Irene Levy Baker has literally written the book on eating in Philly. But it’s not just about how the food tastes that makes it memorable or worthy of being featured in her book “Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia”. It’s the stories behind the dish or the restaurant as a whole. While searching for these stories, Baker has spent the last 25 years eating her way through various neighborhoods and has an uncanny memory for all the morsels she’s encountered.
Baker sat down with Metro to talk about the restaurant openings she’s excited about, her favorite spots in Reading Terminal Market and her ideal day spent eating around Philly.
Where you need to eat according to Philly’s “Food Detective”
So what’s your formula for how to eat at new restaurants?
I don’t consider myself a food critic because I don’t rate restaurants. I tell stories, so that’s why I call myself a “food detective”. I’m not the person that orders the lamb chop at every single place to compare it. I tend to order whatever their signature dish is as well as anything on the menu that jumps out at me, but it’s more about the story. Sometimes I know what it is when I’m going in. Sometimes I don’t know at all, or I think I know what it is and then it ends up being something completely different.
What new restaurants are on your list?
I walked into Condesa at the Pod Hotel and can’t wait to have dinner there, but I usually wait to visit new restaurants until a couple of weeks after the grand opening. I’m also excited for Spreadquarters at 24th and Walnut and a new ramen place called Maple at 21st and Chestnut.
What do you grab when you’re at Reading Terminal Market?
I love the butter cake at Flying Monkey… or anything there. I always go to Bassett’s Ice Cream. They’re the oldest ice cream makers in the U.S. I also love Hershel’s East Side Deli. One time, I was there with my parents. We sat down and split a corned beef sandwich and the owner came over. My mother said, “She’s writing a book about food and restaurants!” This was embarrassing at first, but then it turned out to be a wonderful thing. [Owner] Steven Safern started telling his story. When his grandparents were in Poland and the Nazis invaded, his uncle Hershel ran home to grab the family, but could only get his little brother, who is Steven’s father. They escaped and came to the United States. So Steven named the deli after uncle who saved his father in the Holocaust, and Hershel was his hero.
How would you spend an ideal day eating around Philadelphia?
I would start with breakfast at Metropolitan Cafe for their baked goods, and walk over to Rival Bros. and get a cup of coffee.
For lunch I would definitely go to Reading Terminal Market and get that corned beef sandwich from Hersehl’s, and wash it down with an ice cream cone at Bassett’s.
For dinner, I would go to a place like Palizzi Social Club lamb chops and pasta, or Saté Kampar for their goat sate. Then I would stop at Rim Cafe for a volcano hot chocolate. The last stop would be to go for a drink at a speakeasy at Hop Sing Laundromat or 1 Tippling Place.
Best neighborhood for Philly restaurants right now?
Fishtown, it’s unbelievable right now. So many interesting and edgy restaurants like Suraya, Pizzeria Beddia, Front Street Cafe and Cake Life. One of my favorite things to do is to pick a neighborhood and have a “progressive dinner”, or eating at two or three restaurants You eat a couple of things and move on to the next place. It’s sad that you can only eat so much in one day.
Most underrated restaurant?
I want to tell you about it because I love it, but I don’t want to tell you about it because I love it. FRIEDA at 3rd and Walnut in Old City. They serve sandwiches and pastries, but they also do communal dinners, concerts and movie screenings. You’ll find people just sitting around and playing chess, so people come and get to know each other. It’s a real community. The hostess, Tina, is 92 years old and is a darling. Go for their traditional Sunday afternoon tea.
See Irene Levy Baker talk Philly food and more at Suburban Square in Ardmore on Thursday Oct. 10 at 5 p.m or at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1515 Market St.) on Friday Oct. 19. Tickets and more info are available at uniqueeatsphilly.com.