Tasting Philadelphia for under $30 per person

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve eaten a lot and drunk a little. Philadelphia is nice that way because it has about the same gastronomic variety and quality as New York, but it’s cheaper.

On Thursday night, I went out to Marrakesh, probably Philly’s best Moroccan restaurant. You turn down a side street and knock on a wooden door, and they let you in, seat you on low couches, and then, for $25 (before taxes or tip), you get a seven-course meal. First they come by and wash your hands with rose water, pouring the fragrant liquid from a warm kettle in thin streams. With rare exceptions, you then eat the seven courses with your hands, helped along by flatbread. It’s a little on the messy side, so they give you an entire towel as a napkin.

I went with four other people, all of whom had brought their own wine, which was apparently allowed, and the communal set-up helped the conversation along. Maria, a beautiful woman originally from Colombia, regaled us with details from her research on the development (or lack thereof) of infants who were breastfeeding versus those on formula. “The ones on soy formula do the worst,” she said.

Maria had recommended the Latin-Caribbean Mixto with the remark that to get any more authentic, you had to venture into the ghetto. I was starving when we got there the next evening, so we ordered the Plato Mixto as an appetizer — a platter that basically contains a taste of everything: fried plantains, chorizo, shrimp ceviche, empanadas, and various fried meat-pie-things. By the time I was finished, I wished that I hadn’t ordered a main course. And we had split the $24 platter equally between two people. I would have been quite content with a salad (or margarita) afterwards, but I ate part of the main course (the orchid, notably) and then took the rest away for lunch the next day.

By this point, I was considering the fact that I was probably going back to Idaho a size or two larger than I had arrived, unless I toned down the quantity of food I was eating. So the next night, we went to tapas at Tinto. We ordered a plate of Basque cheeses, bites of duck confit, figs wrapped in serrano ham, sauteed wild mushrooms, and the evening’s addition to the menu, an excellent foie gras and pheasant ravioli, for less than $30 per person.

Afterwards, we ducked down this little nondescript alley into a nearly-unmarked door to try to get a seat at The Ranstead Room. It was 7:30, so we figured we had a good shot, but the hostess shook her head at us. We went down the street until she called to invite us back, and we returned to be ushered into what looked like a classy speakeasy. It was tiny, and dimly lit. The cocktails, none of which I had heard of, were all $12. And either they were bad at facilitating turnover, or they were more exclusive than they needed to be, because there was an empty table behind us.

We got the tuxedo 2 with absinth, and a dominicana made with aged rum. Here’s the thing about this place: you’re supposed to order the bartender’s choice, so we did that too, coming away with a variation on a whiskey sour, complete with a silky-smooth eggwhite finish, and a Fancy Free, a boozy drink made with bourbon. The cocktails were not very big, but they were still worth the price. They were that good.

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