-564-3562). This pizza place is more upscale than most, with a beautiful wood staircase. The food is fresh and affordable, and the pizza is baked to order, so it arrives piping-hot at the table. It's a great choice for a civilized lunch that won't wound your wallet.
Dinner is when Philly's restaurant scene rocks. You can span the centuries with your dinner choices, or dine in some truly theatrical settings. The Philadelphia visitors' Web site (www.gophi la.com) can help you sort through options. Or pick up a copy of one of the local magazines (Philadelphia or Philadelphia Style) or newspapers to see what's hot.
In the meantime, here are a few recommendations.