Dine: Girlfriends savor Philadelphia trip

PHILADELPHIA -- I love to anticipate my next meal. Will it be soup dumplings or sabayon? Pate or pastry? Will it be formal or frugal?

Whether I'm with others or dining solo, I often end up in conversations with diners about what they're eating. This enthusiasm for food transfers to cooking and shopping at specialty stores, when I'm energized by purveyors who share stories of butchers, farmers and artisans. At the point when I wonder whether this behavior is outlandish, I book an overnight trip to another city with a certain group of girlfriends. And then we eat.

This group is as passionate about where food comes from, what's cooking and who's making it, that they've centered careers around food.

Philadelphia was the site of a recent dining trip that would fit as many stops as appetites would allow.

This muscular city has blossomed into a dining mecca. Ethnic enclaves root the city's foodways. Philadelphia emerged as a culinary destination in the late 2000s, when Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin wrote, "There are now more places I want to try in Philadelphia than in New York."

It was then that chefs from elsewhere moved to Philly, or acolytes of the well-regarded Stephen Starr restaurant empire peeled off to start small, independent restaurants. These eateries debuted in intimate spaces where they offered stylish food and polished service.

Since then the dining scene has become more robust, an indicator of the city's cultural and culinary diversity.

Here lie crib notes for an overnight of one food-fixated group, as well as where to find rest and relaxation on the side.

Where to eat

Zahav (237 St. James Place, 1-215-625-8800) is the restaurant from Michael Solomonov, born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh. A return to Israel when he was 19 and a job as a baker led to his passion for cuisine of the region.

Zahav, Hebrew for "gold," opened in 2008 with a menu that centers around house-baked laffa made from a wood-burning oven. What follows are the dynamic flavors of Israel, the Mediterranean, North Africa and Persia. Plates of kibbe, raw lamb with harissa, or creamy hummus display refined technique on humble dishes. Fried cauliflower or persimmon salad make one forget the glories of meat. All this is served in a sleek dining room with terrific people watching. Should you visit Philadelphia, do not miss Zahav.

Farm and Fishermen (1120 Pine St., 1-267-687-1555). When two New Yorkers with fancy cooking pedigrees open an intimate, 30-seat restaurant, it's no surprise they received a nod as James Beard 2012 semifinalist Best New Restaurant for their first go-round. Josh Lawler, former chef de cuisine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and his wife Colleen, former sous-chef at New York's Picholine, steer the nightly three-course menu according to ingredients sourced locally. Choices include a "bloody beet steak" with yogurt pan drippings or chicken oysters, roasted fennel and breakfast radishes. The details make the experience so special, such as butter churned on-site and Parker House rolls baked in-house.

French for "pig," Cochon (801 E. Passyunk Ave., 1-215-923-7675) displays French technique, butter and other types of decadence for this Sunday meal. Expect brawny meats such as blood sausage scrapple and Berkshire pork chops. Bring libations to this BYO establishment for negronis or mimosas if you must. A digestif wouldn't hurt, either.

At Federal Donuts (1219 S. Second St., 1-267-687-8258), superlative fried-to-order doughnuts taste like sugared air, created by Mr. Solomonov of Zahav. Dusted in Indian cinnamon or vanilla lavender, they are ethereal enough to earn their own Pete Wells review in The New York Times. Glazed flavors change daily. Be sure to arrive early, and don't skip the twice-fried chicken, seasoned with Middle Eastern spices.

At this time of year, The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company (112 S. 18th St., 1-267-467-3277) is an underground cocktail den that offers intimacy and top-notch drinks. Named for the alcohol ring during Prohibition, this classic cocktail lair offers plenty of referential attire, such as handlebar mustaches, hats and vests. Despite the costumes, the drinks are the real deal.

Where to stay

For pampering, there's the Ritz-Carlton (10 Avenue of the Arts, 1-215-523-8000), a plush, centrally located hotel. The 10 Arts Lounge in the lobby is a festive spot to start the evening. The average room rate is $350 a night. The hotel offers superb, albeit expensive spa packages, too.

A modern spot (that's also dog friendly) is Kimpton's Palomar (117 S. 17th St. at Sansom. 1-215-563-5006). This sleek hotel offers in-room spa services and averages $250 a night.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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