A common sentiment upon hearing that an establishment operates as both a music venue and a restaurant is skepticism followed by audible eye rolling. However in the case of World Café Live, you’ll never be so glad to be wrong. This gem of an eatery ensures that the usual culprits aren’t at play like in other music venue/restaurant hybrids. World Café Live has a staff that is committed to fantastic service, the culinary team is dedicated to quality and creativity and the interior has been designed with an eye towards the future while never forgetting its Philadelphia past.
Located in University City, World Café Live is in close proximity to downtown Philadelphia. Known locally as a hotspot for culture and nightlife including Jose Garces’ Tinto and Chifa and Mark Vetri’s eatery, the area is peppered with green spaces and within walking distance of some of the city’s most in-demand watering holes. Because of its ideal location, the restaurant boasts an ideal mix of University of Pennsylvania students and seasoned diners, both of whom can appreciate the value of a memorable meal.
Legend has it that World Café Live was the brainchild of a local entrepreneur and burgeoning musician both of whom felt strongly that the city lacked a destination for high end music acts. At the same time, the radio station WXPN was on the hunt for new studios for its perennial favorite show “World Café”, so the two teams joined forces to create World Café Live in 2004.
Walking from the parking lot, which is a stone’s throw away from the restaurant, World Café Live looks like a medieval castle. Embossed columns adorned with a frieze pattern at its capital, and crisp corners peak out from the building adding depth to its solid body. Its exterior appearance gives off a notion that it might be a fortified bastion, protecting all the treasures that are within. The only colors present are from the blue awnings right above the windows, the World Café Live logo right above the entrance and the neon WXPN sign. No frills or flashy gimmicks, I wouldn’t imagine that this building housed acts like James Morrison or Bowling for Soup pairing each with American fare. I stand next to its grand exterior, and feel minuscule to WLC’s appearance like an ant among humans. I file into the interior to search for all the riches hidden inside this stronghold.
The interior is a complete 180° from its exterior counterpart. Walking through the long corridors, the surrounding atmosphere gradually gains more and more color until it hits critical mass. At the end, my guest and I fall into Technicolor heaven like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. An open format envelops diners and concert goers alike with the warm tones of sophisticated styling. The interior is defined by the delightfully unexpected intersection between multiple textures and materials: wood, metal, glass and brick all meld together to create the ideal dining setting for anyone who demands a side of visual interest with their meal. The muted colors give way to bursts of vibrant hues that accent the space and glowing sconces to a tee. World Café Live does an impressive job of reconciling two environments that, in less savvy hands, could be opposing forces. I love that the venue allows the musical performance to inform the dining experience without ever competing for the customer’s attention. As an incubator for the area’s freshest tunes and dishes, World Café Live’s prevailing décor is sleek, urban sophistication meets the grittier elements of Philadelphia’s vibrant music scene. The venue features multiple levels and holds about 300 people for audio and palate simulation. In addition, the concert room is joined by WXPN’s radio studios as well as a music store to offer a fully comprehensive marriage of melody and meals.
At World Café Live, patrons will enjoy a diverse array of musical acts from Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls to indie darlings Lambchop while indulging in happy hour, lunch and dinner along with free Wi-Fi access upstairs. Also the chic urban setting that World Café Live creates easily gives way to the eponymous radio show being taped and broadcast downstairs. While the space expertly designed to capitalize on the power of live performances, World Café Live also excels at ensuring you can still hear your dining companion without having to resort to shouts, sign language or smoke signals.
During my peruse down the menu, I notice that it boasts an exciting array of dinner options inspired by the best that creative American cuisine has to offer. The café serves classics like Maryland Crab Cakes and creative twists on local favorites such as Portobello Tacos and Quinoa Salad. Standards such as Pulled Pork Sandwich and Atlantic Salmon are notable dishes that round out the establishment’s menu.
For the opening act, I order boldly: the St. Louis Ribs. Right after my first bite, I’m suddenly transported to St. Louis, where BBQ ribs are considered a religion. I instantaneously notice that the chef took his/her time cooking the ribs to create its succulent taste. These ribs put most others to shame. Slathered in a succulent maple barbeque sauce, the ribs leave you begging for the recipe while sucking the rib’s sauce dry to the bone. The St. Louis ribs are fall-off-the-bone delectable and worth savoring for as long as possible, or until the next entree comes out.
Next up are the Chicken Wings, one of the staples of native Philadelphian diets (coming up second to the Philly cheesesteak). World Café Live’s version puts any respectable wings to the test, and they pass with high honors. These wings prove to be exceedingly tasty and came accented with hot or sesame ginger with carrots, celery and bleu cheese. Even if you arrive without a hearty appetite, these finger-licking favorites will stir your cravings.
The following course is a bit lighter but not any less delicious. I choose to taste WLC’s signature Edamame Hummus for my healthy option of the night, and it did not disappoint. Supple yet substantive, this dish boasts an inviting texture while complimenting virtually any finger food: carrots, pita, olives, fresh cut cucumber and jicama are all included to provide unlimited pairing options, each with a distinct flavor profile. The Edamame Hummus is delightful enough to stand on its own but mild enough to conform to countless pairings.
A real stand out, the Fennel Crusted Ahi Tuna is next at our table. Nuanced in flavor and silky in texture, this dish takes seared ahi tuna to new heights while the roasted spaghetti squash, crispy lotus root and red plum gastrique treat diners to an unexpected and delightful taste bud experience. If you’re interested in refined flavor with a unique twist, then this is the appetizer for you and diners coveting a high-concept original dish will find that the tuna hits the perfect note.
The Pastrami Sandwich arrives soon after my tuna adventure, and one look at the stacked meat practically radiating with savory flavor tells me to make room for more. Again, the attention to detail that World Café Live prides itself on is evident in this dish. Nestled among bourbon soaked onions, whose taste has been coaxed to its apex with a little help from Jack Daniels, the pastrami enjoys a blanket of creamy Muenster cheese with just the right amount of pizzazz to bring out the many layers of flavor in the sourdough bread. The Pastrami Sandwich is an invitation to dine, linger and relish everything World Café Live has to offer. As a side, Eggplant Fries are served to complete the entree. This dish has garnered praise from multiple sources citing its pungent flavor and creative approach to finger food. The sandwich marries old world heartiness, including tender meats and kicky mustard, with the refinement of an eggplant accompaniment.
The Lobster Bread Pudding was an absolute highlight of the evening. The kitchen at World Café Live created this standout dish with an eye towards highbrow comfort food. Picture Maine lobster, plump and succulent, mingling with scallions ensconced in country bread. The restaurant’s Lobster Bread Pudding is worth making a trip from across the Atlantic seaboard. The dish is accompanied by a creamy roasted corn sauce that, while not necessary to enjoy the entrée, enhances its buttery flavor.
The beer selection leaves nothing to be desired. World Café Live’s libations run the gamut from premium wines to microbrew beers entitled “Indie Favorites”. They also feature local brews like Sly Fox Phoenix Pale Ale and Yards Saison. Cocktail enthusiasts can choose from their list of creative concoctions named after notable tunes like “Bulls on Parade” and “Uptown Girl” with aplomb. The extensive wine list is robust and I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of the Marquis de la Tour Brut.
Beyond food, service is a highlight of this locals’ favorite joint. Attentive and knowledgeable, the waitstaff is an integral part of making the meal a memorable experience to savor again and again. I’m impressed with how our waiter is very responsive without ever hovering by the table and always seemed to have a recommendation at the ready. The waitstaff answered all questions with pleasure and truly added another dimension of hospitality and warmth to dinner.
A seamless integration of cuisine, music and media creates a strong pull for locals and visitors alike. Between live performances and enlivening edibles, World Café Live succeeds at putting the global culinary experience at your fingertips while timeless hits fill your ears. One of the unique aspects of this restaurant is the voyeuristic dimension it adds to any meal. You’ll discover what it takes to put together a world class radio show while taking in the sights and sounds on stage. World Café Live excels at being a multi-sensory experience beyond simply delicious food. One dinner here and you’ll leave with the rich taste of culture on your tongue.
Insider Tip: Take advantage of World Cafe Live’s Philly Rising open mic events that attract hordes of regional songwriters and showcase an impressive array of local talent. Hosts are on hand to keep the pace lively and each artist performs one or two songs making each Philly Rising guest a chance to catch over 20 eclectic acts in one sitting. In addition, Peanut Butter Jams program accommodates young children and their families on Saturday afternoons. The program is constantly updated to reflect local flavor and give parents the opportunity to enjoy interactive live music experiences with their burgeoning rock star kids.