Dining Out in Philadelphia and South Jersey

**This post is frequently being updated with new entries and hot spots as they are discovered.  Scroll down and look for the **  to find the latest updates.

This post was last updated on 04-03-10.

The current featured entry, Ariana, appears in blue.

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GREAT PHILADELPHIA RESTAURANTS: 

A struggling novelist need not be a starving writer.  We all have to eat.  Apart from the history and culture, my favorite thing about Philadelphia is the world renowned and ever-changing sea of fine restaurants.  Philly is far more than just Geno’s Steaks.

Fogo De Chao is an authentic Brazilian steak house located in the heart of Center City near City Hall.  Food here is served gaucho style, where for a fixed price ($50) you can sample a mind blowing buffet of fresh vegetables and salads, a never-ending orgiastic parade of 15 styles of delectable meats, and an eternal supply of savory side dishes.  The atmosphere is upscale contemporary, and this restaurant features a beautiful interior dining area full of dark, rich colors and some of the best mood lighting I’ve ever experienced.  The service is impeccable, as all the meats are carved table-side, and they keep it coming until you turn over you colored disk to indicate you need a break from the gluttonous feast.  The food is amazing, and the management and chefs assure every detail is fixed to your liking.   I’m not a huge meat eater, and I ate enough meat that night to turn me into a vegetarian again.  Be sure to bring a credit card as the bill can easily climb when you add drinks and desserts.  This is a once-in-a-blue-moon type dining experience where you have to physically and psychologically prepare for the onslaught of food.  You’ll never forget it, but you might be too full to ever return.  Highly recommended for a unique event–equally great for big groups or a big date, though I wouldn’t recommend it on a first date.  Reservations are recommended but not required.  Valet parking available.  Safe lots are located nearby for a few dollars less than what the valet service charges.  For more, visit: http://www.fogodechao.com/locations/Philadelphia.htm

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Cuba Libre:  Enticing Cuban-American style dishes are served here with a nice balance of tropical citrus flavors along with lots of garlic, onion, pepper, and olive infused marinades.  Their fantastic Mojito bar features plenty of flavorful and refreshing beverages, though they don’t make the drinks as strong as I typically like them.  Entrees range from $20-30, with the drinks going from $8-12.  This is the type of place where you can make a go of it with just appetizers and beverages.  Especially good are the free fried bread and mango butter they serve at every table and the sweetened Cuban espresso as a nightcap.  The decor is a relaxing mix of muted tropical colors, nicely tiled floors, and Cuban eccentricities–note the stain-glass window design on the back wall.  What really makes this place fun, though, is the small wrought-iron dining patio on the first floor that puts you right out onto 2nd street for some world-class people watching.  Located in an eclectic Old City neighborhood, the restaurant sits alongside rundown storefronts speckled with other trendy dining options, galleries, shops and an overload of parking lots and garages.  Every type of Bohemian can be spotted along the sidewalks strolling side-by-side with families and varied city visitors.  Valet parking is available but probably only necessary on busy evenings.  Reservations are recommended but not required.  For more, visit: http://cubalibrerestaurant.com/philly_index.php

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Zorba’s Tavern:  This is a wonderful little cafe-style “hole-in-the-wall” located on Fairmount Avenue across from the Eastern State Penitentiary.  Here you will find irascible Greeks serving authentic Greek food at reasonable prices.  The bill can add up fast as everything is ala-carte.  I highly recommend the Melitzanna (an appetizer of roasted eggplant, chopped peppers, and garlic with olive oil and feta cheese) and the Greek coffee for after dinner.  The smells are intoxicating, and the small restaurant has indoor and street dining designed to give you the feel of a classic Mediterranean cafe.  Word to the wise: they will not give you your check until you ask for it.  Also be sure to check their hours, as they are not always open.  Zorba’s is a casual place to return to again and again and makes for a great choice after a visit to the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art.  A cheap, safe parking lot is located right across the street.  Reservations not needed, though call ahead for a big party as the space is very limited.  BYOB.  For more, visit: http://www.zorbastavern.com/

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City TavernFor the authentic Philly dining experience, nothing beats the City Tavern located on 138 S. 2nd Street in Old City (close to the original Ritz movie theaters).   Here, in a beautifully restored colonial building (that dates back to the 1700’s as a tavern and hotel), the staff dress up in authentic 18th century costumes, and the dinner menu is full of 18th century culinary cuisine–expect to find venison and rabbit options along with standard steak, chicken, and duck fare.  It’s a totally transporting dining experience and one of my favorite restaurants of all time.  World-class service from a highly trained staff, a beautiful and historic setting, and hearty food prepared by gourmet cooks (lead by world famous chef Walter Staib), City Tavern is in a class by itself.  People travel from all over the world to visit this location.  Prices are reasonable (most dinner entrees range from $15-30) and the menu features a great wine selection and dessert menu.  The chocolate mousse cake made from a real recipe of Martha Washington’s is a perfect finish.  Reservations are recommended but not necessary.  Various parking garages and lots are located throughout the area, as well as street parking if you are lucky.  If the weather is nice, don’t be afraid to park along Dock Street and do a little walking before the meal.  For more, visit:  http://www.citytavern.com 

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**(Added March 2008 ) Amada:  Located on Chestnut Street between 2nd and 3rd, this Spanish eatery has become one of the hottest spots in Philly to dine.  We’ve missed out on eating there the past two Philly Restaurant Weeks due to overbooking, and our reservations for a humdrum Sunday evening in March had to be made more than a month in advance.  Places in the city become this popular either because they are obnoxiously trendy or have great food.  Lucky for Philly, Amada offers both, and it does trendy and great food in a subdued classy style.  Of special notice are the off-white heavy curtain one has to pass through to get to the hostess station, the large well lit but relaxed bar area, the long and narrow candlelit hardwood floored hallway leading to the rest rooms, the “stage” table in the main dining area, and the two large picnic style tables by the windows that sit on a floor covered in small stones.  We had the pleasure to sit in this alarmingly unique area that offers a great view of the street and begs patrons to take some of the stones home.  The bar features drinks curiously named after Pedro Almodovar films.  I found the ginger bourbon concoction (the Matador) to be especially strong and crisp, just how I like my beverages.  The menu offers a vast array of tapas style plates with a plentiful selection of cheeses, appetizers, salads, meats, and seafood.  Tapas must translate to “midget plate” as the portions were clearly designed for our smaller brethren.  This is one of those places where the food is best shared, so if you aren’t into trying things you wouldn’t normally try and sampling your companions’ dishes, then this might not be the place for you.  The servings are very small, but pack a wallop in flavor.  After dinner, the desserts are equally exciting and sharable.  I highly suggest one of their excellent Ports as a nightcap.  Service is about as good as you should expect from such a popular hot spot, meaning they are attentive and helpful, but you might have to flag them down for the check.  Reservations are a must, and valet parking is available, though I recommend rounding the corner on 2nd St. and parking in the Ritz East garage.  For more, visit:  http://www.amadarestaurant.com/

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**(Added January 2008 ) Bistro Romano: Located on 120 Lombard Street in Society Hill, this Philly eatery offers generous portions served in a comfortable and romantic atmosphere situated in a swank neighborhood.  Don’t be alarmed by the gunshots you might hear on the way out, that’s just the lively mystery dinner theater upstairs.  There’s also a cozy piano bar on the main floor of this three-story establishment.  Abbott’s Square Garage two blocks up on Lombard Street makes for great nearby parking and puts you close to the other bars and establishments in the neighborhood.  For more, visit: http://www.bistroromano.com/

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Other Points of Interest in Center City:

The Mexican PostThis Mexican cantina located in Old City on 104 Chestnut Street features decent food at cheap prices, killer margaritas, and nightly drink specials.  The Post makes for a relatively low-key hang-out, but watch out on the perilous narrow stairwell leading down to the basement level restrooms.

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The Positano Coast:  Located on the second floor of 212 Walnut Street across from the Ritz Five Theater, this contemporary Italian-American restaurant makes for a great before or after movie stop.  While there are plentiful seafood selections along with classic Italian fare (check out their interesting spin on chicken parmesan) being served, the restaurant’s layout is designed to make you feel like you are dining on the coast of Amalfi, Italy.  For more, visit: http://www.lambertis.com/locations/positano.htm

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GREAT SOUTH JERSEY RESTAURANTS

Afraid of the big, bad city?  Here are some of my favorite restaurants in my hometown of Voorhees, NJ and other South Jersey hot spots:

** (updated April 2010) La Locanda (formerly Laceno Italian Grill)Located in the Echelon Village Plaza off of White Horse Road in Voorhees, this looks just like another pizza joint in a strip mall from the outside.  On the inside, it’s a cozy, beautifully appointed rustic villa-style restaurant serving authentic Northern Italian cuisine (along with gourmet-style pizzas).  You won’t find all your old standards here, as the dishes are inventive and fresh.  The food is nothing short of amazing, and this ranks as my favorite “hidden gem” in the Voorhees area.  This is the perfect respite for those sick and tired of the Italian chain restaurants that over-populate the area.  BYOB.

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** (added October 2008 ) Fieni’s Ristorante:  Apparently this has been a staple of Voorhees for over a decade, but I didn’t discover it until a friend was visiting from out of town and I wanted to find an Italian place that would be new to both of us.  Only New York City (and Italy itself) probably top South Jersey in terms of great Italian restaurants, and having a place like this within a mile radius of at least three other great Italian places makes you realize just how spoiled with riches we are here in Voorhees.  Located on Burnt Mill Road not far from the Echelon Mall, Fieni’s looks curiously like a house on the outside (which is why I never took a chance on it before) and features parking behind the building (which makes it look desolate from the road) and an awkward entrance in front.  Once inside, however, you’ll feel like you are dining in someone’s finely appointed living room.  The cozy, classy atmosphere is matched by top-notch service and a Northern Italian menu (similar to Laceno’s but more extensive, minus the gourmet pizza options).  The portions are hearty and the food is fantastic.  Fieni’s is a great place for a date or a small group of friends to dine on gourmet Italian cuisine in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.  BYOB.  For more, visit:  http://www.fieni.com/

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** (added July 2008 ) Pasta Pomodoro:  Located in Eagle Plaza on Rt. 561 (Haddonfield/Berlin Road) in Voorhees, this is another great escape from The Olive Garden.  Compared to Laceno the menu here is slightly larger and more varied.  You’ll find the old standards like chicken parm along with fresh and inventive items.  It’s also slightly more reasonably priced and casual than Laceno, which makes this a great place for groups and families, while Laceno is better suited when you want to impress a special date.  Over the years, I’ve never had a bad meal here.  I highly recommend the Chicken Napoli, and the desserts are to die for.  They also provide catering services.  BYOB.  For more visit:  http://www.pastapomodoronj.com/

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Looking for something other than Italian?  Check out these exotic options:

** (added January 2009 ) Ariana:  The newest edition to the multi-ethnic Eagle Plaza in Voorhees is this sister location to the fine Afghan restaurant of the same name in Old City.  The Philadelphia establishment was someplace I always wanted to try but never got around to it, so I was delighted when this one opened up just down the road from home-base.  Featuring an array of spiced meats, kebobs, exotic rice and vegetarian dishes, Ariana offers up amazing and exquisitely flavored food.  Menu items seem to be equally influenced by Greek and Indian cuisine, but the combinations of  ingredients and spices are truly unique.  My main course, the Norange Palow, was a mind-blowing concoction of delicately seasoned chicken served under saffron basmati rice topped with almonds, pistachios, and orange strips soaked in rosewater.  There’s also plenty of spicier more adventurous fare that the chef will fix to your liking.  The Turkish coffee and Afghani spin on baklava make for a great nightcap.  The atmosphere is cozy and authentic in decoration and music, and the service is extremely friendly and attentive.  Don’t go in expecting fast service as everything is made fresh and from scratch.  Here you are truly their guests and they welcome you to a leisurely and relaxed experience.  BYOB. Visit Ariana’s website for menu and hours.

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Bangkok City:  You either like Thai food, or you don’t.  Located in Eagle Plaza on Haddonfield/Berlin Road in Voorhees, this charming little establishment serves up great Thai food for dine-in and take-out.  If you dine-in, the ginger ice cream is a great finish to a good meal.

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CorianderUpscale contemporary bistro-style Indian cuisine is served at this trendy but casual cafe located in the Ritz Center off of Haddonfield/Berlin Road in Voorhees.  The menu is extensive and daunting, so don’t be afraid to ask for more details or explanations of entries from the friendly staff.  There are plenty of mild but still flavorful offerings for those afraid of traditional Indian spices.  Voted best Indian Restaurant by South Jersey Magazine for 2007.  BYOB. For more visit: http://www.coriandernj.com/

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**(Added December 2007) Chez Elena Wu:  Located in the same plaza as Coriander and the Showcase at the Ritz Movie Theater in Voorhees, ingredients here are always fresh and in season at this unique fusion restaurant of French and Asian cuisine.  Even the dishes that sound like traditional Chinese fare aren’t, as the chefs put an interesting spin on everything that is served.  The combination of flavors might not be for everyone, but most will find this far superior to your typical upscale Chinese restaurants.  Also featured is a world-class sushi bar.  BYOB.  For more, visit:  http://www.chezelenawu.com/

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Great Places outside of Voorhees:

**(Added October 2007)Caffe Aldo Lamberti is located on Route 70 is Cherry Hill, NJ across from the old Garden State Park grounds (now a vulgar over-developed mess of stores and lesser restaurants).  I’ve dined here during the past two South Jersey Hot Chefs “Farm to Fork” Restaurant Weeks.  Here they serve up classic Italian fare in a beautiful setting.  The main courses are succulent and full of flavor, the desserts moist and delicious, and the wine selection second to none in the area.  The place has won numerous awards and it’s easy to see and taste why.  Sneak in the back way coming off Haddonfield Road to avoid the unnecessary valet parking.  For more, visit: http://www.lambertis.com/locations/caffe.htm

For more on South Jersey’s Restaurant Weeks, visit: http://sjhotchefs.com/restweek/index.html

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Also recommended: Braddock’s Tavern in historic downtown Medford, NJ is the suburban villager’s answer to Philadelphia’s City Tavern.  Similar in style, service, and prices, this is wonderful for a romantic dinner or a family gathering.  It’s a bit out of the way for people in my neck of the woods, but well worth the trip.  Reservations are recommended but not required.  For more, visit: http://www.braddocks.com/

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 Written by David H. Schleicher

What’s your favorite Philly or South Jersey restaurant?  Feel free to leave your dining suggestions through the comment form.  Bon appetite!

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6 comments on “Dining Out in Philadelphia and South Jersey

  1. Horse Apples says:

    And where is Fuddruckers ?

    Horsie, you mean that fly-infested sodden stink hole where they charge you the same prices as other comparable chain restaurants but force you to serve the food yourself cafeteria-style? I just want to make sure we’re thinking of the same place. –DHS

  2. filmaday says:

    The City Tavern is a charming place. I’ve driven by and been inside but I’ll have to eat there now. Fogo De Chao is tops for me though :-)

    You should definitely try it. The City Tavern is probably my favorite restaurant. –DHS

  3. Bones-99 says:

    DHS:

    I once witnessed an employee at Fudd’s double-dipping a customer’s fries into the cheese vat while waiting for the rest of the order to be completed. Needless to say, I went ballistic and have never been back. Although, I kinda miss having bratty kids running up and down the aisles screaming as I try to eat a relaxing meal.
    :-/

    Bones, yikes! –DHS

  4. Elizabeth says:

    In New Jersey you’ve got to try Kitchen 233. It is in Westmont, accross from the PATCO station in Westmont. Their food is wonderful, but the atmosphere is what sets it apart. Its outdoor louge area is like being in NYC.

    Elizabeth, thanks for the suggestion! I hadn’t heard of that place before. –DHS

  5. Mike says:

    You need to add Tequlas Restaurant which is located at 16th and Locust in Philadelphia. Great atmosphere and amazing mexican dishes. We found nothing to complain about – the wait staff will fly past you will water jugs and glasses balanced on there heads. Great place; great food.

    Mike, thanks for the suggestion. Sounds like my type of place! –DHS

  6. Tisha says:

    Hmmm I havent seen anything worth writing home about so far in Philly. Perhaps you have changed my mind. Who knew that Philly was such a mecca of culinary cuisine?

    Tisha, Philly’s culinary delights can not be dismissed. Perhaps you have to be a native to be in the know. Visitors often don’t know the right neigborhoods to check out and might be falsely under the impression that everything Philly is just cheesesteaks. –DHS

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