I used to work as a chef in Philadelphia. Here are the 12 restaurants I always recommend to first-time visitors.

The skyline of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The skyline of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.photo.ua/Shutterstock
  • I'm a Philadelphia native who used to work as a chef and baker in restaurants around the city.

  • Philadelphia is known for its cheesesteaks, but it also has great Mexican, Italian, and Thai food.

  • No trip is complete without a basket of fries from Monk's Cafe and a hoagie from Middle Child.

After spending three years working as a chef and baker in various Philadelphia restaurants, I've been exposed to quite a few of the best spots in town.

I've learned so much about the city's dining scene that I've become my friends' unofficial restaurant finder. So, I compiled a list of the places I recommend over and over again.

There are too many restaurants in Philadelphia worth trying to list them all here. And I didn't include any cheesesteaks on this list since I'm not a huge fan of them, a fact that feels sacrilegious to admit as a Philly native.

However, these 12 restaurants are my tried-and-true favorites that every first-time visitor should try during a trip to Philadelphia.

South Philly Barbacoa lives up to its reputation as the Mexican restaurant with the best tacos in Philadelphia

South Philly Barbacoa plate of tacos
The famous barbacoa tacos with consomme and a sweet tamale.Grace Kennedy

If you can only eat one meal in Philly, it should be at South Philly Barbacoa.

Located in the Italian Market, it's not exactly a secret spot. The chef and owner, Cristina Martínez, was featured on season five of Netflix's "Chef's Table" and won the James Beard Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2022.

South Philly Barbacoa is one of the few places where the hype is very, very real, and I consider the tacos the best in the city. On Saturdays and Sundays, the cash-only restaurant is only open from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., but it's worth the effort to get there.

Order the barbacoa tacos. The consommé with chickpeas and rice is also not to be missed.

After your meal, explore the Italian Market, browse the shelves at Molly's Books and Records, or grab a beer at the DiBruno Bros. Bottle Shop up the street.

Blue Corn, another Mexican restaurant in the Italian Market, is perfect for a laid-back group outing 

Another Italian Market stalwart, Blue Corn is a Mexican restaurant that's great for a group outing, especially in the summer.

Sit on the sidewalk, order a margarita the size of your head, and split the whole grilled-fish entrée amongst your crew.

When you're done, walk down to Rim Cafe for some gelato to cap off an ideal summer evening.

Buna Cafe in West Philly delivers large portions of flavor-packed Ethiopian food 

the writer eating at buna cafe in philly
Injera, doro wat, and the veggie combination platter.Grace Kennedy

West Philly is known for its Ethiopian food, and Buna Cafe serves some of the best.

The doro wat, a chicken dish that's braised for hours, is reason enough to justify a trip across the Schuylkill River, and the restaurant also has great vegetarian options.

I love the vegetarian combo platter. It includes your choice of shiro wat, which is ground chickpea stew, or misir wat, which is a red-lentil stew, and three other vegetable dishes piled on top of injera, a pancake-like flatbread.

The platter is large enough for two people to split or for one person to take home and keep as leftovers. The next morning, they can fry it up with injera and eggs for breakfast.

Buna Cafe is BYOB, so grab a six-pack or bottle of wine from the Local 44 bottle shop on your way out to West Philly.

You can't go wrong ordering from the menu at Gabriella's Vietnam 

I've sent so many friends to Gabriella's Vietnam that I'm starting to feel like its unofficial publicist. Just go into the meal with an empty stomach.

If you're not sure what to get, order some of the heavy hitters like the water-fern dumplings, the savory crepes, the shaken beef, and the catfish hot pot.

Gabriella's Vietnam is another BYOB joint, so bring something light, crisp, and refreshing.

Terakawa Ramen is my go-to stop during cold Philadelphia winters

writer's friend eating ramen at terakawa in philly
Ramen at Terakawa.Grace Kennedy

If you come to Philly in the winter, take yourself to Terakawa Ramen in Chinatown. In my opinion, it's the best ramen in the city, and it always helps thaw my cold fingers.

I'm partial to the tan tan ramen and order it whenever I'm sick, but pretty much everything I've ordered from here is good. The pork onigiri is also a must-order, and it's only about $4.

Be warned that there may be long waits on weekend nights. If the line is too long, the options are plentiful in the surrounding blocks of Chinatown.

Walk around the corner for dim sum at Tom's, Szechuan at EMei, or hot pot at Nine Ting. Or, head to Terakawa's other location in University City, which I've found is usually less crowded.

Sky Cafe is an unassuming Indonesian restaurant with incredible food

Sky Cafe is an Indonesian restaurant off Washington Avenue, and the only reason I describe it as unassuming is that you may initially have trouble spotting it in the strip mall.

However, the food is incredible. Bring a crowd that's prepared to share, because the more people you come with, the more dishes you get to try. And you'll want to try everything.

If you've never had Indonesian food before, don't worry — the menu is covered with pictures of the dishes. If you're still unsure, the staff can help point you in the right direction.

Kalaya Thai Kitchen doesn't shy away from using real spices

thai meal at Kalaya in philly
Medley of Thai delights at Kalaya.Grace Kennedy

Kalaya Thai Kitchen is so good and popular that it recently moved from its tiny spot in the Italian Market to a new, much larger location in Fishtown.

Owner Chutatip "Nok" Suntaron makes authentic Thai food, and it's a far cry from the regular takeout fare many Americans are used to. The restaurant uses ingredients you may never have tried before, and some dishes have spice levels that aren't for the faint of heart.

In my opinion, it serves some of the best Thai food in the country. Not only will you walk away feeling stuffed, but you'll also leave with an entirely new understanding of Thai cuisine.

Royal Sushi & Izakaya is a Japanese restaurant with an omakase sushi bar in the back 

Whenever a friend visits Philadelphia, I suggest that we go to Royal Sushi & Izakaya.

Chef Jesse Ito owns the Japanese joint, which has a reservation-only omakase bar in the back. The front bar and dining area fill up on a first-come, first-served basis and are arguably even more fun.

Choose from a wide selection of Izakaya-style small plates, order a fun cocktail, and sit back for some great people-watching. Whatever you do, don't skip the fried chicken wings.

Monk's Cafe is a beloved Philadelphia establishment with standout french fries

exterior of monk's cafe in philly, neon sign out front
Monk's Cafe.Grace Kennedy

Monk's Cafe near Rittenhouse Square has seemingly been around forever (my dad used to go to the Belgian spot back in the day). You'd be hard-pressed to find a Philadelphian who doesn't like it there.

It's appropriate for almost any occasion. I've killed an hour there by myself, joined friends for post-work drinks, and gone with my partner's family on a Sunday afternoon.

A bar with an impressive beer list, Monk's Cafe also serves some of my favorite french fries in the city, which you can order on their own — I've eaten an entire basket myself — or as a side to a towering bucket of mussels.

With dark wood paneling, long smooth booths, and an endless list of beers on tap, Monk's Cafe is the kind of place you can easily sit for hours.

Middle Child is known for its hoagies, and no trip to Philly is complete without one

phoagie from middle child in philly
The Phoagie from Middle Child enjoyed in Washington Square.Grace Kennedy

The Philadelphia hoagie — a sandwich on a long Italian roll that's typically packed with meats, cheeses, veggies, and sauces — is a staple in this city. We know it, we love it, and we're all very proud of it.

You can't come to Philly and not get a hoagie, and Middle Child has long been making some of the best.

The restaurant's Phoagie, a vegetarian bahn mi-style sandwich, is one of my favorites, but its turkey club with housemade pickles and cranberry-miso mayo is pretty unbeatable, too.

Middle Child also serves breakfast sandwiches until 11 a.m., though I've never made it downtown early enough to snag one.

When you're done, walk over to Dirty Franks, a cash-only bar with a longstanding rotation of regulars that always makes for an entertaining evening. One of them might even ask you to play a game of Scrabble.

Fiorella is a quaint pasta bar in the Italian Market

Fiorella is a tiny pasta restaurant owned by Marc Vetri — a James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur, and it's one of my favorite restaurants.

I recently went with a friend on a cold December night. We sat at the bar, ordered cacio e pepe and sausage ragu, talked for hours over our glasses of wine, and finished the meal with olive oil cake. It was perfect.

If you're hoping to visit Fiorella, be sure to plan ahead and don't bring a crowd. There are only a handful of tables and bar seats, so it's worth making a reservation.

Go to Korshak Bagels for a high-quality, filling breakfast

Korshak is not your ordinary bagel shop. It's loaded with character.

There's a line of poetry written over the front door, and all of its bagels are made with a wild yeast-fermented starter named Helen Mirren. Korshak, run by Philip Korshak, also makes the best bagels in Philly.

Whenever I go, I buy a half dozen to keep in my freezer, and they're usually gone within a week.

Korshak offers the classic breakfast sandwiches one might expect at a bagel shop but also has specials like the Red Molly, a pulled-pork bagel sandwich with horseradish cheddar and pickles.

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