With the economy still struggling and consumer budgets shrinking, it’s no surprise that more restaurants are trying harder than ever to lure in customers for lunch. A number of Center City establishments best known for their evening fare are offering lunch specials that are reasonable on price and long on flavor.
Percy Street Barbecue, 900 South St.; (215) 625-8510, is only open for lunch on weekends, but judging from the quality of the food and service, it’d probably do well staying open all week.
With steak joints and pizza places as far as the eye can see in either direction, the Texas barbecue is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. It doesn’t hurt that the chefs’ skills are top notch: They cook their meats without any sauce, which can later be applied to the diner’s liking at the table. This technique gives the diner a wonderful and unfiltered taste of how skillfully the meats are prepared, especially with the chopped brisket ($11), the spicy house-made sausage ($9) or the chicken ($10).
All of the side dishes are well-executed, but the best of the bunch has to be the root-beer chili ($4 cup, $7 bowl), a smoky-flavored delight packed with hearty chunks of beef, and the German potato salad ($4).
Also leave room for dessert, especially Percy Street’s pecan pie ($6), served warm and topped with house-made vanilla ice cream. It’s as good as it’s ever going to get without somebody’s Southern grandma making one for you personally.
Union Trust Steakhouse, 717 Chestnut St.; (215) 925-6000, with its updated lunch menu, is definitely more high-end, but well worth the trip. The recently introduced $7.17 menu features budget-conscious fare ranging from its signature petite Kobe burgers to calamari. The latter distinguishes itself from similar offerings found elsewhere with an intensely hot frying that makes the squid more crispy than chewy. But the real delight is the spicy citrus sauce that accompanies it: The bite from the chili and the burn from the citrus is an amazing and uncommon flavor combination.
Those who venture outside the budget menu will be glad they did. Regular favorites include the Maine lobster bisque ($11), a number of hearty salads and the new (but familiar) Big Bank Burger ($16). Made to resemble an upscale version of a popular burger chain’s signature sandwich, the Big Bank succeeds on all fronts: two Kobe beef patties, special sauce and English cheddar on a toasted bun. The result is a juicy and flavorful burger that gives a new and very-refined twist to a sandwich most of us meat eaters would recognize in our sleep.
Varga Bar, 941 Spruce St.; (215) 627-5200, is out to prove you can get a quality midday meal quickly and inexpensively with its 30-minute speed lunch. Nine dollars gets you soup and a sandwich with the utmost expedience. And, much like the pin-up girls painted on the wall, the sandwiches are works of art.
The roasted pork-loin sandwich is a tasty convergence of flavors, with broccoli rabe, sharp provolone and natural jus. The truly adventurous should head straight for the Kobe chili-cheese dog, a mouth-stretching dog topped with housemade chili, shaved pickles and white cheddar on a thick poppy-seed and onion roll. It would be amazing enough on its own, but the sides of fresh-made red-cabbage slaw and hand-cut onion rings make it a truly addictive lunch treat. Equally amazing was the hearty tomato crème soup of the day when we went.
Outside the speed-lunch menu, diners can find equally delightful lunch fare, like the decadent truffled mac n’ cheese ($8) loaded with bacon, Gruyère, fontina and mascarpone, or the more modest but still tasty Varga salad ($9), with autumn squash, apples, arugula, Parmesan and cider-clove vinaigrette.