Even as kids, coming of age in the Philadelphia suburbs, we used to joke about British food. I have vivid memories of standing in my middle school’s cafeteria line and remarking to my friends, whenever the lunch lady slopped an ice-cream scooper of pasty mashed potatoes onto my plate, “Dude, check it out: more English food.”
None of us had ever been to England, of course—heck, most of us had never been farther from home than the Jersey Shore—but even then, at such a tender age, we knew to equate bland eating with English cuisine.
For a long time, such a milquetoast reputation may have been deserved—bangers and mash, bread sauce, boiled beef, their names alone possessing a vaguely Dickensian menace, as if to be used as weapons, as means of intimidating generations of innocent English schoolboys in their shorts and blue blazers—but not anymore. The food culture of the British Isles and of England in particular is as vibrant as anywhere in the Western world. Even the classics of the genre have been reinvigorated. The last couple of times I’ve been across the proverbial pond, I have been bowled over by not just the quality of the food but also the sheer joy it embodies. Simply put, the old stereotypes no longer apply.
Which brings us to the Victoria Freehouse, an unabashedly Anglophilic restaurant and pub just off the corner of Front and Market streets. Its devotion to the classics of the tradition, combined with owner Edward Strojan’s attention to every detail and obvious love of this food, is introducing Philadelphians to the varied joys of the dishes of our former colonial overlords.
Welsh rarebit is a good place to start—the Metropolitan pullman toasts thick and buttery, the sweet onions in the beer-spiked sauce countered nicely by Old Speckled Hen pale ale and the classic bitterness of mustard, all of it crowned with a cap of melted Quickes cheddar. This is the food of the working class, executed here in a way that is both flavorful and comforting. It proves, as is the case all over the world, that the most rewarding dishes are also often those born of necessity. Give me this rarebit and a cellar-temperature beer, and I’m a happy man.
You can also pair that beer—and there are plenty here in the well-considered collection of bottles and draughts—with a Scotch egg. This one arrives looking like it came from a T. Rex, a nearly fist-sized orb deep fried to a crackling, cinnamon-whiffed carapace, the fine-grained sausage surrounding the hard-boiled egg—which could have done with perhaps a minute less cooking time—given a piquant counterpoint by a quick drag through the ink-toned, chutney-esque Branston pickle. If this doesn’t prevent a hangover from too much beer or whiskey—or cure it the next morning—then nothing will.
Potted trout, though just a hair too salty for me, was another comforting wonder, and the little glass jar it arrives in contained all manner of treats hiding in its depths. Spoon your way through the layer of herb-y green butter on top, capture a scoop of almost pâté-textured smoked fish beneath, and spread it on the bread with which it comes. Pair it either with its accompanying pickled fennel and green beans—each done in a different brine—or, maybe even better, with a glass of Scotch whiskey (or both) and try to wrap your mind around why this food was so maligned for so long. This is excellent stuff: hearty and rewarding and very well crafted.
Fish and chips, the measure of any restaurant with British ties, succeeded on all counts. Inside the shattering, almost tempura-like crust resided a filet of cod that flaked with the slightest pressure of the fork, and maintained enough moistness to make you wonder why this workhorse of a fish isn’t accorded more respect outside of English chip shops … or maybe Portugal. And the fries were perfect: crisp sided, dense and completely addictive.
Chicken tikka masala, one of the most popular dishes in England and certainly one of its more emblematic (even though it’s of Indian origin, of course), worked very well indeed. The aromatic, simmered-all-day sauce possessed a roasted character that offset the sweetness of the delicately cooked, yogurt-marinated knobs of chicken thigh with real grace. Over a mountain of rice, this is a lovely dinner entrée and a perfect lunch of leftovers the next day.
All of this is served in a space of warmth and comfort, and with just enough cheekiness sprinkled in for levity. Immediately to the right of the entrance is a more or less life-size cardboard photograph of Prince William and Kate with their faces hollowed out—the better, one supposes, for guests to have their pictures taken atop their royal bodies. In keeping with the times, a cartoon baby was recently added in the space between their arms.
This is exactly the sort of place that Old City could use right now. For all of the neighborhood’s bars and restaurants that cater to a younger crowd, this one seems to be aiming for a slightly older one—a little further out of college, let’s say. And it hits its mark with great flavor, and with a justified respect for all of the pleasures that good British food can provide when given a chance. This is a great place to start.
The Victoria Freehouse
10 S. Front Street
215-543-6089 | victoriafreehouse.com
Photography by Felicia Perretti