Philadelphia is a popular conference town, indeed. This year, more than 1,000 educators will head to the City of Brotherly Love for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education Annual Meeting alone. The Society for College and University Planning and the Council of Independent Colleges have meetings planned there in the next few months, too.
We know that native Philadelphians have VERY strong feelings about the “bests” in the city. From cheesesteaks to pretzels, most folks from Philly have an opinion about what to eat where. We are standing on dangerous ground here, as such an iconic food town is difficult to assess without infuriating loyal patrons of establishments -- by criticism, praise or omission. We offer our best advice based on conference circumstances but encourage Philadelphians to weigh in below.
As reminder, our ratings scale is:
20 Points: Fully accredited with commendations
15-19 Points: Accreditation reaffirmed
10-14 Points: Monitoring/Follow-Up/Progress report required
5-10 Points: Warning Issued
1-4 Points: Withdraw/Deny accreditation
First stop for us: Reading Terminal Market (RTM). If you go to Philly, the Market is a must-see destination that’s not just for tourists. During weekday lunch hours the majority of diners seem to be locals who work in the area. If you’re attending a conference downtown, it is an easily accessible and fun place to visit. For we Connoisseurs, we were eager to help guide our readers to a couple of Market musts.
A few notes about visiting the Market. It is crowded. If you don’t like, or are easily overwhelmed by, crowds then you may not want to venture over. Along that same line, you can expect to wait in line at the more popular food vendors and hope you stumble across available seating. Make sure you account for that as you budget your conference time. Our average wait was 10-15 minutes. With that said, from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. it is fairly manageable and there seems to be another ebb later in the afternoon. So, while the proximity of the Market to downtown hotels increases the score of the restaurants visited there, the noise level and counter service generally lowered the scores.
Reading Terminal Market offers both meal and snack opportunities. The prices are all in the junior faculty price range and it’s a pretty safe bet that you can eat well within your per diem at the market.
Tommy DiNic’s Sandwich
There are countless opportunities for a cheesesteak sandwich in Philadelphia. Even in RTM, it would take more than a week’s worth of lunches to sample all the cheesesteak fare. To be honest, your CCs deviated from the usual selection methodology and fell victim to the Travel Channel network hype surrounding the winner of America’s best sandwich, DiNic's. DiNic’s Sandwich Shop is, after all, purportedly the BEST SANDWICH in the U.S. That’s pretty high praise. But what does the assessment evidence show?
Your CC ordered the traditional roast pork sandwich with provolone and hot peppers. The sandwich was found to be a notch above mediocre which was a major disappointment given the expectations placed upon it. The seasoning of the pork and application of hot peppers was so inconsistent it was almost like eating two different sandwiches. As the sole (in a non-fish sense) meat-consuming contingent of the CC was dreaming all day of this legendary morsel, the expectations probably exceeded anything that could be delivered in reality. If you elect to try DiNic’s make sure you study the menu in advance, as you are required to make a decision as soon as you get to the register and questions are discouraged. The score of 13/20 necessitates a progress/monitoring report so let us know how you fare. (Click here  for our rubric.)
For a Study Abroad meal, we went to Little Thai, a cash-only Thai vendor. First, do not be distracted by the microwave behind the curtain. Normally, that would put this CC off (a lot) but we are committed to global studies and figured we would give it a try.
Remember the long lines dominated by locals mentioned above? Well all of those locals were ordering the salmon so this lemming went along. And there are no regrets. For $7 you get a pretty large portion of perfectly grilled salmon (albeit reheated in the aforementioned microwave), served on a bed of rice, and a small side of broccoli. While most got the curry sauce doused on top, the server was more than accommodating in giving the calorie-conscious CC sauce on the side.
Even after wandering the market looking for seating, the food was hot. And delicious! The curry sauce was not heavy or overly creamy. It was a wonderful lunch that left one feeling full. For $7!
Even accounting for the low environment score Little Thai still managed a respectable 17/20: Accreditation Reaffirmed! (Click here  for our rubric.)
At some point, one has to leave the noisy confines of RTM and enjoy a proper meal. Your CCs headed into a Philadelphia neighborhood and visited a small eatery called Little Fish. It’s more than a brisk walk away from the conference center so we do recommend taking your car or hailing a cab. If you do decide to drive yourself, parking is very limited so brush up on your parallel parking skills. This establishment has all the characteristics of the places where the in-crowd goes to eat (trendy, quaint, low-tech), but not over-the-top kitschy so you feel uncomfortable.
A BYOB, tenured- and trustees-level establishment, Little Fish prides itself on fresh seafood. The venue is small and you can actually watch the cooks take great care with preparing and plating your food. It felt like watching an artist at work. In fact, the meal took so long to arrive it did feel like we were watching paint dry. Our appetizer was kampachi with entrees of sea trout and cobia. Each was meticulously crafted and thoughtfully presented. While the culinary outcome of the meal wasn’t anything less than delicious, the experience didn’t quite hit the high note we were looking for.
Also, the service at Little Fish wasn’t quite what I would describe as accommodating. Seating by the hostess wasn’t very friendly, American Express is not accepted as payment and they severely frown upon separate checks (maybe because they hand-write them along with all the menus). For a dinner date all these quirks may not be an issue, but being on business we are held to a higher standard … our Accounts Payable clerk.
Score: 15/20 – Accreditation Reaffirmed (Click here  for our rubric.)
We also ventured into the snack category this time and had pretzels at Miller’s pretzels at RTM. While we wouldn’t count a pretzel as a meal (and are therefore excluding an assessment rubric), there are pretzel dogs and assorted other pretzel-based foods that may, for some, be considered a meal. As a snack, though, the regular pretzel was a doughy, buttery, salty piece of heaven. If you eat nothing else in Philadelphia, treat yourself to a Miller’s pretzel.