Beyond the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers, which form the boundaries of Center City Philadelphia, are located two of the East Coast’s finest areas of farmland, Southern New Jersey and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Their fields stock the city’s many supermarkets, restaurants, and corner grocery stores but, to my mind, find their highest use in this charming culinary colosseum.
Reading Terminal Market, which, as its name suggests, has coexisted with Philadelphia’s railway lines since its foundation in 1889 and (this being Philadelphia) can trace its heritage back even further. An outdoor market preceded it on this site (in whose memory the market moves some stands outdoors for a single Saturday in June) from 1860 onwards, but in all likelihood, this market itself derived from the centuries-old outdoor markets from which Philadelphia’s main East-West thoroughfare takes its name.
Perhaps as a result of all this history (many of the stalls are quite close together, although never cramped), Reading Terminal Market has a charm and feeling of authenticity I haven’t experienced in any other American food emporium (and I do make a point of sampling many different ones!) While the Market’s website offers a useful map and list of merchants, this overhead view is of scant use on the ground. Unlike other markets, purveyors of the same specialty are not always located together (in particular the fish markets and butcher shops are somewhat scattered). Consequently, you should decide before entering whether you’re aiming for a particular type of food or whether you’re content to let your senses (all of which will be stimulated in the process) guide you. I heartily recommend the latter. Philadelphia is a city that amply repays idle wandering, perhaps nowhere more than here, near its very geographic center (although not, ironically, on Market Street).
If you have a particular objective in mind, however, I can provide a few recommendations. Amongst the numerous (and mostly Chinese-run) fish markets, the Golden Fish Market is my favorite. Similarly, my favorite cheeses come from the nearby Amish-run Esh Egg Farms counter – they often offer samples although if they don’t it’s hard to go wrong with any of their cheeses made with various kinds of vegetables inside. Indeed, any visit to the market without purchasing at least something from one of the bakeries, cheese counters, or butcher shops run by this strict traditionalist Protestant sect would be incomplete. Their ancestors fled religious persecution in seventeenth century Germany and have remained in Lancaster County ever since.
Many of the merchants also run small lunch counters, and needless to say, it’ll take years before I try every one of them. For the moment, I’d recommend you try Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties, which has some of the tastiest (and most reasonably priced) lunch options and exceptionally friendly service. These are my own personal favorites, however, and shouldn’t guide you too much. One of the greatest joys of visiting (and revisiting) the market is discovering your own.
Further information: http://www.readingterminalmarket.org