Destinations Magazine

Philadelphia’s Long Heritage of Public Markets and Food Halls Continues Growing

By Davedtc @davedtc
Philadelphia’s Long Heritage of Public Markets and Food Halls Continues Growing

When visiting a city for a few days even as a dedicated well researched traveler, it's difficult to cover all the can't-miss attractions let alone sample the wide crosscut of renowned food and beverage offerings. Markets and food halls provide a solution with an array of choices under one roof instead of visiting each establishment individually scattered across many neighborhoods. One of the first in the United States, Philadelphia's public markets have provided the perfect environment for food halls to flourish. Here are some public markets and recently opened food halls all within walking distance from Center City bringing the best of what Philly has to offer in concentrated clusters:

Reading Terminal Market

Public markets have been a key part of Philadelphia's history since William Penn laid out the city in the late 17th century. Food vendors at the time hawked their wares from individual carts making it difficult to enforce cleanliness and fair business practices. As the city grew into the mid 19th century, public markets expanded into a string of market sheds 6 blocks long. In time, these open air markets fell out of favor due to health concerns, nuisance complaints, and ever-increasing streetcar traffic.

Philadelphia’s Long Heritage of Public Markets and Food Halls Continues Growing

Reading Terminal, the grand daddy of all Philly food markets, opened in response to all this in 1893 below a railroad terminal that's now a National Historic Landmark. It's where all-under-one-roof shopping got its start continuing to this day with locally grown & exotic produce, select meats and poultry, fresh caught seafood, cheeses, and kitchenware of all types. In addition to bulk ingredients, dozens of restaurants dish up breakfast and lunch daily with choices ranging from Pennsylvania Dutch specialties like scrapple & apple dumplings, Thai cuisine, corn dogs, pork sandwiches, baked goods, and confections of all types.

The Market provided relief from the rigors of World War II rationing with vendors providing a surprising variety of foods that were scarce at the time. Ironically, the 1960s and 70s threatened the market's viability more than the Great Depression due to declining freight and passenger traffic driving the train station, the market's upstairs landlord, into bankruptcy. But thanks to a handful of dedicated vendors and stalwart customers, the market held its own into the early 1980s when a renewed interest in artisanal food and increased development in the city center spurred a renaissance. Operations moved upstairs into the redeveloped space you see today making it Philly's most popular tourist destination after the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Beginning in the mid-to-late 1880s when Italian immigrant Antonio Palumbo opened a boarding house in the neighborhood for fellow émigrés, businesses sprang up to serve this growing community forming what would become the largest continuously operating outdoor market in the United States. In addition to traditional Italian specialties like fresh sheets of pasta and silky ribbons of homemade chocolate drying in storefront windows, today's offerings are just as likely to be Southeast Asian or Mexican.

The market presents a healthy mix of restaurants and vendors in conjunction with an extensive maze of outdoor bins of fresh picked fruits and vegetables while the air bursts with the aroma of pungent herbs and spices, locally sourced seafood, and fresh ground coffee. Best of all, visiting 9th Street Italian Market puts you several blocks from Philly's dueling cheese steak titans Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks giving you a double barreled reason to explore this section of the Passyunk Square neighborhood especially when hunger strikes.

Right across the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia's Historic District, The Bourse (place of exchange) was established in 1890 making it the first commodities exchange in the United States. The entire first floor of the yellow bricked Victorian-era skyscraper listed on the National Register of Historic Places has been transformed in the style of Chelsea Market into an artisan marketplace with 29 local vendors including Mighty Melt (grilled cheese), Scoop de Ville (ice cream), Bluebird Distilling (booze), Prescription Chicken (soup), Chaat and Chai (Indian), and Chocodiem (decadent chocolate).

The $40 million renovation restored original elements like ornate ironwork and a mosaic floor while modern touches were added like subway tile, communal seating and natural light.

Cherry Street Pier

An abandoned maritime warehouse built in 1919 was recently transformed into a more-than-55,000-square-foot public gathering space. Now called Cherry Street Pier, this public market is decidedly more mixed use with space divided into themed sections including The Garage, a co-working space and artist studios constructed from re-purposed shipping containers; The Platform, an open space for art installations and public events; The Market, a pop-up space showcasing area makers and artists; and outside in The Garden, an open-air space overlooking the Delaware River features a café and park with sweeping yet close up views of nearby Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

When it's time to eat, visit The Hub filled with vendors like South Philly's family-run Hardena/Waroeng Surabaya offering a unique twist on Indonesian cuisine with dishes like rendang served as a hoagie with lettuce & tomato and veggie corn fritters with sweet and spicy chili sauce. Birdie's Biscuits' fluffy golden treats range from sweet like blueberry cheesecake and apple cobbler to savory options like mushrooms and brie. Little Baby's Ice Cream will be at the ready with a rotating selection of unique milkshakes like Birch Beer Vanilla Bean, Blackberry Sage, Buttered Popcorn, and Earl Grey Sriracha. The market bar is set to have wines on tap along with local beer as well as cider from local producer Kurant using fresh pressed Pennsylvania apples.

Philly's Chinatown's ever-changing foodscape on the streets has a 2-story anchor of permanency in Chinatown Square, the neighborhood's very own food hall packed with street food ranging from Philly Poké's Hawaiian-style poké, raw-fish served in their poke-ritos, sushi to go, and musubi; Khmer Grill's home-style Cambodian barbecue; and Mexican-Korean hybrid taco joint Coreanos featuring bulgogi tacos on corn tortillas with gochujang and Korean sweet peppers sauce with Mexican cheese.

Open well past midnight, cocktails and karaoke are just as much of a staple at Chinatown Square as the food. While The Bao Bar serves steam buns featuring bò lúc lắc ("shaking beef") they supplement it with a full bar serving craft beers. Hi Kori's ("fire and ice" in Japanese) key components on the menu are kushiyaki (fire) and craft tea-infused cocktails (ice). Sake and Japanese whiskey are also at the ready. Access Karaoke on the second-floor mezzanine is entirely occupied by karaoke rooms like The Johnnie Walker Lounge, an open-seating-style lounge that can be rented for private parties.

Tucked into a glass walled street front building on the University of Pennsylvania's campus, outposts of more established sit down restaurants located throughout the city surround communal seating accommodating 170 people. Favorites include DK (Double Knot) where chefs swiftly wrap salmon rolls and plate bento boxes, rolls, and sashimi on the go. Falafel hotspot Goldie, renowned for their crunchy on the outside, pillowy soft in the center mainstay also serves ultra smooth tehina shakes, a liquified version of the Middle Eastern dessert halva made from sesame seed paste.

Starting out as a food truck, Pitruco Pizza built its reputation on top-notch wood-fired pies like margherita, spicy garlic, pepperoni, or more exotic yet authentic toppings like radicchio and fennel. Their open kitchen celebrates the fanfare of dough tossing along with the mechanical efficiency of pies being slid in and out of their wood-fire oven. In addition to 3 burgers (including one loaded with cheddar, crispy onions, barbecue sauce, and roasted long hots), KQ Burger chef/owner Michael Pasquarello sizzles up fried chicken, cheese steak, and mushroom sandwiches served on potato buns. Their digital kiosk with 2 large touch screens allows you to customize the type of cheese, sauce, and toppings on whatever you're ordering.

Where to Stay & Dine Outside of the Markets

When it's time to hang your hat in between market excursions or visit an actual sit down restaurant, Philly's historic Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in City Center is within walking distance of all the public markets featured above. The Warwick Hotel, a circa 1928 gem presents a perfect blend of yesterday and today with sleek décor and furnishings, vibrant colors, and modern technology in a historic landmark building. The last of Philadelphia's original 3 "Grande Dame hotels" , the Warwick celebrates its legacy with impeccable service and ongoing getaway packages that often include key perks like complimentary parking and free admission to various museums.

On property Spice Finch run by Chefs Jennifer Carroll and Billy Riddle cook up modern Mediterranean dishes served in a bright and airy art deco-inspired designed dining area overlooking the street. Menu highlights range from fresh baked flat breads, spreads, and salads to elaborately spiced whole fish and octopus escabeche making it the perfect antidote to binging on Philly's iconic cheese steaks and pork sandwiches.

Just several block away, The Love Restaurant presents a broad selection of American comfort dishes in a setting that's 50/50 bistro and intimate plush seating. Authentically prepared from scratch favorites include Whistle Stop Fried Green Tomatoes, seasonal pastas like Tuscan Black Kale Risotto, Acorn Squash Pomodoro, and their signature Lovebird, seasonal buttermilk fried chicken, whipped sweet potatoes, bourbon aioli, cider braised mustard greens & black-eyed peas.

Photos courtesy of visitphilly.com, Reading Terminal Market, The Love Restaurant, & Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a partially sponsored visit.

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