From colonial-era taverns to the celebrity chef establishments of the early twenty-first century, Greater Philadelphia’s restaurants illuminated the region’s socioeconomic, cultural, and culinary trends while also providing sustenance for millions, employing thousands, and in some cases emerging as historic and nostalgic treasures.

A color engraving of Parkinson's Ice Cream and Cafe dated 1859
James W. Parkinson’s Café became a Philadelphia legend when it bested New York City’s famous Delmonico’s in a cooking challenge known as “the thousand-dollar dinner.” (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Taverns and public houses (“pubs”) represented the area’s earliest food-serving establishments; many operated in private residences, catered to diverse clienteles, and provided ample alcohol. The area’s oldest surviving taverns include the Broad Axe Tavern (est. 1681) in Ambler, Pennsylvania; the Barnsboro Tavern (est. 1720) in Sewell, New Jersey; and Jessop’s Tavern (est. 1724) in New Castle, Delaware. William Penn (1644-1718) noted in the 1680s that Philadelphia contained a handful of taverns with “a good meal to be had for sixpence,” but it was not until the 1750s that taverns began serving table d’hôte (“ordinary food”) with locally obtained produce, meats, and grains. Funded by subscriptions, Pennsylvania Journal editor William Bradford (1719-91) in 1754 opened the Old London Coffeehouse (Front and High Streets), which contained separate floors for drinking alcohol and coffee and minimal food offerings.

As Philadelphia developed into colonial America’s primary urban center, fancier restaurants appeared. The exclusive City Tavern (Second and Walnut Streets) opened in 1773 and gained a reputation for opulent banquets. Recalling dining there during the First Continental Congress, John Adams (1735-1826) praised the tavern’s “thousand delicacies” and fine wines. Hoping to appeal to non-elite customers, in 1780 Vincent Pelosi opened the Pennsylvania Coffeehouse (Front and High Streets) and later a second location in Camden, New Jersey. In 1791, James Oeller opened his eponymous hotel, Philadelphia’s first, at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. Oeller’s assembly room, decorated with French wallpaper and antique illustrations, challenged the City Tavern as Philadelphia’s finest banquet space. In addition to these establishments, Philadelphians satisfied their hunger by preparing meals at home or patronizing street vendors selling products ranging from fruits and vegetables to pepper pot soup and oysters. Oyster purveyors, centered on Philadelphia’s Dock Street, supplied vendors and restaurants alike. They proved so popular that discarded shells were used for ship ballast and street paving. Shad, plentiful in the Delaware River and later celebrated by local artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), was especially popular.

International Ingredients

In the early 1800s, Philadelphia became more cosmopolitan as its merchants traded with the Caribbean, China, and Europe, leaving the area awash in foreign foodstuffs. Philadelphia’s hotels, including the United States (Chestnut Street), the Merchants’ (38 N. Fourth Street), Mansion House (Third and Spruce Streets), and the La Pierre (Broad and Chestnut Streets) offered French cuisine and Parisian-style coffee. The Continental Hotel (Ninth and Chestnut), the city’s most opulent, contained a main dining room and “gentlemen’s café.” In the Washington Hotel’s kitchen (20 S. Sixth Street), co-owner Elizabeth Rubicam prepared what was considered the best terrapin (marsh turtle) dishes in the region.

Confectioners and chefs also opened restaurants. James W. Parkinson, the son of a tavernkeeper, operated not only a famous restaurant at 180 Chestnut Street and produced Philadelphia’s most popular ice cream (Parkinson’s), but also in 1851 bested New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant in a seventeen-course cook-off dinner (later called the “thousand-dollar dinner”) that earned him a standing ovation. M. Latouche, a French chef once employed by the Russian minister in Washington, emerged as a popular restaurateur. His Market Street establishment, complete with an oyster cellar, offered quail, beef, mutton chops, and oyster pies. Prominent Philadelphians, such as bank president Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), retained Latouche for private banquets.

a black and white engraving of Lauber's German Restaurant on the Centennial grounds
Lauber’s German Restaurant was the most popular restaurant of the Centennial Exhibition. It was capable of serving 1,200 guests simultaneously and introduced crowds to the “Hamburg steak,” or hamburger. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Following the Civil War, increases in transportation, immigration, and industrialization altered dining practices and restaurant offerings. When millions of visitors attended the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, they found not just the latest industrial and technological developments but also cuisine from around the globe. In addition to Brazilian, Japanese, Spanish, and Hawaiian delicacies, the Centennial featured Philadelphian Phillip J. Lauber’s (1830-81) German restaurant, able to accommodate 1,200 customers at once, which became the fair’s most successful largely due to the “Hamburg steak” (hamburger) on its menu. Though Philadelphians did not embrace the decadent “lobster palace” trend of the 1880s pioneered in New York City by Café Martin, the city’s finer establishments served dishes such as Lobster Thermidor and Lobster Newburgh.

Mirroring the region’s economic disparities as thousands of immigrants arrived during the Gilded Age, Philadelphia and the area’s larger cities (Wilmington, Camden, and Trenton) developed ethnic and working-class neighborhoods with tiny eateries serving Italian, Polish, German, and Irish food. In some cases, people operated restaurants out of their homes, catering to friends and neighbors. By 1900, Philadelphia contained a thriving Chinatown with “chop suey joints” along Race Street, east of Broad. Around the city, many former oyster stalls became full restaurants, including Snockey’s (Second Street and Washington Avenue.), Boothby’s (Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets), and Bookbinders (moved to Second and Walnut Streets in 1898). Bookbinders became one of Philadelphia’s most famous restaurants until its closing in 2009.

Department Store Dining Rooms

In the early twentieth century, department stores and “grand hotels” allowed diners higher degrees of luxury in their restaurant choices. Among Philadelphia’s Market Street department stores, Gimbels by 1902 contained a full-service restaurant as well as a deli and soda fountain/lunch counter. By 1912 Strawbridge’s boasted one of the finest restaurants in the city, but Wanamakers Grand Crystal Tea Room was Philadelphia’s largest; on average, the restaurant served 3,000 patrons per day and offered items such as caviar and sweetbreads. The majority of department store diners were middle- to upper-class women while lower- to middle-class men patronized lunch counters inside Broad Street Station and the Reading Terminal. Upper-class men dined at Green’s Restaurant (Eighth and Chestnut Streets), the New Bingham Café (Eleventh and Market Streets), and Boothby’s (Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets).

A color postcard of the dining room at Green's Hotel
Green’s Hotel on Chestnut Street offered a luxurious dining room for upper-class Philadelphians, but fell victim to the Great Depression. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Perpetuating Gilded Age opulence, the region’s “grand hotels” offered the finest restaurants of the period. Establishments such as the Stenton, the Lafayette, the Walton, the Warwick, and the Bellevue-Stratford provided guests not only banquet-style meals but also richly decorated spaces in which to dine; the Walton’s Palm Room and Pierrot Roof Garden hosted lavish meals while the Bellevue-Stratford offered the South Garden Room (the place to be seen among the city’s elite), the Hunt Room (where power brokers lunched) and a separate Ladies’ Dining Room. North along Broad Street, the Lorraine Hotel’s Café Lorraine could accommodate three hundred people for dinner. Grand hotels also opened in 1913 in Wilmington (the Hotel DuPont) and in 1925 in Camden (the Walt Whitman). The Green Room in the Hotel DuPont stood as Delaware’s most refined dining establishment.

Independent restaurant operators also thrived. In 1915, Fritz Pflug opened the Arcadia restaurant in Penn Square’s Widener Building; by the 1930s, the renamed Arcadia International Restaurant and Club hosted the top musical acts of the time. In 1922, hoping to capture motorist traffic between Philadelphia and New York, Pflug opened Evergreen Farms on Roosevelt Boulevard, a “suburban café” advertised as “most beautiful restaurant in the country.” For those lacking the means or time to patronize department store or hotel restaurants, the region offered dairies, rathskellers, ice cream parlors, lunch wagons, cafeterias, automats, and “quick lunches” (luncheonettes). The first automat, opened in 1902 at 818 Chestnut Street by Joseph Horn (1861-1941) and Frank Hardart (1850-1918), set the standard for quick restaurant meals for people on the go. In the midst of the Great Depression, Pat Olivieri (1907-74) created the cheesesteak at his South Philadelphia hot dog stand in 1932, ultimately making that sandwich synonymous with the city. Small, family-owned Italian restaurants remained numerous in South Philadelphia and along Wilmington’s Union Street; Philadelphia’s Dante and Luigi’s (est.1899), Ralph’s (est.1900), and Wilmington’s Mrs. Robino’s (est.1940) all survived into the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Rise of the Diners

Automats like Horn and Hardart became popular during the Great Depression. The self-serve cafeterias offered a wide array of affordable food choices and catered to a working-class crowd. (Library Company of Philadelphia)
Automats like Horn and Hardart became popular during the Great Depression. The self-serve cafeterias offered a wide array of affordable food choices and catered to a working-class crowd. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

After World War II, increasingly propelled by cars and expressways, residents of the Philadelphia region patronized diners and drive-throughs. Although the diner first appeared in the 1870s in Rhode Island, Greater Philadelphia eventually contained dozens of the beloved institutions. Many of Philadelphia’s diners, including the Melrose, the South Street, the Oregon, the Broad Street, and the West Oak Lane, became neighborhood landmarks. Yet New Jersey, with key transportation routes between New York and Philadelphia as well as hundreds of suburban communities, contained more diners, per capita, than any other U.S. state. Famous South Jersey diners included the Deepwater (Carney’s Point), Olga’s (Marlton), the Club (Bellmawr), and Angelo’s (Glassboro). Chain restaurants also expanded in the postwar years. Companies such as Stouffer’s, Savarin, Ponderosa, Horn and Hardart, Gino’s Hamburgers, and McDonald’s opened urban and suburban locations in the 1950s and 1960s. Private dining clubs, including the Vesper, the Bellevue Court, Union League, Embassy, Saxony East, and Quo Vadis continued to thrive in central Philadelphia. “Chop houses” served as the forerunner of modern steakhouses; in the 1960s and 1970s, Philadelphia’s Frankie Bradley’s, Arthur’s, Leibowitz’s, and Mitchell’s, as well as Wilmington’s Constantino’s House of Beef, appealed to those with a fondness for beef.

Le Bec-Fin, owned by chef Georges Pierre, became a central factor in Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance in the 1970s. It was once considered the finest restaurant in the United States. (Library of Congress)
Le Bec-Fin, owned by chef Georges Perrier, became a central factor in Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance in the 1970s. In its heyday it was considered the finest restaurant in the United States. (Library of Congress)

Philadelphia in the early 1970s underwent its first “restaurant renaissance.” Prior to that decade, many downtown workers and residents felt the city lacked a reputable dining-out scene; some joined one of Philadelphia’s many supper clubs to ensure a decent meal. While many new eateries in the 1970s, such as Alexander’s, Astral Plane, Broadway Eddie’s, Friday Saturday Sunday, Gilded Cage, Lickety Split, Knave of Hearts, and White Dog Café were casual and experimental, young, enterprising chefs such as Steve Poses (b.1947), Peter Frederick Von Starck (1942-84), and Georges Perrier (b.1944) introduced French nouvelle cuisine to local Baby Boomers eager to expand their palates. Several French restaurants appeared in the 1970s, including Le Pavillon, Lautrec, Les Amis, La Panetiere, Déjà vu, Frog, and the Bellevue-Stratford’s Versailles. Yet no other French restaurant in Greater Philadelphia received more accolades than Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin, which opened in 1970 on Spruce Street and later moved to larger quarters on Walnut Street. For several years Le Bec-Fin received the coveted Michelin three-star award and was considered among the finest restaurants in the United States. Besides French, northern Italian cuisine also defined the renaissance; following Gaetano’s (Seventh and Walnut) were the Monte Carlo Room (Second and South) and the Saloon (Seventh and Fitzwater).

Festival Marketplaces

As Philadelphia competed with suburban shopping malls and their food courts in the 1970s, the “festival marketplace” arrived with the Louis Sauer (b.1928)-designed New Market, a shopping-dining complex adjacent to Society Hill’s Headhouse Square. New Market’s restaurants ranged from the Dickens Inn (English pub fare) and Café Lisboa (Spanish-Portuguese) to Focolare (Italian) and the Rusty Scupper (seafood). In 1973, restaurateur Neil Stein (b.1941) opened the Fish Market at Eighteenth and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia. By the late 1990s, Stein’s restaurant empire included Marabella’s, Avenue B, the Striped Bass, and the city’s most popular sidewalk café, Rouge.

After Greater Philadelphia experienced capital flight, deindustrialization, and suburbanization through the 1980s, restaurants from the 1990s into the early decades of the twenty-first century played a major role in the region’s economy and signaled a second renaissance. New waves of immigration from Asia and Latin America remade the area’s restaurant scene by opening pho and dumpling houses, Korean BBQs, sushi bars, and taquerias in neighborhoods from East Passyunk Crossing to Cheltenham. By 1998, food service positions comprised nearly 12 percent of all employment in Philadelphia; in 2015, Pennsylvania had the country’s sixth-largest restaurant workforce. Towns in South Jersey, such as Collingswood and Haddonfield, also relied on restaurant growth for their economic vitality.

While mainstays such as Bookbinders and Le Bec-Fin lasted into the 2000s, a new generation of talented chefs challenged them by opening popular restaurants and catering to millennial tastes. They included Jose Garces (b.1971) (Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Rosa Blanca), Marc Vetri (b.1968) (Osteria, Amis, Vetri), Michael Solomonov (b.1978) (Zahav, Federal Donuts, Percy Street BBQ), and Chris Scarduzio (b.1965) (Brasserie Perrier, Table 31, Mia). By mid-decade, James Beard Foundation finalists and Top Chef contestants, including Marcie Turney (Lolita, Barbuzzo), Jennifer Carroll (b.1982) (10 Arts), Garces, and Masaharu Morimoto (b.1955) (Morimoto), further cemented Philadelphia’s national dining out profile with their acclaimed eateries.

Popularity of BYOBs

a color photo of patrons eating outside of the Bufad pizzeria
Bufad, a pizzeria, opened in 2013 in the Callowhill neighborhood. It is one of the city’s many casual BYOB restaurants. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

With liquor licensing prohibitively expensive in Pennsylvania and New Jersey since Prohibition’s repeal, BYOBs thrived in both states; though Philadelphia contained more per capita than any other U.S. city, many towns in New Jersey, including Collingswood, Cherry Hill, and Haddonfield had thriving BYOB scenes. After 1995, with the debut of his revamped Continental diner in Old City, no other restaurateur in Greater Philadelphia was more recognized than Stephen Starr (b.1956). Using specific themes (French bistro, British pub) and echoing existing restaurants (New York’s Odeon, Hollywood’s Roscoe’s), Starr created popular eateries throughout Philadelphia (Buddakan, Pod, Talula’s Garden) and South Jersey (outposts of Continental and Buddakan in Atlantic City) that enlivened the region’s dining out scene. By 2012, his Rittenhouse Square bistro Parc was the highest-grossing among his more than twenty restaurants in four states.

Through centuries of urban growth, immigration, economic and cultural exchange, and changing culinary trends, the restaurants of Greater Philadelphia provided not only nourishment, employment, and entertainment but also allowed residents and visitors alike to experience and identify with the region.

Stephen Nepa teaches history and American studies at Temple University, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design. A contributor to numerous books and journals, he also appears in the documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment and The Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Parkinson's Ice Cream and Cafe

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Colonial Philadelphia's inns and taverns gave way to specialized restaurants in the nineteenth century. Located at 180 Chestnut Street, Parkinson's Ice Cream and Cafe became legendary in 1851 when it bested New York City's famous Delmonico's in a fine-dining challenge that became known as “the thousand-dollar dinner.” Two rival groups of fine-dining enthusiasts, one from each city, met at Delmonico's for a lavish banquet of the restaurant's finest offerings. In April of that year, they reconvened at Parkinson's, where owner and chef James W. Parkinson prepared a seventeen-course meal that took the diners twelve hours to complete. Several times through the meal, the New York group stood to acknowledge that the Philadelphia restaurant's offerings were superior. Parkinson's other claims to fame include its popular ice cream and selection of fresh tropical fruits and imported chocolates.

Lauber's German Restaurant at the Centennial Exhibition

Library Company of Philadelphia

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition introduced its ten million visitors to a plethora of exotic new foods. One eatery in particular, Phillip J. Lauber's German restaurant, left an indelible mark on American cuisine when it served “Hamburg steaks,” or hamburgers, to eager crowds. The two-story restaurant, located near Horticultural Hall on the Centennial grounds, was able to serve 1,200 customers simultaneously and included a tented outdoor seating area. Lauber's was the most popular restaurant in the Centennial Exhibition, but it was destroyed by fire before the exhibition's conclusion.

Dining Room at Green's Hotel

Library Company of Philadelphia

Philadelphia experienced a boom of hotel construction in the nineteenth century, and with each of these new hotels came new luxury restaurants. Green's Hotel on Chestnut Street occupied a massive former residence of Philadelphia's influential Shippen family, and even retained and restored the room in which Peggy Shippen married Benedict Arnold. Green's Hotel's primary claim to fame, though, was its dining room and bar. During the Gilded Age, Green's dining room was a popular gathering spot for Philadelphia's upper-class ladies and gentlemen. The hotel and its restaurant struggled to remain open during the twentieth century and eventually fell victim to Prohibition and the Great Depression. It was demolished in 1934.

The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel

Library Company of Philadelphia

The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel at Broad and Walnut Streets featured several of the city's most glamorous dining rooms. The once-small hotel gained a reputation for fine dining shortly after it opened in 1888. In 1904 the original building was replaced by a much larger structure, which itself was expanded several times in the early twentieth century to become “The Grand Dame of Broad Street,” as it was often called. The hotel's restaurant offerings included the lavish rooftop South Garden Room and the Hunt Room, which catered to a business crowd. Fortunes gradually changed for the hotel from the Great Depression through the second half of the twentieth century and ultimately forced the hotel to close. After a $100 million renovation, the hotel reopened. In 2010, the hotel became known as the Hyatt at the Bellevue. Fine dining experiences continued with the nineteenth-floor restaurant called XIX, which serves contemporary American cuisine from the former South Garden Room.

Ralph's Italian Restaurant

The late nineteenth century saw a wave of Italian immigrants settling in South Philadelphia. With them came the traditional recipes of their home country. In 1900, Italian immigrant Francesco Dispigno opened a small cafe for his neighborhood's working-class residents on Montrose Street and named it after his young son Ralph. Within a decade, Ralph's had outgrown its location and moved to a larger space on Ninth Street near Catharine in the Bella Vista neighborhood. Ralph's has passed through five generations of the Dispigno family, and in 2012 it became the oldest Italian restaurant in the United States when San Francisco's Fior D'Italia closed. The restaurant continues to specialize in family recipes made popular in its early days.


Library of Congress

During the 1890s, some of Philadelphia's ubiquitous oyster vendors, who previously sold their catch from carts on the street, moved into more permanent accommodations. Bookbinder's Seafood restaurant was one such establishment, opening at Fifth and South Streets in 1893. It moved to a larger space on Second and Walnut Streets (shown here) in 1898. During World War II and the Korean War, the restaurant offered free lunches for new military recruits, helping it establish an international reputation amongst servicemen. Over the latter half of the twentieth century, Bookbinder's became famous not only for its seafood dishes and snapper soup but also for its regular celebrity clientele, which included Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Patti Labelle, and David Bowie, among others. Bookbinder's, which was renamed Old Original Bookbinder's to distinguish it from another restaurant opened for a time by family, also housed what it called the world's largest indoor lobster tank in its lobby.

Despite its glamorous past, Bookbinder's faltered in the twenty-first century and closed in 2009. In January 2015 a new restaurant, The Olde Bar, opened in the former Bookbinder's building. The new eatery paid homage to Bookbinder's décor and menu. The Bookbinder's name lives on through a line of canned soups and seasonings based on the restaurant's menu.

Horn and Hardart Automat

Library Company of Philadelphia

As the dining needs of Philadelphia's residents changed, so did the restaurant industry. Opened in 1902, Horn and Hardart used an innovative “automat” format and catered to working-class Philadelphians. Customers served themselves from the refrigerated glass compartments lining the restaurant's walls. The selection of entrees, sides, and desserts was both expansive and affordable. Horn and Hardart, founded by Philadelphian Joseph Horn and German-born Frank Hardart, expanded to nearly fifty locations in the city by its peak in the Great Depression, as well as some locations in New York City. Popularity for automats waned in the second half of the twentieth century with the rise of fast food chain restaurants. After half a century of declining sales, the last Horn and Hardart restaurant in Bala Cynwyd closed.

Georges Perrier at Le Bec-Fin

Library of Congress

Chef Georges Perrier opened Le Bec-Fin on Spruce Street in 1970. By the end of the decade, it had become Philadelphia's premier eatery and a key element in the city's restaurant renaissance. Perrier's restaurant specialized in fine French cuisine and was awarded the highest accolades of the restaurant industry. In 1983, Le Bec-Fin moved to a new, larger location on Walnut Street decorated with ornate crystal chandeliers. Though among the finest restaurants in the United States, Le Bec-Fin's reputation began to slip in the twenty-first century. Extensive renovations and changes to the menu were made in an effort to adapt to the shifting tastes of the dining public, but ultimately proved unsuccessful. In 2012, Pierre retired. Le Bec-Fin closed for several months and reopened under new management in June of the same year, but did not last. Le Bec-Fin served its final dinner service in June 2013. A new restaurant, Avance, opened in the space in December 2013 but closed less than a year later.

Bufad Pizza

Visit Philadelphia

Bufad, a pizzeria that opened in 2013 in the Callowhill neighborhood, became one of Philadelphia’s many casual BYOB restaurants. The high cost of liquor licenses in the state of Pennsylvania led to a large number of BYOB restaurants in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. By 2015, the city boasted more BYOB eateries per capita than any other U.S. city. (Photograph by M. Kennedy)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Berger, Molly. Hotel Dreams: Luxury, Technology, and Urban Ambition in America, 1829-1929. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Bjelopera, Jerome. City of Clerks: Office and Sales Workers in Philadelphia, 1870-1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Coe, Andrew. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Genovese, Peter. Jersey Diners. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Hines, Mary Anne, and William Woys Weaver. The Larder Invaded: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food and Drink. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1987.

Jakle, John A. and Keith Sculle. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

LaBan, Craig. “Memories to Savor.” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 9, 2000.

Nepa, Stephen. “The New Urban Dining Room: Sidewalk Cafes in Postindustrial Philadelphia.” Buildings and Landscapes: Journal of the Architectural Vernacular 18.2 (Fall 2011): 60-81.

Weigley, Russell, ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: Norton, 1982.

White, April, ed. Philadelphia Magazine’s Ultimate Restaurant Guide. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

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