Philadelphia seems like a known quantity: Rocky, cheesesteaks, Liberty Bell, aggressive sports fans—that sort of thing.
I’m here to tell you that it is way more than that. In fact, I managed a three-day trip free from poured cheese, guidebook sites and I avoided all temptation for air-boxing. Philly is amazing.
That’s partly because it’s a great craft beer city. The scene combines a solid history with good beer and an innovative flexibility. Actually, this might be the best beer city in the northeastern U.S.
Philly—as all locals call it, trust me—is an easy place to visit. Some of that is logistics—it’s close to much of Ontario and has regular connections—but it also feels like home.
The city is a remarkably diverse patchwork of neighbourhoods and they’re close enough together that “walking the world” is easily accomplished in an afternoon. As well, Pennsylvania is probably the American state closest to
Ontario in terms of a kill-joy set of rules for selling beer. Like us, they are starting to get rid of the old ways and that means a new crop of breweries (and also distilleries) are blooming all over Philly.
This cornerstone of craft beer in Philly (for 25 years now) has recently opened a 70,000-square-foot facility, just north of downtown on Spring Garden Street. That space is 70 times larger than the garage they started off in but their classic offerings are still some of the most popular in town.
Cape of Good Hope (9.7% ABV) is a raucous double IPA with a strong malt backbone to support all those piney-citrusy hops. Even in warmer weather, their dark beers like Washington’s Porter (7% ABV) are good options for both their complex richness and historical interest.
This one proves that breweries with a gimmick (name one brewery with better names!) can also be very good. Chickity China the Chinese Chicken (7.2% ABV) is packed with the dank juiciness you’d expect from the one-two of citra and mosaic hops. Ma! The Meatloaf (5.5% ABV) adds a mango note to the usual witbier routine.
The grungy-chic taproom on Front Street has small bites that let the beer do the talking.
Crime & Punishment
An all-out brewpub that has become a mainstay in Brewerytown—a neighbourhood surprising bereft of craft breweries. Their menu stretches from brunch classic to Eastern European staples like dumplings, mushroom strogranoff and pierogi.
They definitely know their way around hops here, but styles tend to vary from the commonplace American-style IPAs. Ghost Station (4.2% ABV) is a superb contrast between a nose of fruity raspberry and a flavour of tart lemon. Behemoth (6.5% ABV) adds dark fruit notes to the chocolate-coffee usuals to up its oatmeal stout game.
They do the occasional collab, such as the world-class grand cru made with Brouwerij Van Steenberge, but Monk’s is less brewery and more pub—and a legendary one at that. This is the place to go if you want to find some of the best Belgian-style beers (out of both American and Belgian breweries) on this side of the Atlantic. The best part is that they’re not all hidden away on an expensive bottle list—gems from Russian River are almost always available on tap.
And this being Philly, the 22-year-old pub maintains its welcoming feel as neighbourhood joint where almost no one mentions Untappd scores while shooting the breeze with new friends.
Where Else to Visit
Beer gardens are a phenomenal part of Philly’s drinking culture. Some are just what we’d call a patio (a few tables in an outdoor space attached to a restaurant) while others are fantastic, ephemeral creations by everyone from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to one in Franklin Square that’s part of the city’s Chinese lantern festival.
The Drury Beer Garden behind Opa (worth a visit in its own right) is a favourite but tends to get a bit crowded with younger suits when they get let out from their summer internships for the day. Uptown is a bit more sedate and has a focus on just-for-this-year collabs. Frankford Hall fits more into the original, sprawling German style with dozens of picnic tables set under a leafy canopy.
If you can find time between the breweries, it’s worth paying a visit to one of Philly’s very highly regarded cideries. Hale & True Cider Co. brings guests to their residential neighbourhood in East Philly for the lineup of on-the-dry-side ciders made from Pennsylvania apples.
Manatawny Still Works is one of the local distilleries taking full advantage of the newly liberalized liquor laws that have seen the state add dozens of operations recently. Their cocktail bar on East Passyunk Avenue is a great place to sample their hard work as part of a well-prepared concoction.
A walk of the nearby blocks will cover off many of the best places to appreciate Philly’s edible diversity. That means vibrant Malaysian at Saté Kampar, surprisingly light British-style pies at Stargazy, and Italian from Paradiso without any of nostalgic, but overly ubiquitous red gravy.
Then head back to Rittenhouse Square for the best from chef Solomonov’s restaurant empire. His Federal Donuts is one of the East Coast motherships for the idea that 300 calories can be pretty as well as tasty. Likewise, Abe Fisher brings cuisine from the Jewish diaspora into a modern focus.
And what about the cheesesteaks? I won’t pick a preference, but instead, say that it’s really the roast pork sandwich that should be the official sandwich of Philly. And here I’m a fan of John’s.