This East Coast City Is Bursting With Creative Energy Right Now

Four Philadelphia tastemakers, across its restaurant, hospitality, and arts scenes, explain why the city is worth a visit today.

Dressed in black, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, chef and restaurateur at Kalaya, is seated on a bar stool.

Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon is the award-winning chef and restaurateur behind Kalaya, a Thai eatery based out of Fishtown, Philadelphia.

Photo by Ted Nghiem

For years, travelers have visited Philadelphia to experience stories written long ago: to walk in Benjamin Franklin’s footsteps, see the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, and, of course, check out that broken bell. But the stories unfolding in Philly today show the world its trailblazing present and future.

In 2023, Philadelphia took home more James Beard Awards than any other city in the United States, a testament to the immense talent of its restaurateurs and chefs. Similarly, the city’s art scene has been attracting acclaim, and not just for such famed institutions as the Barnes Foundation. Philadelphia features more than 4,000 public artworks, with murals appearing everywhere from cobblestoned Society Hill to busy Baltimore Avenue.

We spoke with four of the city’s creative leaders about how visitors can best experience Philly today: Chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon of the restaurant Kalaya; Shannon Maldonado, who runs Yowie, a boutique hotel and shop; Conrad Benner, who documents Philly’s vibrant street-art scene; and chef Chad Williams of the restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday.

 Chutatip "Nok" Suntaranon holding tongs in kitchen (L). Overhead view of red and white foods in bowls (R)

At her Philadelphia restaurant, Kalaya, chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon serves dumplings, curries, and other foods inspired by her Thai childhood. Drinks include a tom kha colada and a hibiscus soda.

Photo by Ted Nghiem

Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon

Chef & Restaurateur, Kalaya

In 2023, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon was named Best Mid-Atlantic Chef by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates restaurants and chefs in the United States. Prior to rising to the top of the U.S. restaurant world, she spent two decades as a business-class flight attendant for Kuwait Airways and Thai Airways. For six years during that time, she also ran a restaurant in Bangkok. She moved to the States in 2010, where she trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. In 2019, Suntaranon opened her 32-seat Thai eatery, Kalaya, in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, one of the country’s oldest open-air markets. Thousands of dumplings and a pandemic later, in 2022, she moved Kalaya to an expansive former warehouse in Fishtown.

“I started to fall in love with Philly slowly. I moved here for my relationship. I did not think of it as my home, since I was coming from Bangkok, where I had a full life. In my hometown [Yan Ta Khao in southern Thailand], my family took care of everybody. Hospitality is in my blood.

“When I conceived of Kalaya, I started to think about how I was going to do the food I wanted to do. Everything would come out at the same time, family style. We would eat like how we eat at home. This is my food. This is the food that my family eats. It is our culture. [As a guest at Kalaya,] you are coming into my home. My house, my rules—we don’t change our food to suit other people’s tastes. It’s your choice to walk through our door, and it’s your choice to be happy or not happy. If you already have a perception about how ‘ethnic food’ should be seen the minute that you step foot in our restaurant, I can’t help with that. All I can do is stay true to myself.

“When I opened Kalaya in the Italian Market, I started to build relationships with my neighbors. And Philadelphia’s food scene always inspired me: chef Marc Vetri, longtime restaurateur Ellen Yin, and more. I can’t imagine another city that’s small but has such a big personality.

“Philly has a lot of potential, each neighborhood is so unique. Philadelphians support small businesses and know what they want to live a good life. No matter what is going on in Philly, we thrive, we’re resilient, and we’re not cookie-cutter.”

Shannon Maldonado seated on gray sofa (L). Wooden table topped with small, colorful home goods, with shelves on white walls in background at Yowie (R)

Shannon Maldonado was drawn to South Street as a location for her hotel and shop, Yowie. Over the decades, the area has been home to art galleries, vintage stores, jazz clubs, sneaker retailers, and a punk rock scene.

Photo by Ted Nghiem

Shannon Maldonado

Fashion Designer & Hotelier, Yowie

In 2015, after a decade working in fashion in New York (Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, American Eagle), Shannon Maldonado wanted to bring a sense of whimsy and design to the city where she grew up. She opened her housewares shop Yowie online in 2016, followed by a brick-and-mortar store in 2018. Named after Australia’s version of the yeti, Yowie quickly gained acclaim for showcasing local artists and stylish decor. In 2021, Maldonado and her business partners bought two adjacent row houses on South Street, where they built a 13-suite boutique hotel and store, plus a café called Wim.

“I grew up on Fourth Street and Dickinson in South Philly. I always liked drawing and art. My mom is a talented seamstress; she didn’t go to school for design, but she always made her own clothes and our Christmas and Easter outfits. I started sewing thanks to her guidance when I was about 10.

“My mom would purchase patterns from McCall’s and Butterick on Fourth Street, in an area called Fabric Row. One of my favorite shops there, now gone, sold ‘notions,’ like zippers and buttons and rhinestones. I was obsessed because it was all about embellishment, all the little things that make a product unique.

A room at Yowie, with an orange wall behind bed and a large green flower mirror propped against beige wall

The 13 guest rooms at Yowie are minimalist in design with pops of bold colors. Some items displayed in the rooms are available for purchase.

Photo by Bre Furlong

“When I was looking for a location for Yowie’s first store, I happened upon a space on Fourth Street and I didn’t think twice. People were saying, ‘You should look at other spots.’ I said, ‘No, it’s meant to be on Fabric Row.’ I’m a big believer in serendipity and timing, and it just felt like the right place for me, to know that I had been on that block so many times as a kid.

“Some of my childhood inspirations [led] to Yowie’s aesthetic today, which I describe as minimal, no clutter, but mixed with bright primary colors. I believe design can be both functional and playful. You’ll see that in the hotel rooms, which juxtapose modern furniture from Blu Dot with bold ceramic pieces from artists such as Sara Ekua Todd and Jeff Rubio.

“When I opened the shop in 2018, I wanted to bring in an element of community building. This was mostly selfish because I wanted to make new friends. We’re always trying to be seen as more than just a place to sleep or buy things. We want you to connect with us, and the artists that we work with, through events that we do in the space, such as our craft workshops and our multicourse dinners with local chefs.

“One of the biggest ways I’ve found to create community is to simply show up. I go to neighborhood stuff all the time. I go to zoning hearings. Being present and helping people is how I’ve always tried to do it.”

Conrad Benner seated outdoors on wooden bench in front of red, white, and black mural.

Philadelphia is sometimes called the Mural Capital of the World, with more than 4,000 public artworks on display. Many pieces touch on social issues affecting the city, including racial justice, incarceration, and climate change.

Photo by Ted Nghiem

Conrad Benner

Founder, Streets Dept Blog

Born and raised in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, Conrad Benner founded his blog Streets Dept in 2011. A champion of the city’s homegrown art and design scene, he has parlayed his writing into advocacy work in the arts world and beyond, working as a curator and an organizer for voting rights campaigns, social justice organizations, and civics groups. In 2023, he launched Art Outside, a podcast that spotlights muralists across Philly and discusses the vitality of public art.

“I grew up in Philly and yet I can probably count on one hand how many times I went to any of the museums. I remember being in high school, going to the Philly Museum of Art, and hearing people say words I had never heard of. It made me feel ‘less than.’ Museum spaces can feel stuffy and make some people feel like they don’t belong.

“When I started the Streets Dept blog in 2011, I wanted to be a storyteller. I didn’t know if it would be a city blog, but I got great advice from friends: Look at your camera roll. What is taking your interest? I was shooting photos of street art and murals, and that’s how I decided my focus. I wasn’t just blogging about it, but also interviewing the artists behind the work. Philadelphia is great for this kind of work because the community helps elevate the art.

“The street art scene and the gallery shows I attended in Old City were different from the formal institutions; they were weirder. There was no curator telling you what you were seeing.

“Street art is immediate: Do you like it, or do you have feelings about it? You can walk home the same way every day and encounter new works along the way. It is always surprising. Street art breaks down the walls between viewer and artist.

“Philly is considered the birthplace of modern graffiti. But back in the 1980s, murals were very much a community-based decision, picked by committee. They would require input from neighbors dictating a vision to the artist, who’d design the piece based on that input. Murals from [that era] kind of look and feel the same. Over time, organizations like Mural Arts Philadelphia [the country’s largest public art program] allowed a lot more freedom from the artists they commissioned for work in public spaces.

“At any given moment, you can take a walk and see dozens of original artworks. The walls of our city tell the story of our city—starring a self-determined, gritty go-getter.”

Chad and Hanna Williams seated at semi-circular orange-gold banquette

When husband-and-wife team Chad and Hanna Williams bought Friday Saturday Sunday in 2015, they decided to keep the original name from the 1970s, since many Philadelphians had fond memories of dining there over the years.

Photo by Ted Nghiem

Chad Williams

Chef & Restaurateur, Friday Saturday Sunday

Husband and wife Chad and Hanna Williams are the owners of Friday Saturday Sunday, a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. In June, it was named the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant of 2023. Chad is a born-and-bred Philadelphian who honed his skills in renowned kitchens elsewhere in the country (Eleven Madison Park in New York, Saison in San Francisco) before returning home. In 2015, he and Hanna purchased Friday Saturday Sunday, which had been a local fixture since 1973. Today, diners add their names to months'-long reservation waitlists to sample the restaurant’s tasting menu of inventive American fare.

“I remember fondly being a kid in West Philly; there were a ton of eateries we would go to on Sundays. That was my food upbringing here, the local restaurants. Places like Big George’s were our Sylvia’s [an iconic soul food restaurant in Harlem, New York]. Every Sunday at Big George’s, there was a line down the block. It was a big buffet with 20 steam tables—it was pretty incredible. So when I left Philly, I didn’t know much about the fine dining restaurant scene per se.

Overhead view of two drinks and a white plate of food (L); a long bar full of customers, with row of white globe lights above them (R)

Though Friday Saturday Sunday serves its eight-course tasting menu in an intimate dining room, the restaurant’s vibe isn’t stuffy. There’s no dress code and the lively first-floor bar serves cocktails with such ingredients as Icelandic aquavit and a Caribbean liqueur called Creole Shrubb.

Photo by Ted Nghiem

“I didn’t go to culinary school; I learned by working. My career hasn’t been a linear progression. I worked in kitchens in New York, in D.C., in the Bay Area. I knew what I wanted to do, and I wanted to work with the best of the best. I remember the old Food Arts magazine, and seeing an article on El Bulli [in Spain]. I thought,‘Wow, these guys are crazy, they’re doing 20-course tasting menus,’ and I showed it to my chef at the time, who pooh-poohed it: ‘Ah, that’s trash.’ But I was enthralled. At the time, we only had those magazines. There was no Instagram, no social media sharing this kind of cooking. It gave me a glimpse into another world that I didn’t know existed.

“Creatively, it was hard to get good ingredients in Philadelphia for a while. Pennsylvania farmers were taking their stuff to New York, where the demand was. Then something happened, and chefs began to cook more locally and seasonally. We [chefs in Philly] started building relationships with our farmers instead of seeing their produce drain out of state. And that’s translated to talent in the kitchen: We’ve got a little bit more gravity now. The city has experienced a really beautiful flywheel of growth. In Philly, it’s a little easier to be young and ambitious.

“A few years back, I was at Momofuku Ko [in New York City]; we sat at the bar and were like, ‘We’re from Philly yada yada.’ One of their chefs at the time just scoffed and said, ‘I got good bar food down there once.’ It really lit a fire in me. We’ve been fortunate enough to show that we as a city have more than just bar food. I want to keep pushing a different story. This is where I’m from. It’s my home.”

Joseph Hernandez is a senior service editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer covering news, community, food, and arts and culture. He’s California-raised, Chicago-grown, New York-tested. He has also written for Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, and Thrillist.
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