If you can avoid the slew of tourists trying to figure out where the line starts for the Liberty Bell and if there are actually bifocals hidden in the bricks at Independence Hall like Nic Cage said, Old City can actually be a pretty great place to hang out. The cobblestone streets and old brick buildings remind us of simpler times, when they had casual duels to decide who was in charge. There are also a bunch of great places to eat and drink, and these are 15 of our favorites.
Amada is a small Spanish tapas bar in Old City from the people behind Distrito and Volver. It’s been around for a while, but is still one of the best places in Old City for a last minute date or even just an after-work Happy Hour drink with some coworkers. There’s usually a wait, especially on the weekend, but it’s worth it for things like grilled asparagus with truffles and a whole suckling pig. It’s also easy to spend a pretty absurd amount of money here, but you shouldn’t do that. And you don’t have to. They have lots of small plates that are relatively inexpensive, but all really good, like the beef short rib flatbread and lamb meatballs.
If you ask 100 random Philadelphians what their favorite special occasion spot is, we guarantee an overwhelming majority will say Fork. That’s because it’s a people pleaser with a straightforward, but excellent American menu, and it’s a great place to go with a big group. The space in Old City has white tablecloths and definitely feels upscale, but you won’t feel like you’re at a stuffy steakhouse or, worse, The Union League. It also has a Sunday brunch with some perfect maple French toast and a steak and eggs dish that will make you want to eat breakfast for every meal (if you don’t already).
Han Dynasty has a bunch of locations, but the Old City original is still the best one. It’s in an old, ornate building that has a long bar where you can sit and watch whatever sports happen to be on. It also has our favorite Sichuan food in the city, and you can order a whole lot of it for about $25. Their dan dan noodles are our favorite thing here (even though they’re pretty spicy), but if you can’t handle the heat, there are about 50 other things on the menu that you can get instead.
The Continental - which has locations in both Old City and Center City - is basically an upscale diner that serves alcohol. You can come here for any meal of the day, and, while they’re not open 24/7 like a normal diner, they do serve dinner until 1am, which is about the latest you can get food anywhere in the city. They also have a great brunch that includes a pretty perfect huevos rancheros, and a Bloody Mary topped with a beer that will make you forsake all other Bloody Marys.
Spasso Italian Grille has one very important function, and that is a weeknight Happy Hour where you can spend next to nothing and get a full meal. It’s every weeknight until 7pm and includes specials like $3 beers, $4 fried ravioli, and $6 Manhattans. You can also go for a full dinner, and while it’s not the most amazing Italian food you’ll ever have, it’s cheap, the pasta is good, and it’s all served in a cavern-like space that kind of reminds us of the Pirates of The Caribbean ride at Disney World.
There aren’t a ton of places in the city where you can get good, casual Southern food - everything is either an “upscale take” on it, which really just means they serve fried chicken on an $80 artisan plate, or it’s a dive bar that serves you something that they say is gumbo, but looks more like they just threw a bunch of day-old seafood in a pot and called it a dish. Common Wealth is the perfect middle ground, and somewhere you can go for a consistently good, low country-inspired meal with things like fried green tomatoes and a Cajun shrimp po’boy.
Lucha Cartel is the kind of place that you want to bring your college friends when they’re in town and you’re trying to show them just how easy it is to eat and get tipsy in Philly on almost no money. Almost every item on their menu is $5 during Happy Hour (including the margaritas, which are deceptively strong), and they even have a porch out front with large, picnic-style tables that will work just fine for you and your senior year housemates. Just know that if you spend over $20 per person, you’ve done something wrong.
Fat Salmon is one of the best sushi spots in the area and it’s a great place for a small group dinner to start a night out. They serve big platters of interesting rolls that include things like plum paste and pico de gallo, and they’re perfect for sharing. Their cocktails are much better than you’d expect from a neighborhood sushi spot, and they also have pink and blue mood lighting that’ll remind you of a club, but without the loud music and people stepping on your toes with five-inch heels. So really, you should just spend your night eating and drinking here and ditch whatever plans you made. Their kitchen stays open until 11pm on weekends, so it’s totally doable.
La Scala’s was probably an upscale place at some point, but now it’s more of an Italian diner, with mirrored walls and TV’s that are usually playing whatever game is on. Their menu is pretty much what you would expect from a classic Italian place, and your best bet is sticking with the pizzas and pastas, which are all delightfully great. Use LaScala’s when you’re in the area and need a spot for a weeknight dinner, or when you’re wandering around Old City on a Sunday night looking for a place to watch the Eagles game.
Zahav is in Society Hill, but considering it’s about 15 steps from the Old City border (we may or may not have measured), we thought it was fair to include it here. It’s also one of the best places to have dinner in the whole city, so if you’re even remotely near Zahav, it’s worth including it in the conversation. However, the upscale Israeli spot is notoriously tough to get a reservation at, so if you’re trying to grab dinner here, you’re probably looking at a pretty long wait unless you can get a bar seat right when they open at 5pm.
Jones is a huge comfort food restaurant from the biggest restaurant empire in the city, and it looks like the living room in That 70’s Show, combined with a multimillion-dollar Palm Springs vacation house. Everything about it is retro, from the stone fireplace to the moss-green booths, and they have one of our favorite brunches. It’s full of things like baked mac and cheese and matzo ball soup, but what you really want to order is the monkey bread and a Bloody Mary (or three).
Sassafras is a small, romantic bar in Old City that has good bar food and even better drinks. It looks kind of like the living room of an old, expensive house that’s also definitely haunted, and the lighting is always dim, with candles on all six of the tables. The menu is heavy on appetizers and pretty basic, but they have some great burgers, which you can even get with ostrich meat, although the bison is better.
When you’re looking for a place to have dinner that feels more like a family dining room than a restaurant, La Locanda is your best bet. They serve great red sauce Italian food, it’s pretty inexpensive, and the staff is so friendly you’ll want to go to their house for the holidays instead of your parents’. It’s also BYOB, so make sure you pick up a bottle of wine or three on your way there.
While we think it’s a little overrated, Royal Boucherie is still a solid place to meet up with some friends or a date for a glass of wine and some oysters. They also have a good (if overpriced) burger, and when it’s nice out, you can hang out on the roof and get subtly drunk while shoveling their entire raw bar into your mouth. The menu is French-leaning, and the dark tavern interior looks like somewhere you’d meet your cohorts after successfully robbing a bank together.
There are a lot of neighborhood sushi spots around the city, but none of them receive as much hype as Kisso. It’s in a little orange room on the corner of North 4th and Race, and the menu is straightforward, but everything on it is very, very good. Which would explain why, on a random Tuesday night, you’ll sometimes encounter a 30-minute wait. If you decide to stick it out, they serve some of the freshest fish around and they have some interesting appetizers as well - like the music box (warm king crab in a soy bean wrap topped with creamy soy sauce), and a red snapper carpaccio that we still crave regularly.