Cuisine of Philadelphia
The Cuisine of Philadelphia
was shaped largely by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's mixture of
ethnicities, available foodstuffs and history. Certain foods have
become iconic to the city.
in Philadelphia in the 1930s, the cheesesteak is the most well
known icon of the city, and soft pretzels have become a part of
Philadelphia culture. During the 18th century city taverns
were major meeting places for politicians and businessmen, while
the 19th century saw the creation of two Philadelphia landmarks,
the Reading Terminal Market and Italian Market. After a
dismal restaurant scene during the post-war era of the 20th
century, the 1970s brough a restaurant renaissance that has
continued into the 21st century.
Philadelphia's large immigrant population has contributed to a
large mixture of tastes to mingle and develop. Many types of foods
have been created in or near Philadelphia or have strong
associations with the city. Philadelphia's most iconic food is the
cheesesteak. The cheesesteak is a sandwich traditionally made with
sliced beef and melted cheese on an Italian roll. In the 1930s,
the phenomenon as a steak sandwich began when hot dog vendor
brothers Pat Olivieri and Harry Olivieri put grilled beef on a hot
dog bun and gave it to a taxi driver.
Later, after Pat and Harry had started selling the sandwich on
Italian rolls, the cheesesteak was affixed in the local culture
when one of their cooks put melted cheese on the sandwich.
Originally, the cheese was melted in a separate container to
accommodate their large clientele who followed kosher rules
(thereby not mixing dairy and meat). Today, cheese choices in
Philadelphia eateries are virtually limited to American,
Provolone, or Cheese Whiz. The latter is especially popular in
those places that prominently carry it.
The hoagie is another sandwich that is said to have been
invented in Philadelphia, undoubtedly of origin in
Italian-American cuisine. It has been asserted that Italians
working at the World War I era shipyard in Philadelphia, known as
Hog Island where emergency shipping was produced for the war
effort, introduced the sandwich, by putting various sliced meats,
cheeses, and lettuce between two slices of Italian bread. This
became known as the "Hog Island" sandwich; hence, the "hoagie".
Declared the official sandwich of Philadelphia in 1992, the
hoagie is a sandwich made of meat and cheese with lettuce,
tomatoes, and onions on an Italian roll. Another Italian
roll sandwich is the roast pork Italian. The sandwich consists of
sliced roast pork with broccoli rabe or spinach and provolone
cheese. Philadelphia Pepper Pot, a soup of tripe, meat,
vegetables, is claimed to have been created during the American
Revolutionary War and named after the home city of its creator.
Snapper Soup, a thick brown turtle soup served with sherry, is
a Philadelphia delicacy, generally found in area bars and seafood
restaurants. In many places, it is served with oyster crackers
(such as OTC Crackers, OTC being an abbreviation for "Original
Trenton Cracker") and horseradish.
The snack item commonly associated with Philadelphia, but not
invented there, is the soft pretzel. The soft pretzel dates back
to 7th-century France and was brought over to the Philadelphia
area by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Pretzels became iconic with
Philadelphia by the numerous vendors who would sell them on street
Water ice or Italian ice is similarly associated with
Philadelphia because of its popularity here. Tastykake is the most
well-known snack brand native to Philadelphia. Since 1914, the
Tasty Baking Company has provided the region with its line of
pre-packaged baked goods; best-known varieties include Krimpets ,
cupcakes, Kandy Kakes (wafer-sized chocolate and peanut butter
cakes), Tasty Pies (like a Hostess' snack pie, but not deep-fried
In early Philadelphia history the city's eating scene was
dominated by taverns. By 1752, Philadelphia had 120 licensed
taverns and numerous illegal taverns. The taverns ranged for all
types of people and class from illegal grog shops on the
waterfront that sailors frequented to the upper class taverns that
members of city government enjoyed. Taverns such as the London
Coffee House, the Blue Anchor, Tun Tavern and John Biddle's Indian
King were regular meeting places for the political and business
leaders of the city.
Popular restaurants during the early 19th century included the
United States Hotel and Parkinson's on Chestnut Street and Joseph
Head Mansion's House on Spruce Street. One of the most significant
restaurateurs and caterers at this time was M. Latouche, an expert
in French cuisine, whose restaurant offered expensive food and
choice wine. Toward the end of the 19th century, the large number
of Italian immigrants in South Philadelphia led to the creation of
the Italian Market. The market, which runs along part of south 9th
Street, includes numerous types of food vendors along with other
shops, although today it is mostly made up of non-Italian
Another market, the Reading Terminal Market, opened in 1892.
Created to replace the markets displaced by the construction of
the Reading Terminal on Market Street in Center City, Reading
Terminal Market has over 80 merchants and is a popular tourist
attraction. In 1902, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened the
first automat in the U.S. at 818 Chestnut Street, now a retail
store. The original Automat is now part of the Smithsonian
In the 1950s and 1960s, the restaurant scene was in decline.
The city saw a large emigration into the suburbs, and fine dining
could be found mainly in private clubs and dinner parties. But as
the city started to rebound in the 1970s, Philadelphia saw a
For instance, in 1970 Georges Perrier and Peter Von Starck
founded French restaurant Le Panetiere. After a year, the two
split, with Von Starck taking the Panetiere name to a different
location. Perrier opened Le Bec-Fin at 13th & Spruce Street, then
later at 1523 Walnut Street, which quickly became one of
Philadelphia's most renowned restaurants. The years following saw
many new fine dining places open, including Four Seasons' Fountain
Restaurant in 1983.
Along with the up-scale restaurants, numerous ethnic and
fast-food restaurants opened throughout the city. The 1970s also
saw the rise of street vendors. The vendors, building off the well
established tradition of chestnut and pretzel vendors, began
selling numerous foods, especially hot dogs, cheesesteaks, and
By taking up sidewalk space and possibly business, the vendors
annoyed established stores which eventually led to numerous legal
battles over ordinances which placed restrictions on vendors. The
issue was surrounded by race and class overtones, but vendors have
since become commonplace and even nationally renown for serving
Today, a wide variety of eateries thrive in Philadelphia. The
city has a growing reputation for culinary excellence, and many of
the city's chefs have been honored with nominations for James
Beard Awards. Prolific local restaurateurs like Stephen
Starr's Starr Restaurant Organization and Iron Chef Jose Garces's
Garces Restaurant Group operate restaurants that coexist with
small chef-owned BYOBs.
Major dining locations in Center City include Rittenhouse
Square, Old City, Chinatown, and East Passyunk Avenue. A
variety of cuisine popular with Philadelphians today include
Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, Japanese, steakhouses, French,
gastropub fare, tapas, diners, delis, and pizzerias.
In September 2006, a smoking ban went into effect for
Philadelphia bars and restaurants. The ban, which exempts private
clubs, hotels, specialty smoking shops, and waiver-eligible bars
that serve little food, had a troubled start and went unenforced
until January 2007. Just a month later Philadelphia City
Council passed a ban on trans fat in restaurants, effective
September 2, 2007.
- German butter cake—A very rich type of pound cake with a
buttery, pudding-like center. Not to be confused with the
traditional butter cake or the St. Louis version.
- Tomato Pie—Essentially a cheeseless pizza two feet by
three feet in size, with extra oregano. Tomato pie is normally
served cold or at room temperature. It is more often found in
the Northeast section of Philadelphia and at bakeries in South
Philadelphia with variations found in Trenton, New Jersey and
other suburban localities.
- Cheese sauce —A gooey, orange, dairy condiment carried by
many street vendors. In general, Philadelphians often add
cheese sauce to inexpensive food items, such as French fries
and pretzels. The vast majority of "cheese sauce" served on
Philadelphia foods is the nationally recognized brand, Cheez
Whiz. It is common to hear people—mostly tourists trying to
sound "Philadelphian"--while ordering a cheesesteak say, "Wiz
wit'" or "Wiz wit'out". This is commonly portrayed as
Philadelphia vernacular for Cheez Whiz with or without onions.
- Pork roll, although developed and mostly produced in
Trenton, is considered part of the Philadelphia culinary
- Scrapple, a processed meat loaf made of pork scraps and
trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour, is perhaps the
most iconic of Pennsylvanian breakfast foods.
- Peanut Chews, a popular candy produced in Philadelphia
- Spiced wafers, a type of cookie traditionally sold in the
- Stromboli is reported to have originated
in 1950 in Essington just outside of Philadelphia. It is a
type of turnover made with Italian bread dough filled with
various kinds of cheese, Italian charcuterie or vegetables.
Panzarotti is a trademark for a type of deep-fried stromboli.
- Beer was brewed by the colonials in
Philadelphia from its very start. In addition to
Philadelphia-style porter being known throughout the world,
Philadelphia was ranked as one of the 14 best beer cities in
the world by Frommer's in 2011. A lager brewery was
established in the Northern Liberties section in the 1840s.
The beer most associated with Philadelphia today is perhaps
Yuengling, brewed in nearby Pottsville, Pennsylvania. At one
point, the city had more than a hundred breweries, though most
closed with Prohibition. Schmidt's and Ortlieb's were the
city's last mass-market brewers, both out of business by the
1990s. Today, a handful of micro-breweries operate in and
around the city, including Yards, the Philadelphia Brewing
Company, Sly Fox, Lion Brewery, Manayunk, Red Bell, Victory,
Flying Fish, and Nodding Head (see Breweries in Philadelphia).
- Spirits - Philadelphia Distilling is a
distillery in East Falls, Philadelphia. It produces Bluecoat
Gin, Penn 1681 Vodka and Vieux Carré Absinthe. Publicker
Industries once operated a distillery along the Delaware River
just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge. It produced Old Hickory
bourbon and other spirits, as well as industrial alcohol.