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Philly's food: far more than just cheese steaks

Special to the Sun

Philly's food is far more than cheese steaks.

Food is serious business in Philadelphia -- and I'm not just talking about the city's famed cheese steaks and soft pretzels. While you can get those delectables on almost any block, take delight in the fact that Philly's restaurant scene has exploded in recent years. Diners can now choose from an outstanding range of cuisines, styles and prices.

Restaurateurs and chefs are celebrities in Philly these days. Neil Stein runs a string of upper-end restaurants, as does George Perrier. Stephen Starr specializes in a blend of food and theater, while Delilah Winder leans toward Southern soul food. And all of Philly know who these people are.

Philadelphia takes its chefs and its food so seriously that the city is host to an annual cookbook festival each March, the Book and the Cook Festival and Fair.

With the restaurant scene as hot as it is, places are opening -- and sometimes closing -- with lightning speed. Getting a table at the most popular dining spots is often tricky. If you want to try a restaurant you've heard about, call as far ahead as you can and make a reservation. It's not uncommon for some of the city's better-known restaurants to book more than a month in advance.

So, where to go? The choices are almost endless. The hot new trend is Cuban food, which features long cooking times, subtle spices and Caribbean fruits. Three Cuban restaurants have opened this year alone: , and . These are some of the hottest new restaurants in town, so again I say, book your table early.

Before you have dinner, though, you'll want to get breakfast and lunch. For a fun, inexpensive breakfast, try the . For $5 you can enjoy a hearty, home-cooked breakfast in diner style. The French toast is rich and buttery, and the fresh-squeezed juices are fantastic. A note: Bring cash; the diner doesn't take credit cards.

Another breakfast option is to stroll around the market area, selecting pastries and coffee from the many vendors. Or, if you want to people-watch as you wake up, choose a coffee house on Walnut Street or Rittenhouse Square and have a latte and a muffin.

If getting up early isn't your thing but dining in elegant surroundings is, you can't beat the Ritz-Carlton's outstanding . You can have tea Mondays to Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. and brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The Ritz isn't the cheapest place in town, but the luxurious setting is worth the splurge.

For lunch, try one of the town's famous cheese steaks, if you are so inclined. There's always wild debate over where the best cheese steaks can be found, but go ahead and ask some of the workers at your hotel for their favorite places. Or, go to the Reading Terminal Market, South Street or the Italian Market (Ninth and Christian streets).

If you're looking for a more exotic lunch choice, Chinatown provides blocks of choices, with food styles from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and other places.

In the Washington Square district, you might want to check out the Middle Eastern cuisine at . For less than $10 per person, you can enjoy an appetizer and a very ample sandwich or entree. The place isn't fancy, but the service is good and the food is perfectly prepared. The hummus is highly recommended, as are the chicken kebabs. Try the spiced tea, too.

For an upscale lunch choice, mingle with the people on Rittenhouse Square. and its sister restaurant, , are both creations of Neil Stein, one of the city's most highly regarded restaurateurs. The menus are French-tinged, with a hint of Asian fusion style. While the food is not cheap, you do get to feel as if you're basking in a Parisian cafe.

If you want the feel of the Rittenhouse Square district, without the prices of Rouge or Bleu, or if you have kids with you, try . This pizza place is more upscale than most, with a beautiful wood staircase. The food is fresh and affordable, and the pizza is baked to order, so it arrives piping-hot at the table. It's a great choice for a civilized lunch that won't wound your wallet.

Dinner is when Philly's restaurant scene rocks. You can span the centuries with your dinner choices, or dine in some truly theatrical settings. The Philadelphia visitors' Web site ( can help you sort through options. Or pick up a copy of one of the local magazines (Philadelphia or Philadelphia Style) or newspapers to see what's hot.

In the meantime, here are a few recommendations.

If you want to immerse yourself in the history of Philadelphia, dinner at is a must. City Tavern first opened its doors to travelers and diners in 1773. It was an important meeting place for the planners of American independence, and the closing banquet of the Constitutional Convention was held here.

The City Tavern of today is a reconstruction of the Colonial building, designed from the plans of the original. True to its historic past, the tavern offers dishes based on colonial-era recipes, served by a staff in the dress of the time. The breads are from original colonial recipes (the muffins are particularly good), and the tavern brews original unfiltered beers from George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's recipes.

The menu tends to feature game, but don't ignore the turkey pot pie, which is incredibly rich and very tasty. The wild mushroom bisque is a delicate blend, and the West Indies pepper-pot soup is from an original colonial recipe. The pewter dishes keep food very hot or very cold, and you can buy them as souvenirs.

If you want a more contemporary dining experience, head to Old City. This neighborhood has been the scene of a restaurant explosion in recent years, and trendy eateries abound. This is the home of dinner as theater, and almost every restaurant has an eye-popping style of its own.

Old City has a younger vibe than other areas, and one of the places that reflects that vibe is the . One of Stephen Starr's exotic restaurants, Continental is located in an old diner. Lamps in the shape of giant martini olives and food skewers set the tone. The menus have been designed to resemble airline-passenger information cards from the 1950s, and a feeling of retro swankiness prevails. You could easily imagine a Rat Pack member strolling in.

This tiny restaurant is loud and packed with people, almost all under age 30. Continental's hook is its vast drink list, which takes the concept of the martini very loosely. Drinks here tend to be on the sweet side and cater to the younger crowd (the Buzz Aldrin, for example, is a dentist's dream that combines peach vodka, triple sec and Tang in an orange sugar-rimmed glass). Of course, traditional cocktails also are on the list.

The food is called "global tapas," and is meant to be shared. The Sichuan fried potatoes are a huge portion, but unimpressive. They reminded us of Durkee potato sticks drizzled with Chinese restaurant mustard. The seared tuna with mushroom risotto is practically sushi it's so rare (and served cold), but it melts in your mouth and its crust bursts with flavor. The risotto is fantastic.

Continental is about dinner as social hour -- a fun place to come with friends. It is not your best choice for a quiet, romantic evening.

Other restaurants in Old City offer their own variations on dinner as entertainment. offers entrees like seared ostrich filet, but is perhaps more celebrated for its restrooms. The unisex stalls have clear glass doors, but when you lock them, the glass mists up to conceal the interior.

offers you a 10-foot golden Buddha to look at while you eat your Asian-influenced dinner. is a Moroccan fantasy. The serves contemporary Irish/French food in a rococo dining room.

If you want a more traditional taste of Philadelphia, consider Bookbinder's. However, you'll need to decide which one to choose. Old Original Bookbinder's at Second and Walnut streets occupies the location of the famed restaurant that opened in 1867. However, that restaurant is no longer run by the family that started it. To enjoy their hospitality, you'll need to visit Bookbinders Seafood House at 215 S. 15th St. Be aware, though, that both restaurants have lost some of their luster, and the food can be pedestrian.

If you want an upscale, romantic dining experience, you want to be on Restaurant Row on Walnut St. This is home to such stand-out restaurants as , renowned for its sublime service and outstanding French cuisine (and a very discreet entrance).

If you want to try some fantastic seafood, visit the . Housed in a sumptuous former art deco brokerage, the Striped Bass is elegance personified, with a price tag to match. It's worth it, though, for a romantic splurge. This restaurant was chosen for the anniversary-dinner scene in the movie "The Sixth Sense."

The freshest fish is used here, and preparation is subtle, designed to enhance the flavors. The roasted tomato-tortilla soup was a delicately fragranced blend of tomato, cilantro, lime and shrimp. A salad tasted unaccountably of salt, but the entrees were superb. There was an Asian influence in the scallops and a Mediterranean flair with the sea bass. The bar is elegant enough alone to warrant a visit here, and the staff makes what may be the best gimlets anywhere.

The only problem you may have dining in Philadelphia is choosing where to go. Whatever you decide, you won't go wrong in a town that celebrates its chefs and treats food as art.

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