Ever since Pat and Harry Olivieri made the celebrated decision to serve chopped steak on a roll in the 1930s (think Pat’s King of Steaks), Philly’s been a bastion for meat-oholics. And as one of the nation’s prime micro brewing locations once upon a time, with literally hundreds of local brewers, Philly clearly took (takes) its beef and beer seriously. Sure our city used to have a hot body with an ugly face, lots of bar and restaurant gems hiding quietly off our cobblestone streets. But just as our city wage tax has increased over the years, so too has our penchant for finer pubs with ever-better food and drink options. In short, we’ve cleaned up our act.
I can think of no better example than in the category of gastropubs, those English versions of the French brasserie, and we’ve got them in hoards. Instead of boeuf bourguignon, it’s an artisan burger replete with caramelized onions and stuffed with Roquefort (Good Dog Bar & Restaurant); instead of Chardonnay, it’s locally produced ales, tasty microbrews and, dare I say, “lager.” With so many choices out there, it’s hard to pick just a handful but nevertheless, here are a few local favorites listed by neighborhood.
Northern Liberties, a.k.a. “No Libs”
A hip neighborhood just north of Center City, Northern Liberties has a gastropub trifecta. There’s the Standard Tap, perhaps the original Philly gastropub, with its carefully chosen selection of local drafts, stellar jukebox, friendly staff and meat-centric menu. What more could you ask for in a pub? They’ve got one of the best lamb sandwiches in town too, accompanied by homemade potato chips, a clear sign of high-quality pub fare. It’s dark and warmly light inside but there’s also a nice outdoor deck perfect for an evening cocktail with friends. Like taking the Chinatown bus, the downstairs seating situation’s a little chaotic but it’s rarely too crowded. Just down the street you’ll find North 3rd, another No Libs staple. An eclectic assemblage of art and artifacts make for an interesting setting to enjoy their famed blood orange margaritas. Walk only a half a block further and you’ll find the Abbaye, providing an extremely comfortable and relaxed setting, which is good because service can be a little slow at times. But the Abbaye cheesesteak’s worth the wait–instead of your typical Whiz-covered mess, they serve it up with quality hunks of tender sirloin on a perfectly toasted roll.
Port Richmond/Fishtown/Kensington, a.k.a. “Port Fishington”
When the BMW’s started moving into No Libs a few years back, the hipsters started moving out. Where did they go? Some went to West Philly but others moved just north into Fishtown and Kensington, where cheap rent allowed the struggling twentysomething youths to maintain their lives of booze, over-priced vintage clothing and iPhones. For those in the know, the Memphis Taproom provides a nice respite in the burgeoning neighborhood. Gluttonous menu choices like the chicken fried chicken and locally inspired Port Richmond Platter (grilled keilbasy, pierogies, potato pancakes and krout) will surely bring a smile to your face. But there’s lighter fare too, like the ALT (avocado vegan “bacon,” lettuce and tomato on toast with roasted tomato brown-sugar mayo). Drafts are area-inspired with Stoudt’s, Dogfish Head and Philadelphia Brewing Company all in attendance. And I shouldn’t forget to mention the expansive bottled beer list, packed with well-picked selections from Belgium, the U.K., Germany, Canada and Cali, among others. For $8, a glass of the Chimay Grand Reserve will pair expertly with those beer-battered kosher dills you’ll be ordering, made even better dipped in their horseradish buttermilk accompaniment. They’re not afraid of the fryer here, nor should you be.
South of historic Old City, you might be surprised to find the Royal Tavern in Philly’s Bella Vista neighborhood. But the popular tavern’s right at home on East Passyunk Avenue, a hidden gem with a modest façade. It might not look like much from the outside but the simple approach pays off in the kitchen. Whether stopping in for lunch, dinner or brunch, Royal’s menu has something for everyone. You’ll also find more vegetarian and vegan options than usual–the Tempeh Club, for instance (vegan bacon, grilled tempeh, lettuce, tomatoes and basil aiolo on Pullman loaf) is extremely popular, even among non-vegans. Their riff on the classic burger option comes topped with bacon, caramelized onions, smoked Gouda, pickled longhots and chile mayonnaise on a seeded brioche bun. Naturally, the beautifully wooded vintage bar, a piece of art in itself, is serving up all the local drafts as you’d expect. Come on Sunday morning for brunch and try the well-balanced Bloody Mary, one of the best in town.
Graduate Hospital, a.k.a. “G-Ho”
South of the posh Rittenhouse area, Grace Tavern sits on a modest street in the G-Ho neighborhood, so named after the closed-down Graduate Hospital on its northern edge. No worries though, should the sausage-centric menu give you a coronary, it’s just a short ambulance ride over to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (one of the best in the nation). The menu’s simple but good, mostly sausage sandwich and burger variations, which gives you more time to select the appropriate libation. There’s a quality craft beer selection and some real rarities on tap, like Monk’s Café Flemish Sour.
Down on Mifflin Street in South Philly is the much-heralded South Philadelphia Tap Room. Perusing the menu, you might interpret it as a script for a new show on Animal Planet; you’ll find ostrich kebobs, pork cheek, salmon belly, wild boar, bear and they even served lion for a short stint before the animal rights advocates got to them. The lion, in SPTR’s defense, was procured from a federally licensed Illinois farm that raises the African cats for human consumption. But the folks at SPTR maintain that their wild menu isn’t a gimmick, instead, they enjoy exposing customers to new flavors. But don’t let all the carnivorous press distract you from what’s really happening at this exceptional pub. Beyond the food, which is excellent, the beer selection is quite voluminous–my last count was 13 on tap and 108 different bottled selections.