Foodie heatmap: Philly

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

Header image credit: Bryce Edwards. Steak by Tony Luke’s.

Cheese.  Steak.  Say it again, savoring the deliciousness.  Cheeeesssseeeeeeeeeesteakkkkk.

Next up in our City Food Scene series: Philly, city of so much brotherly love that an average of 34.729 fights break out every day in public markets over the proper rolls to use (for anything).  Double on football Sundays.

Ok, ok, Philadelphia has a fantastic food scene with a huge variety of cuisine both haute and basse.  It’s a gem of a city on the Eastern Seaboard, one of the best food cities in the country.  It’s more affordable than either New York or DC, has a huge, thriving economic base, and has been doing food trucks since way, way before they became the new hotness overnight in about 2009. Philadelphia’s food scene, particularly its (not nearly hyped enough) contender-for-best-in-America cheap eats culture, is a living, breathing, burping reminder of the city’s immigration history. Italians brought long rolls and cured meats, making the hoagie possible. The Great Migration brought refugees from the Jim Crow South, fried chicken, and some delicious BBQ. Vietnamese immigrants arrived in South Philly in the 1970s, creating one of the most densly phở-tastic sections of the US along Washington Ave. Since 2003, the city’s Mexican population has skyrocketed, taco trucks in tow.

But let’s not kid ourselves, you’re here for the cheesesteaks, because although you know that meat is murder, godDAMN those things are irresistible.

Steak sandwiches basically start cults here. Presidential candidates have been mercilessly mocked for asking for swiss cheese.  Ordering mayo, lettuce, and raw onions will probably get you stabbed. Some like American, some Whiz.  Some with, some without.  Some even prefer pizza steaks, others mushroom steaks.  Everyone has a right to be wrong.

The correct answer is, “American, with.” Adding “hots and sweets” is optional if you love you some peppers.



The question

What neighborhoods in Philly have the best food scenes?


The method

We took just under 3000 restaurants inside the Philadelphia city limits, and mapped them to each zip code, filtering out any that didn’t have at least 30 reviews to help counteract the effects of reputation-management shenanigans. Yes, the place with only 15 glowing 5 star reviews from John Smith, Rocky Balboa, and Smith Johnson is as shady as you think it is.


The Philly foodie heatmap

Well, that looks more or less right.

The denser parts of the city, plus South Philly, generally have people giving good reviews, while the outskirts of the city (the Greater Northeast, Far West Philly, the area around the Airport) are colder than cold.  The Northwest is a bit of a surprise, though, with the average reviewer less than impressed by places like Manayunk, Roxborough, Germantown, or Chestnut Hill.


The real food scenes

So what happens when we filter for density?  How about taking only ZIP codes with at least 20 qualifying restaurants (so, restaurants established enough to get 30 yelp reviews)?

The good, the great, and the hold-your-nose awful really stand out when you control for quantity.


Quick takeaways

  1. Philadelphia’s restaurant hot spots really don’t map on to its richest zip codes (Pew’s 2015 data, see map on p10, figure 1.5). Like at all. That’s….weird.  Roxborough, Chestnut Hill, Germantown?  Rich and bad food.  Same with pretty much the entire Northeast measuring by median income.  Old Kensington (19122)?  One of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, but bursting with flavor. South Philly also has its fair share of low-income areas and stands out as a generally hot area on the map.
  2. The real-deal hotspot: Queens Village and Italian Market. Nowhere else combines quantity of qualifying restaurants (124) with quality (average rating of 4.09).  It doesn’t hurt that Philly’s amazing Vietnamese corridor on Washington Ave also falls in 19147.  The home of cheesesteaks wins best food scene, both in the dataset and our hearts.
  3. Ov-er-rate-ed: University City. Like the western shore of the Delaware (see above), the western bank of the Schuylkill is full of food options (104).  The difference is that these tend to be profoundly mediocre (average rating of 3.70).  Penn and Drexel’s food trucks tend to bring up the rating a bit, but the brick-and-mortar dining options in West Philly average out to a profound “meh.”
  4. Northern Liberties, Kensington, and Fishtown are at least bringing some decent food with their gentrification.
  5. South Philly is less dense than Center City (no surprise there), but its average ratings are quite high. You have to take a bus or drive to get out to a lot of it, but it’s probably worth the effort.

What’s next?

Next up, we hit the great Stockyards at the base of Lake Michigan, where pork and beef meet corn and big city food incubation: Chicago.

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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