A June 2005 trip
to Philadelphia by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Although perhaps best seen beneath July 4th fireworks, Philadelphia's streets are a delight to wander throughout the year. That's a good thing too, considering the high quality (and equally high caloric content) of the local food, whether bought at markets, fast-food stands, or restaurants.
The restaurant itself is located on the northwest corner of the intersection of 20th and Spruce Streets, in an attractive residential neighborhood that’s south and west of anything of touristic interest. This simply means, however, that if you’re fortunate enough to be able to sit outdoors, you’ll get a more authentic (and pleasant) view of Philadelphia. Indeed, it’s squarely on the beaten track as far as Philadelphians are concerned, and like most such restaurants in the neighborhood, it doesn’t accept reservations on weekend nights, you just have to show up from 5 o’clock on and wait your turn (if it’s after 7pm, you certainly will have to wait!). Whether they’ll seat an incomplete party or not depends entirely on how busy it is; based on personal experience, I wouldn’t recommend tempting fate. On the bright side, a quirk within Pennsylvania’s Byzantine liquor laws allows you to bring your own wine or beer (BYOB).
The food, however, makes the wait worth it, although the sometimes peculiar service is not always worthy of it. The best (and quickest) way to enjoy it is to order mezze from the small dishes menu. The buffalo mozzarella, plum tomato, and fresh basil flatbread is actually a pizza in disguise, and the similarly Italian (and very generously portioned) prosciutto is likewise delightful. Most of the other such dishes betray a more Levantine influence, in particular the cornucopia of delightful spreads. While not mentioned on the menu, you can (and should) order all five selections together: hummus, tzatziki, curried white bean and tarragon, muhammarah, and artichoke. The first four are excellent, and my artichoke-loving mother assures me the last is as well.
I actually have yet to sample any of the more generous main courses, but other diners seem quite pleased with them, so I doubt you’d go wrong ordering any of them, particularly as the raw materials are so fresh (and in many cases organic). Other small dishes I’d recommend, although they’re more akin to bites than dishes, are the roast beets with orange and maytag blue cheese (which can be served without the cheese) and the Tunisian spiced olives and wild cucumbers. A further benefit to consuming smaller dishes is that it allows you to save room for the relatively generously proportioned desserts, which change daily, although I’d heartily recommend the crème brulee if it’s an option.
Cash only. Further information:http://www.audreyclaire.com.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 6, 2005
276 South 20th St.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103
Reading Terminal Market, which, as its name suggests, has coexisted with Philadelphia’s railway lines since its foundation in 1889 and (this being Philadelphia) can trace its heritage back even further. An outdoor market preceded it on this site (in whose memory the market moves some stands outdoors for a single Saturday in June) from 1860 onwards, but in all likelihood, this market itself derived from the centuries-old outdoor markets from which Philadelphia’s main East-West thoroughfare takes its name.
Perhaps as a result of all this history (many of the stalls are quite close together, although never cramped), Reading Terminal Market has a charm and feeling of authenticity I haven’t experienced in any other American food emporium (and I do make a point of sampling many different ones!) While the Market’s website offers a useful map and list of merchants, this overhead view is of scant use on the ground. Unlike other markets, purveyors of the same specialty are not always located together (in particular the fish markets and butcher shops are somewhat scattered). Consequently, you should decide before entering whether you’re aiming for a particular type of food or whether you’re content to let your senses (all of which will be stimulated in the process) guide you. I heartily recommend the latter. Philadelphia is a city that amply repays idle wandering, perhaps nowhere more than here, near its very geographic center (although not, ironically, on Market Street).
If you have a particular objective in mind, however, I can provide a few recommendations. Amongst the numerous (and mostly Chinese-run) fish markets, the Golden Fish Market is my favorite. Similarly, my favorite cheeses come from the nearby Amish-run Esh Egg Farms counter – they often offer samples although if they don’t it’s hard to go wrong with any of their cheeses made with various kinds of vegetables inside. Indeed, any visit to the market without purchasing at least something from one of the bakeries, cheese counters, or butcher shops run by this strict traditionalist Protestant sect would be incomplete. Their ancestors fled religious persecution in seventeenth century Germany and have remained in Lancaster County ever since.
Many of the merchants also run small lunch counters, and needless to say, it’ll take years before I try every one of them. For the moment, I’d recommend you try Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties, which has some of the tastiest (and most reasonably priced) lunch options and exceptionally friendly service. These are my own personal favorites, however, and shouldn’t guide you too much. One of the greatest joys of visiting (and revisiting) the market is discovering your own.
Further information: http://www.readingterminalmarket.org
Reading Terminal Market
12th And Arch Streets
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
+1 215 922 2317
To my mind, the high point of Philadelphia’s celebration of America’s birthday (or, more accurately, itself) is the fireworks display over the Schuykill River. I should note that prior to moving to Philadelphia (a generally cynical place, it has to be said), I regarded all fireworks displays as relatively identical – perhaps distinguished slightly by length and grandeur (which is to say, cost), but none particularly more memorable than one another. As I’d previously lived in Washington, DC, and New York, which take justified pride in their own displays, this standard of sameness was relatively high in my mind.
I’m happy to admit that these prejudices were exploded by Philadelphia’s display, held a good deal later than the others, at 11pm. During the rest of the year, one could say without exaggeration that Philadelphia is the only American city that doesn’t make a great show of its history (a pity, since it has so much) or make much use of its riverbanks for aesthetic purposes (a further shame, since it has two rivers). Fortunately, on the night of July Fourth, they were put to their proper use – with the neo-classical 30th Street Train Station and Art Museum facing each other across the river resplendent in white and multi-hued lights respective. The normally sparsely trodden sidewalks of the Schuykills bridges swarmed with people, while a tighter traffic jam than rush-hour encompassed the roads and highways beside them.
Sitting by my window overlooking the river, I understood why the Spanish refer to an excellent location as a privileged one. A series of shots rang out (followed by shouts), and I realized the show was underway. I’m no expert on pyrotechnics, but it seemed more grandiose than any other I’ve seen. This may be a reflection of the fireworks themselves or, equally likely, the fact they were exploding over the river and (together with a light display) illuminating the art museum. It seemed as though every building in West Philadelphia had turned on its lights in the vain hope of competing, but this merely served to illustrate the uniqueness of the explosions overhead. An unusually large number resembled flowers opening successively out of the same space, and it occurred to me that the Japanese expression for such displays, "fire-flower" (hana-bi), is more appropriate than the English one.
I can't wait until next year's!
Fourth of July Fireworks
Over the Art Museum/Schuykill
Unlike more recent American grid plans, Philadelphia’s is still evident wherever you go in Center City, as the area between the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers is known. The north-south axis of Broad Street (variously known as 14th Street and "The Avenue of the Arts") meets Market Street, which runs East-West, at the fin de siecle City Hall. City Hall is fittingly topped by a statue of William Penn, the city’s founder.
Like any great city, however, Philadelphia's founding myth is in a sense just that, as a Swedish settlement predated the city Penn founded to serve as the capital of his eponymous religiously tolerant colony, not to mention the innumberable native American villages which the Swedes encountered nearby. To explore the city it’s perhaps better to set the most famous aspects of Philadelphia's history aside in order to focus on the less famous, but no less significant, nature of its original design and layout, which are more readily apparent than in any other American city.
Considering that City Hall is appropriately located at the city’s very center, it offers the best view of this assemblage, which predates it by more than two centuries. From the building's construction in 1901 until One Penn Plaza was erected in 1987, it was the city's tallest building, and it remains the tallest publicly accessible one. Designed by John McArthur in 1871 and constructed over the course of three decades for the then-princely sum of $24.5 million, it lost its intended status of the world’s tallest before it was finished. Cynics have often pointed to this as the first of the many grandiose ambitions it failed to live up to.
It faces directly northwest along Benjamin Franklin Parkway (which cuts the grid diagonally) at its greatest rival as the city’s most famous building, the neo-classical Philadelphia Museum of Art. In between lies Logan Square, whose name belies its design - that of a circle surrounded by a square onto which face a pair of the city's most august institutions: the Free Library (the country's oldest) and the Franklin Institute, the city's science museum. The circle itself contains Swann Fountain, in which young Philadelphians are frequently to be seen swimming during the hot summer months, despite the practice being officially prohibited. Within the broader plan of the city, Logan Square serves as the northwest quadrant's public square, as well as dividing the museums of the so-called "Art Museum Area" from the city's business district.
Its counterpart in the Southwest quadrant, Rittenhouse Square, is considered the city’s most prestigious address. Assiduous real estate agents have managed to apply the Square's name to the surrounding district as whole - which David Rittenhouse, one of the country's first great scientists and public intellectuals, would probably have found quite humorous. Despite its eminent namesake, the area distinctly lacks specific points of interest, although this is a blessing in disguise as it compels you to focus on the sheer beauty of its eighteenth and nineteenth century streets, the most pleasant in the city for idle strolling. Many feature relics of past inhabitants, in the form of small historical signs, and (more subtly) hitching posts, that in some cases serve to separate trendy bistros from the streets. As young professionals have begun moving back into the city (a somewhat slower process than most civic boosters claim) many of the area’s nineteenth century dwellings have been turned into apartments.
South Street separates Center City from South Philadelphia, the predominantly Italian-American area that is home to the city’s stadium complex, the Italian Market, Pat’s Steaks and (in legend only) Rocky Balboa. East of City Hall, South Street itself forms the southern border of Philadelphia’s most touristed area and is studded with the sort of stores you might encounter in either New York or London’s SoHo, although some interesting street art has nevertheless endured. Going north through the city’s southeast quadrant, the streets turn more verdant, and the buildings more historic, a prelude to Independence Hall National Historic Park which straddles Market Street (the building itself is on the street’s south side.
The northeast quadrant includes the remainder of the Park (most famously, the Liberty Bell and its pavillion). Between the Park and City Hall are the city’s small Chinatown and Reading Terminal Market, both of which provide relatively inexpensive and generally tasty sustenance for any wander. Still further north is the aptly named Old City, which contains most of Philadelphia’s commercial galleries, as well as some of its most popular restaurants and nightclubs. Fittingly, its Square has come to be named after Philadelphia’s most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin. The Square in the southeast quadrant is named after George Washington and forms the heart of Society Hill,/B>, long one of the city's most genteel neighborhoods, which is the best place to base yourself for a weekend visit.
If this overview has seemed vague, that's entirely deliberate on my part – while these neighborhoods’ famous sights are well-known, you can best appreciate their subtler ones by seeking them out yourself. My two favorites of this sort both honor foreign-born Revolutionary War heroes. The massive statue of Polish (and American) revolutionary hero Thaddeus Kosciusko (near my workplace and Logan Square) and the grave of Commodre John Barry, the Irish-born founder of the American Navy, at 4th and Spruce Streets. There are thousands of others, and like Philadelphia’s streets, to see them is in a sense to own them, as they belong to all who pass by.
If you're on Atkins (or any other sort of diet, for that matter), you may want to stop reading here, but if you don't mind putting on a bit of weight, here are some suggestions regarding how to do so enjoyably. Besides, Philadelphia's eminently walkable streets allow you limitless opportunities to burn it off...
Food carts: Most American cities have these seemingly unsanitary institutions, but none can match Philadelphia's for their quality, density, variety, and (perhaps most importantly!) hygiene. As the fast casual trend has raised the prices (and expectations) at the city's sandwich shops and lunch counters, these humble vehicles dish out huge quantities of tasty fare that will almost always leave you change from a $5 bill. The largest concentrations are in Center City (particularly around City Hall), across from 30th Street Station, and at strategic points near the University of Pennsylvania campus.
My personal favorite is Pong Yee, a marvelous Chinese institution that puts its four-walled competitors to shame in terms of price and quality, although certainly not service. It's best to call your order into (610) 812-7189; otherwise, you'll have to wait 15-20 minutes for the food to be prepared - all dishes are made to order. The Singapore noodles, beef with broccoli, and "pork billy" specialty of the house are all winners - it's located next to the University of Pennsylvania's renowned Wharton School at 38th and Spruce Streets. It's open 11am-9pm Monday to Saturday.
Also outstanding (and a bit closer to Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which is the main draw for casual visitors to West Philadelphia) is Magic Carpet Foods - a vegetarian lunch truck which nevertheless draws confirmed carnivores like me for its superb seitan and flavorful falafel. The lengthy line at noon testifies to its popularity, but it moves very quickly. In particular, the Belladonna wrap and falafel salad (be sure to ask for lots of tahini on top) are outstanding and ridiculously inexpensive. It's located at 34th and Walnut, the northeast corner of Penn's undrgraduate campus. Note that it's only open 11am-3pm on weekdays.
Hoagies: A cynic (which many people will tell you is simply a synonym for Philadelphian) might tell you that the only thing that distinguishes these flavorful sandwiches from Boston's subs or New York's heros is their city of provenance. But there's something much tastier about these homages to traditional Italian lunchmeat and fresh vegetables (you won't find any bologna inside in any sense of the word!), which take their name from Philadelphia's Hog Island shipyard, where workers first enjoyed them. I'd personally argue that the freshness of the Delaware Valley's superb farm products explain their superiority to their Northern cousins, although others credit the subtler blend of spices employed than in Boston or New York. Betraying my recent arrival to Philadelphia, I'm still sufficiently seduced by their overall quality that I haven't yet found a single favorite hoagie shop. Wherever you order one, I am told by native Philadelphians that they're best enjoyed with a light Italian dressing, which brings out the flavor in their vegetable components.
Wawa: You might think that in listing a chain of convenience stores as one of Philadelphia's culinary traditions, I'm illustrating either the city's charmlessness or my own ignorance, but I can certainly assure you it's not the former. Wawa, an offshoot of the dairy company of the same name, offers surprisingly inexpensive and fresh food and the best produce you'll ever see at a store of its kind. In particular, their computerized hoagie ordering system is a joy matched only by the relatively reasonable price for these tasty sandwiches. On any jaunt through the city, you're sure to see people drinking from their trademark square liter bottles of various beverages - their iced tea and chocolate milk really deserve to be distributed nationwide!
Scrapple: I'll be honest, I find the concept of "cornmeal mush made with the meat and broth of pork, seasoned with onions, spices and herbs and shaped into loaves for slicing and frying" (the dictionary definition of scrapple) a tad off-putting. Nevertheless, as your faithful Philadelphia correspondent, it's my duty to inform you of this apparently delectable dish, developed by Pennsylvania Germans in the east of the state and then popularized throughout the northeast as a result of its Philadelphian renown. True conoisseurs apparently enjoy the fried loaves dipped in maple syrup, which my mother claims I did as a child. (I disclaim all knowledge of such consumption.) At least, she tells me that I consumed it "raw" (as opposed to fried), which is perfectly safe, as the pork has already been cooked. (Although the concept of safety is perhaps in the eye of the beholder in this case!)
Cheesesteaks: By contrast, I'll freely admit to consuming a cheesesteak at none other than Pat's Steaks, the self-proclaimed originator of the sandwich synonymous with Philadelphia. If you're willing to make the journey through South Philadelphia (Rocky's neighborhood) on foot, it's certainly a just reward. However, if you follow my lazy example and take a cab to its bare-bones location at the intersection of 9th Street and Wharton and Passayunk Avenue, you'll be punished for your indolence by a sensation of bloating almost as soon as you've finished wiping the sandwich's residue from your mouth, hands, and clothing (and you will have to do this!) While some claim that Geno's, located somewhat more salubriously inside a McDonald's-style shelter (Pat's resembles a stadium concession stand) catercorner to Pat's, is superior to its predecessor, its self-proclaimed "authenticity" (and higher prices) suggest that it is in fact struggling to truly possess this quality. In any case, I've never been tempted to try it.
Regardless of where you order your sandwich, it's important to learn cheesesteak etiquette (yes, there is such a thing!). You should decide beforehand what you'd like to order, as a single error will make Philadelphia's countermen belie the city's otherwise justified reputation for friendliness. As for the order itself, first state the sort of sandwich you'd like (pepper, plain, and pizza steaks are just what they sound like). But you should never ask for a "cheesesteak." Rather, state "American", "Provolone," or "Whiz" (the choice of connoisseurs - yes, as in Cheez Whiz), and do not repeat John Kerry's ignorant error of stating "Swiss" unless you're in the mood for public humiliation. Then state either "wit" or "wit-out" depending on whether you'd like onions. Personally, I'd recommend "American wit" and then topping it with complimentary hot peppers, but "Whiz wit" is the most authentic order.
There's no better way to round out any Philadelphia fast-food meal than by purchasing a water ice, a combination between a slightly more flavorful slurpee and a fruit sorbet, which is most delicious (and filling) if ordered with frozen custard mixed in. Rita's is the most widespread purveyor of this particular delight.
New York, New York