Passyunk Avenue: ‘A cheese whiz-smeared act of devotion’ – restaurant review | Jay Rayner

Passyunk Avenue, 80 Cleveland Street, London W1T 6NE (020 3960 2251). Starters and sides £4-£9.50; mains, including cheesesteak £11-£12; desserts £6; and wines from £19

When I visit Passyunk Avenue, a retro diner on a scuffed backstreet in London’s Fitzrovia, the voice I hear in my head belongs to Josh Ozersky. Josh was a bull-necked, raging mensch of a man, who founded the food festival Meatopia, helped pioneer food blogging in New York via the Grub Street site and ended up as restaurant editor for Esquire. Most importantly, he carved out a niche for himself as the chronicler of what he called, “American vernacular cuisine”. His point was compelling: why should the classics of the American diner be any less deserving of love and scholarship than, say, the so-called cuisine de grand-merè of France?

One broiling summer in New York a few years ago, we shot a video together for his YouTube channel, in which he took me to a bog standard joint on 3rd Avenue called Joe’s Jnr. There, he ordered most of the menu and then enthused with the acute eye of an experienced jeweller sizing up a piece by Fabergé. He wanted me to understand the importance of the viscosity of American cheese when melted, and how much better it was for the job than those weird aged cheddars we insist upon.

A basket with two pieces of French bread stuffed full of beef and cheese

‘Is it cheesy oniony beef? Or beefy oniony cheese?’: Philly cheesesteak. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

He delivered a prose poem about the lacy, burnished white bread used in a grilled cheese sandwich, seared to crisp on the plancha. Best of all was his masterclass on their hamburger. He had authored a classic book on this one great food item, and wanted to explain the exquisite algebra of the bun to patty ratio, and how the two parts should align. He wasn’t wrong. If that burger had been served in London at that point, it would have been regarded as a miracle. In New York it was just the burger those stocky guys on 3rd Avenue knocked out. Josh died horribly young in 2015, after an epileptic seizure, and I miss his hectoring terribly.

And now here I am at Passyunk Avenue, named after the road in Philadelphia across which two of the city’s great Philly cheesesteak rivals, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, face off against each other. I think Josh might have approved. It is a comfortable place, if you find sitting on benches that are not much evolved from planks comfortable. But then this is never going to be somewhere in which to linger. There are reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia muted on the plasma screens, while the sound system booms out Sweet Home Alabama and The Joker. Somewhere, there is a law insisting they must do this.

A pile of sticky red buffalo chicken wings with sticks of celery and a white dip, in a basket

‘Turned in exactly the right pounding sauce’: buffalo wings. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

And so to a confession. I have never eaten a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. I’ve eaten them in Los Angeles and New York, which I was directed to by people who knew their stuff – don’t ask me to recall the establishment’s names; they were holes in the wall and I was drunk – so I know what one should be: finely sliced steak, probably rib-eye, seared on a hot plate, then mixed in with cheese of some description, before being heaved into a soft, mildly sweet bun. It should be served with a pickle and a side order of “What you looking at?” Subtle, it ain’t.

Authenticity has never troubled me as much as the answer to the question: does it taste nice? Oh God yes. The beef has been sliced and sliced again, properly seared, then mixed in with their own version of Cheez Whiz, or as the server put it “a kind of cheddar fondue”. They say it’s made on site, which is impressive because massive food corporations spend zillions trying to come up with something as engrossing, glowing and quasi-industrial as this. My fingertips tingle. My blood emulsifies. The bun, made by an outside bakery to their own recipe, is the perfect soft-yielding vehicle for the filling. Is it cheesy oniony beef? Or beefy oniony cheese? Or oniony cheesy… Oh never mind. Just know it’s a serious amount of sandwich for £11, which will stay with you, possibly for days.

A round shallow bowl piled high with friend round potatoes, doused in cheese and bacon crumb

‘Check no health professionals are watching’: tater tots with bacon. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Alongside the variants on the Philly cheesesteak – you can add bacon because, as we know, everything tastes better with bacon – there are other classics of Ozersky’s American vernacular. There are, for example, buffalo chicken wings, deep fried then turned in exactly the right pounding sauce with the perfect lip-tingling smack of heat and salt and sour. There are tater tots, pebble-sized hash browns, which you can have doused in more cheese whiz and a blitzed bacon crumb. Check no health professionals are watching, before eating. Access to a defibrillator might come in handy.

They also serve a cracking iceberg wedge salad. It is customary to sneer at the iceberg as the shell-suited lout of the salad drawer. This is because we insist upon shredding it. (Once, at New Covent Garden fruit and veg market, a trader told me that mass caterers love iceberg, ‘because you get a lot of plate out of one of those’.) But serve it as a wedge, piled with seared bits of chicken thigh, more bacon crumb and a blue cheese dressing brought to you live and direct from 1976, and it’s a beautiful, refreshing thing.

Iceberg wedge salad with chicken and bacon topping and quarters of tomato around the plate

‘A beautiful, refreshing thing’: iceberg wedge salad with chicken and bacon. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

We also try the roasted pork platter. Do not come to Passyunk Avenue and do this. The meat is described as porchetta, but is nothing of the sort. It is limp, depressed, grey slices of meat, that would have a much better life doused in more cheese whiz and shoved in a roll. We do not finish it. To be honest, we don’t finish much. This is a one dish kind of place, and we’ve ordered far more than is strictly necessary. We conclude with cannoli, and watch with pleasure as the pastry cylinders are delivered from a box behind the bar to be filled to order with a sweetened ricotta cream, studded with chocolate chips. They arrive looking like giant stubbed out cigarettes.

They serve all the wines, which is to say both a red and a white. More important are the draft beers, including Passyunk Pale brewed in London. They also have the dirty, anti-icon which is Pabst Blue Ribbon by the can. Passyunk Avenue began life as a food truck and while it now has walls and windows, in truth that’s what it still feels like. The team behind this venture wanted a bit of Philadelphia in London. Having failed to find it, they created it for themselves. It’s a cheese whiz-smeared, blitzed bacon-pelted act of devotion. Josh Ozersky would have approved.

News bites

The Rule of Tum Burger Shop in Hereford, which now has a second outlet in Worcester, approaches the US burger repertoire with serious care. Theirs are serious burgers, made with beef from named farmers and piled with all the appropriate toppings. The menu also offers options made with pulled lamb, buttermilk fried chicken and falafel. All this and chicken wings, too (

In rather more expansive burger news, Shake Shack, which started as a hot dog cart in New York’s Madison Square Park, has projected global revenues for 2019 of $576m. In 2020, it expects to open 320 new locations and grow revenues to $700m. That’s a lot of frozen custard (

Asia de Cuba, inside London’s St Martin’s Hotel, was one of the first restaurants I reviewed in 1999, when I started. I wasn’t exactly positive. I described ‘shoddy service, a stupid concept and ludicrous food’. The restaurant did just fine, but has closed after 20 years. It has been replaced by a pop-up serving dishes from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Email Jay at or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1


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