From cheesesteaks to local greens, Philly shows off its best

Jack Falkenback, a bartender at Philadelphia Distilling, is photographed by a member of the Association of Food Journalists as he makes drinks.

Creamy hummus from Dizengoff, craft cocktails in Fishtown, cheesesteaks both traditional and vegan, cold oysters on the half shell, gelato and farm-fresh vegetables — for three days, food journalists from around the country feasted on some of Philadelphia’s best tastes.

Roughly 75 writers descended on the city last week for an annual conference held by the Association of Food Journalists. They attended panels with food experts and some of the most renowned restaurateurs the city — and the country — has to offer, such as three local 2017 James Beard Award winners: Michael Solomonov, Stephen Starr, and Greg Vernick, who extolled Philadelphia’s quirks and affordability.

During a panel discussion at the Inquirer and Daily News, Starr, whose empire has expanded to four states, said the city’s restaurantgoers have tough standards that make the city a good place for chefs who want to hone their craft.

“You can’t fool them in New York, either, but it’s transient,” he said. “You can mess up once in a while. … In Philly, you see the same people, you have to be up to snuff all the time.”

Starr and Solomonov, whose modern Israeli restaurants Zahav, Dizengoff, and Abe Fisher have rocketed him to national fame, said their employees in Philadelphia can afford to live close enough to their restaurants to bike or walk there, unlike some locations in other cities that require hour-long commutes.

Camera icon KAIT MOORE
Mike Solomonov takes part in  a panel discussion at the Association of Food Journalists conference.

Asked by an audience member to name his favorite old-school Philly restaurants, Vernick, who was named best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region at the James Beard Awards this year, said the Italian Market’s Villa di Roma reflected the city’s soul. Solomonov agreed.

“My mother calls it a gravy joint,” Vernick said of the no-frills spot that serves wine in water glasses and has its menu displayed on the wall. “I’ve been going there my whole life. … I hope it never changes.”

Conference attendees also heard a panel featuring the Tampa Bay Times’ Laura Reiley, a Pulitzer finalist for her “Farm to Fable” series that exposed the fraudulent advertising in many of Florida’s farm-to-table restaurants. She joined Talula’s Garden owner Aimee Olexy, Vedge chef Rich Landau, Josh Lawlor of the Farm & the Fisherman, and local farmer Adrian Galbraith-Paul in discussing the business of sourcing local ingredients.

“Crowdsourcing is the future,” Reiley said of how ethically minded consumers can fact-check restaurants and farmers’ markets. “The onus is on the customers to educate ourselves.”

Attendees explored Reading Terminal Market and ate at famous mainstays, like Talula’s Garden, Zahav, and Vedge. They attended a “Taste of Philadelphia” event at the new Museum of the American Revolution that featured samples from eateries like Dizengoff, Amis, the Oyster House, Capogiro Gelato, High Street, and John’s Roast Pork.

Most attendees also spent a few hours touring distilleries in Fishtown and Kensington, a corner of the city that, just a few years ago, would have seemed an unlikely destination for craft spirits. At La Colombe, Todd Carmichael introduced the group to his coffee and rum, and other new products, like a pumpkin-spice-flavored draft latte in a can made “with real friggin’ pumpkin,” and the new peppermint mocha draft latte.

From there, writers toured Philadelphia Distilling’s spacious new home next to the Fillmore concert venue, sampling cocktails made with Bluecoat Gin.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY
Aaron Selya, head distiller at Philadelphia Distilling, explains the distilling process for members of the Association of Food Journalists on a tour of neighborhood distilleries conducted by the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan.

Kensington’s Martha Bar was a staging area for samples from nearby Red Brick and Rowhouse Spirits Distilleries, producers of everything from pineapple rum to aquavit.

The tour wrapped at New Liberty Distillery, where journalists sipped “penicillin” cocktails of scotch and lemon juice.

Bob Batz Jr. of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named New Liberty his favorite stop on the tour, citing the beauty of the distillery, which was installed in a converted stable. But he said he was impressed by most of the week’s events.

“It makes me want to come back here and spend more unstructured time exploring,” he said.