Everyone Likes Us, We Don't Care

Philadelphia Magazine's food critic on the irrepressible attitude that is the key ingredient of the city's restaurants.

8 min read
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If they thought about us at all, it was only in reference to our cheesesteaks.

If anyone talked about us, it was the same, tired stories: the greased light poles, Santa and the batteries. If they ever mentioned our restaurants it was maybe Georges Perrier, maybe Stephen Starr, and if they had anything at all to say about our scene, it was like a cautionary tale for young cooks: Philadelphia was where you'd end up if you weren't suited for civilized company. It's where you went if you weren't good enough to play with the grown-ups.

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For the longest time, nobody gave a damn about Philly. No one cared about us. No one liked us. Certainly no one paid any attention to us.

And it was awesome.

You know what's great about being ignored? With everyone else looking in the other direction, you can get away with almost anything. And for years, that's exactly what Philly's chefs and restaurants did.

We did backrooms and barrooms and neighborhood joints with hand-written menus that would lay low anything wearing a white tablecloth. We did menus-as-biography in neighborhoods that no tourist would ever find, experimented with nostalgia behind unmarked doors, and ate our culture, our history, our memories of home without ever wondering for a second what people from elsewhere might think. 

Did we have some bright lights? Sure. But this is a city that made a temporary hero out of a guy who ate 40 rotisserie chickens for no good reason, so the white-hot star of any given moment was just as likely to be some knucklehead banging out a killer sandwich as it was to be someone lacquering the duck or tweezing on the chervil. So we made being the underdog hot. We made the best nights you were ever going to have in your life from dinners in basements, cocktails in Chinatown, and 20-seat love letters to forgotten foods.

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Trouble is, people noticed. They talked. And yes, the first rule of Fight Club is that you don't talk about Fight Club, but there was no way Philly was going to stay secret forever. Not possible when you're a stone's throw away from New York and D.C., when the internet entered our collective pockets and started broadcasting everywhere to everywhere. 

So things are different now. These days, Philly is it. Center of the map, point of the conversation, a magnet for awards. All the Big Name chefs, all the cooking shows, all the glossy magazines — suddenly they all care what's happening here. (I mean, what are you reading right now?) Everywhere you look, there's a chef with TV makeup on their whites. Everywhere you go, there's a reporter swimming in the soup. We're cheap, weird and sexy as hell right now. We're everyone everywhere's favorite-y-favoritest flavor.

What's interesting, though, is the way Philly's restaurant scene has reacted to the sudden attention and adulation. Are we chasing fame? Are we polishing our shoes and smearing the blood off our knuckles? Did we turn toward the warm light of fame like a thousand little sunflowers?


If anything, recognition from the outside has only made Philly's restaurant scene turn more inward and become more sectarian. Chefs who could've used the sudden heat bestowed by shiny awards and stage lights as leverage to open big, cold and soulless simulacra of the spots that made them famous instead signed the leases on even smaller properties and spent their nights spinning Cambodian pop music, pouring sunshine instead of wine or serving Jewish-Canadian fusion cuisine to their neighbors, their neighbors' friends, the people from down the corner, and absolutely no one else.

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And there was no collective agreement to act this way. No petitions were passed around. It was just the gut reaction of those who'd labored so long beneath the notice of the tastemakers and the swells to burrow in even deeper when adoration and respectability was offered.

Philly bites the hand that feeds it just as hard as the hand that doesn't. If the essence of cool is doing exactly what you love and honestly not caring what anyone else thinks, then Philly is the coolest city on earth.

I mean, remember back when the Birds won the Superbowl? Remember Jason Kelce's Mummer's outfit, his wrecked voice and the song he sang to us and everyone else in the entire goddamn world who wasn't us?

No one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us. We don't care.

We're from Philly, fuckin' Philly.

No one likes us. We don't care.

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The thing that I will always, always, always love about this town is that it works exactly the opposite way, too. Love us, hate us, watch us, ignore us. It doesn't matter. We won't clean up. We won't do what we're told. We won't ever be anyone else's image of what we're supposed to be. Because we all know exactly who we are on our best days and our worst days, and no matter what anyone else thinks, this city, this scene, these chefs and these restaurants will just never care.

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant's story can help or inspire another. We're proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.


Jason Sheehan
Jason Sheehan

Restaurant critic

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