Any college student will tell you, the best way to keep cash in your pocket and still eat well is to go ethnic. Authentic ethnic eateries are the tastiest of bargains, like New Delhi where a daily lunch ($8.95) and dinner ($12.95) buffet groans with real deal chicken tikka masala, tandoori, dal makhni and other Indian specialties. For Southeast Asian delights, try Le Viet, a stylish year-old newcomer not far from the Italian market. Fill up on a bowl of hearty Pho noodle soup and an order of fresh spring rolls and you’ll still get change back from your $10. Near the convention center, Dim Sum Garden may look nondescript on the outside, but inside, it’s a dumpling lover’s dream. Try an order (or two) of authentic Shanghai soup dumplings, tricky to eat because the soup is on the inside, but once mastered, positively addictive. The family owned Kebab House is a cozy Ottoman oasis specializing in Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine. Besides kebabs of every stripe (the organic lamb doner is a house specialty), there’s sautéed and baked vegetarian options and an especially creamy hummus for dipping.
When it comes to a BYOB restaurant scene, Philadelphia is a real corker.
With more than 230 bring your own bottle eateries around town, diners can save big bucks – and drink their favorite vintages without paying a restaurant mark-up. Sticker shocked by the high price of liquor licenses, more chefs, like Ian Moroney, who owns the 28-seat Pumpkin on South Street, opt to do what they do best. “I got into this business to cook, not run a bar. BYOB works for us, and our customers love it.” Moroney, like most BYOB owners, doesn’t charge a corkage fee, another reason to wine and dine, Philadelphia style.
Three to Try …
Mercato: Chef Mackenzie Hilton infuses the slow cooking of Old World Italy with a bold take on new Italian American cuisine at this airy cash only BYOB. Large floor-to-ceiling windows open out onto a lively street scene. 1216 Spruce St, (215) 985.BYOB
Pumpkin: Artful New American cuisine, locally sourced produce and a great deal on Sundays: five courses for $35, including dishes like seared scallops over lentils spiked with a beet vinaigrette and braised branzino with fennel, preserved lemons and olive tapenade. 1713 South St. (215) 545-4448
Kanella: Cyprus meets Greece at Kanella’s table, where chef/owner Konstantinos Pitsillides coaxes wonderful flavors out of slowly braised rabbit with butter beans and the daily whole fish, simply roasted with seasonal greens. Or come for the Cyprus breakfast, eggs fried in olive oil with tangy houlami cheese. 1001 Spruce St. (215) 922-1773
BYOB Bits: Reservation policies vary, so call ahead. Ask in advance about credits cards – cash only is not uncommon. And if you don’t have your favorite Super Tuscan handy, not to worry, here’s an interactive map of the city by neighborhood, complete with the locations of the nearest liquor store.
Rittenhouse Tavern is the latest restaurant to claim the gracious dining space in the stunning Philadelphia Art Alliance, a mixed used art and event space built on Rittenhouse Square in 1906 as the historic Wetherill mansion. Besides the chance to dine in the newly landscaped secret garden, reason enough to pay a visit, the Tavern dishes creative and gorgeously composed modern cuisine from chef Nicholas Elmi, formerly of Le Bec-Fin. Chef Nick, working with consulting chef Ed Brown of Restaurant Associates, pays homage to his classical French roots while bringing seasonal sensibilities to every plate, starting with spring asparagus with wild ramps and preserved lemon and a paired rhubarb reduction with English peas and seared dayboat scallops. Sassy bar snacks deconstruct a deviled egg over scrapple and hop to with frog legs crisped atop a watercress smear and a dab of Philly cream cheese. The fried chicken Sunday supper is served family style for $18 per person, including sides and buttermilk biscuits. For dessert, the brown butter cake with lavender crème fraiche sorbet is a must. A tidy menu of craft beer, artisinal cocktails (love the Betsy Ross with gin and St. Germain) and a well balanced wine list offered by the glass, bottle and quartino, round out the menu. While chef Nick was certainly adept at classic French cuisine, he’s having fun here, and the change is delicious.
Although vegetarian-friendly menus are common these days, vegans sometimes get a shorter shrift. Not at Meritage where meat free dining rules every Tuesday, with a $35, four course tasting of seasonal delights. Think roasted baby beets with rhubarb, mint, and citrus or a nutty chickpea cake served with olive tapenade, smoky tomato chutney.
In the Reading Terminal Market, Basic Four Vegetarian Snack Bar bests the “just salad” option with housemade veggie burgers, tofu turkey sandwiches and a faux tuna fish salad that will knock your organic cotton socks off.
Fans of smoky barbecue should head directly to Khyber Pass Pub where the vegan pulled pork is just delish, topped with a zippy vinegar based sauce and a pile of cole slaw.
And for upscale vegan, can’t wait for Vedge to open later this month, a classy spot from Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, last of Horizon, in the old Deux Cheminees spot on Locust.
At Barbuzzo, the delectable modern-Medi in Midtown Village, chef/co-owner Marcie Turney doesn’t just proclaim a locavore bent. A chalkboard is updated daily with specific veg, fruit and dairy sourced from farms in Chester and Lancaster Counties, verdant spots including Green Meadow and Blue Moon Acres. Even carnivores will swoon over the daily farm-fresh vegetable board, which might hold thyme-scented coins of sweet carrot, fig and goat cheese crostini and green beans in a pistachio pesto.
Instead of ordering an impersonal gourmet basket from a national outfit like Harry and David, why not patronize a local business and customize a basket to the tastes of your client, neighbor, office mate or friend? Here are three Philly-area locally owned businesses that do mouth-watering jobs at packaging a gourmet gift basket sure to please.
At the Pennsylvania General Store in the Reading Terminal Market, owners Michael and Julie Holahan showcase some of the best food products in the region, available individually or in gift baskets. Treats include Uncle Jerry’s pretzels, Bucks County Coffee, Sweetzel’s spiced wafers, Asher’s chocolates, Lancaster County saffron and homemade jams and Philly born and raised Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. There’s even a basket designed with the Philly sports fan in mind. For $47.97, your pal can cheer on the Eagles while munching on the likes of Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets, Utz Potato Chips, Rosie’s Butter Cookies, Asher’s Keystone Crunch, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, Uncle Jerry’s Hard Pretzels and Mama Lou’s Dipping Mustard. You even get an Eagles’ bumper sticker as a bonus.
A basket from Chaddsford Winery puts the spotlight on Eric and Lee Miller’s award winning wine. Oenophiles will love the $58.99 Craft Cuvee Collection, 2009 vintages made in small lots of 200 cases or less.
At Carlino’s in Ardmore, three generations of the Carlino family purvey all kinds of imported Italian goodies. Prices start around $50 for customized gift basket, with the Italian feast one of the most popular combos, at $60-$125. Savor olive oil from the family’s hometown in Abruzzi, fresh mozzarella, aged provolone, olives, fresh baked bread and assorted other goodies, including something for the sweet tooth, like Italian biscotti, chocolate or cookies.
Aikens, who began his career at Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London, came to town with quite the pedigree. He most recently cooked with his identical twin brother, Tom Aikens, chef/owner of the Michelin starred restaurant of the same name.
Aikens infuses The Dandelion’s menu with a seasonal and locally sourced take on traditional fare, updated comfort dishes like Cumberland sausages with mashed potato and onion gravy; beer battered fish and chips and rabbit pie with cipollini onions, oyster mushrooms and grain mustard. A food-friendly beer list heavy on U.K. drafts includes three, constantly-rotating cask ales. If there’s a seat, head upstairs to the doggy-themed bar for a pint, or relax on the main floor in cushy couches by the fireplace. The vibe is cozy, the food is haute comfort and the scene is Starr-worthy, a nice addition to the local pub culture.