Philly’s best short-order cooks, lunch counters, one-$ spots? I’ll start with McNally’s.
One thing that disappoints me whenever reviewers (or Philadelphia Magazine) come out with their Best Restaurants lists is how weighted they are toward high-end places. As if the only way to give people an outstanding eating experience is with the kind of meal that costs >$50 per person. Which is just wrong. Smarter: the way rating sites like Yelp offer the $, $$, $$$, $$$$ categorization (same goes for something like the NYTimes’s $25 and Under category). It doesn’t just tell you how much places cost, it sorts them into categories that mean something. At any of those levels there are restaurants ranging from lousy to outstanding, and it’s a pyramid – lots more bad and so-so places at the bottom, a very few at the top that do what they do brilliantly. Most of the qualities that make the best places the best are the same at each price level: caring about the quality of every plate of food, and having the skills to convert caring into great food. The proportion of griddle-based joints that are amazing at what they do is as small as the proportion of high-concept restaurants that earn their price point.
So my question is: what are folks’ picks for the top 5% of places in this city where there’s just one cook or maybe two at the most, (s)he’s mainly working a griddle or some other tiny space, and the check comes hand-written on a little green pad with a double-digit price at most?
As an example, I nominate McNally’s in Chestnut Hill. They’re slightly famous as the home of the Schmitter, Philly’s other, other (, other?) signature sandwich (yes they have a spot in Citizen’s Bank Park. Haven’t been and can’t comment). Besides being a great invention, the Schmitter is a good example of why McNally’s gets my vote: a cheesesteak with the addition of grilled salami and onions, a slice of tomato, and Russian dressing, it could be too much, too sloppy, just gross. But the roll is always fresh and toasted perfectly on the griddle; the meat and onions are always grilled to order and never come from some steaming pile like at so many of our well-known cheesesteak spots; and everything gets put together carefully. It’s still a cholesterol bomb that will kill me one day, but it’s extremely tasty and totally worthwhile.
The same attention to detail makes everything on their small-but-complete grill menu top notch: crisp bacon and fresh lettuce on the burger, hand-carved turkey in the club sandwich, hot dogs that are split and griddled. Beyond the proficient, consistent, careful way that they make their short-order standards, a few special details put McNally’s in top-5% contention. The soups of the day change all the time, are made by a family member, and are ambitious and delicious: last Friday they had beautiful, densely flavored cream of mushroom, and turkey orzo generously stocked with good dark meat. The cakes are made by (I think) one of the owners. Best carrot cake I’ve had, with the best cream cheese frosting I’ve had on top. Excellent chocolate bundt, sometimes coconut, sometimes something special. All among the best bakery cakes in the city. On the service end: I come in semi-regularly with my son. They set us up with a beer for me and a juicebox for him, service is always friendly and gracious (and patient when I try to get him to do his own ordering and remember his please and thank you). They never rush us, no matter how crowded the place gets, even when my son is dawdling over his grilled cheese. They make the meal a pleasure, which is what a top-5% spot should do.
So that’s the kind of place I mean.
What else is out there?
The Dutch Eating Place in Reading Terminal is great for breakfast. And Paesano's would surely fit the criteria.
+1 on everything you say about McNally's. My husband and I are regulars; he gets the Schmitter, I get the GBS* -- a vegetarian's unhealthy dream. Tomato, lettuce, green pepper, onion, melted cheese, and (I guess) the same dressing as on the Schmitter.
*George Bernard Shaw. Sandwich invented and named by Hugh McNally, the retired owner (father of the current owner).Kudos, Hugh!!!
Not in the city, but the first place that comes to my (city girl) mind is Cajun Kate's in the Booth's Corner Farmers Market. One of the few places I'll drive out of the city for! Excellent cajun food - po'boys, gumbo, etc. 6 seat counter, 5 foot deep kitchen, 2-3 people in that space. Timefor a drive!
Not totally short order, but the counter experience where you sit down and the cooking happens across the counter = Blue Belly Barbecue at 6th and Catherine.
Another place, George's Sandwich Shop - the one on 9th just South of Christian. Old School.
And pushing the definition a bit, many of the lunch trucks like Spot, Street Food Philly, Sunflower Food Truck, Say Cheese, Vernalicious and Lucky Old Souls. Some of the best short order cooking happening nowadays.
re: Holly Moore
Well, Holly, you are the authority. When I moved here in '05 your site sent me to a bunch of one-$ places that are still favorites now (George's is one).
If you haven't been in awhile, you might pop up to McNally's sometime and try another bowl of soup and a slab of carrot cake. They could earn that fifth grease stain.
re: Holly Moore
Tried Vernalicious last Friday, at the beginning of a late-night drive to Connecticut. They're near the highway and open late, my last chance to eat something good before I got on 95 with nothing but rest stops for 200 miles.
Verna (or "Verna"?) recommended the pulled-pork grilled cheese, and it was awesome. Simply what the name says: a heap of good BBQ on a buttery grilled-cheese sandwich. A little drippy, completely delicious. The small collection of foodtruck vendors that serve the bar crowd in that corner of the Kensington/Fishtown area on weekend nights are friendly people and they're making good things. Verna and the guy from the nearby cupcake truck came out and sat with me on the front steps of a darkened bank while I ate my sandwich (which took about three minutes though it was a thick piece of work), and a woman from a tiny Korean cart let me taste her homemade kimchi (good. promised to try her food next time). Then a big group of barhoppers staggered up and everyone got back in their trucks to serve their customers.
Vernalicious: definitely a great one-$'er.
Another addition, just discovered today (by me, but recommended by Holly below): The Street Food Philly truck.
This afternoon tried their braised pork tacos with frizzled shallots and some kind of salsa and some other sort of greens and (maybe) pickled onions - $6 for two well-stuffed soft tacos that were just freaking amazing. Maybe the best tacos I've had in Philly. And just, aside from any sort of ranking, delicious food.
33rd and Arch, next to Rival Brothers coffee truck which is seriously good coffee. That intersection on the Drexel campus has a small-parking lot's worth of promising food trucks, but I'm not sure I can try any of the others until I eat my way through Street Food's menu.