An inordinate amount of confetti lined the streets of Philadelphia this winter after two championship parades celebrated the Eagles’ first Super Bowl win and the Villanova Wildcats’ victory as champions of the Big East Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The title-starved masses were sated. The nation’s fifth largest but self-conscious city — “Philadelphia vs. Everybody” hoodies were ubiquitous during the 76ers short-lived playoff run — is finally flexing its muscles.
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With the nation’s eyes suddenly turned its way, the charming City of Brotherly Love, with its easy-to-traverse- colonial grid, is emerging from shadows of nearby New York City and Washington, D.C., courtesy of a terrific restaurant scene, fascinating museums and a rich and colorful history.
Philadelphia has become a foodie destination. Former concert promoter Stephen Starr has raised the culinary bar in Philadelphia with an array of eclectic bistros, such as Buddakan, which also has locations in Manhattan and Atlantic City, Pod and Parc. You can’t visit all of the restaurants but you can try to sample as much as possible. My wife and I hit a couple of buzzy bistros, Royal Boucherie (52 S. 2nd St., Philadelphia, royalboucherie.com or 267-606-6313), a comfortable French restaurant and Talula’s Garden (210 W. Washington Square, Philadelphia, talulasgarden.com or 215-592-7787), a charming farm-to-table establishment.
The former is housed in a dimly lit room filled with dark wood, which is perfect for relaxing. The perfect contrast was the sweet foie gras terrine and the savory champagne-braised escargot. The steak au poivre, medium rare, was a treat.
It was a pleasure dining at Talula’s Garden. The savory chicken liver toast was a fine way to kick off a meal punctuated with roasted Rohan duck breast, served with brie, sauteed plums, ginger, clover and honey jus.
There are a number of terrific culinary choices for those who would rather not spend three-plus hours in a posh restaurant. It makes sense to eat on the run since there is so much to experience in Philly.
If it seems like it always comes back to food in Philly. It’s hard to resist Philly’s soft pretzels, which are unique courtesy of the water (or wooder as the locals say). Then there are the hoagies, Philly’s version of the sub. For a memorable hoagie experience, it was always about Salumeria, but the venerable shop closed recently. Fortunately there is Cosmi’s Deli (1501 S. 8th St., Philadelphia, cosmideli.com; 215-468-6093), a family-run joint, opened in 1932. Request the Godfather, which is filled with prosciutto, soppressata, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, sundried tomatoes and fresh basil.
Consuming a cheesesteak is at the top of the tourist list. Among the most popular are Pat’s Steaks (1237 E. Passyunk, patskingofsteaks.com; 215-468-1546), Geno’s Steaks (1219 S. 9th St., genosteaks.com; 215-389-0659), and Jim’s Steaks (400 South St., jimssouthstreet.com, 215-928-1911).
But the finest sandwich exists outside of the city limits. It’s worth the trip to Bala Cynwyd, which is a 20-minute drive from Center City, to visit Mama’s (426 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, mamaspizzeria.com; 610-664-4757). There is nothing like the glutinous gutbuster of a sandwich, with three different cheeses.
Other highlights were the gyros from South Street Souvlaki (509 South St., southstreetsouvlaki,com, 215-925-3026); the salt-baked squid and stuffed eggplant at Chinatown mecca Sang Kee Peking Duck House (238 N. 9th St., sangkeechinatown.com, 215-925-7532); and just about anything at the Reading Terminal Market (51 N. 12th St., readingterminalmarket.org, 215-922-2317). If you visit the latter, try something from the Amish. It’ll be simple, full of starch but so delicious.
There are plenty of ways to shed some pounds after indulging in Philadelphia, including a number of eclectic museums.
We were compelled to visit Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Ave, easternstate.org; 215-236-3300), which was once known as Alcatraz East. Eastern State, which opened in 1821, is dark and dank. It’s kind of creepy navigating through the halls of the two-story cellblocks. Definitely take advantage of the audio tour, which includes passages from its former guards and inmates.
Solitary confinement was the concept used to rehabilitate criminals during the 19th century. Charles Dickens was stricken by the cruelty when he visited Eastern State, which closed nearly a half-century ago. Solitary confinement ended in 1913. Such noteworthy criminals as Al Capone and Willie Sutton were incarcerated at Philadelphia’s big house.
During Halloween season Eastern State is turned into a fright fest of sorts, but it’s pretty scary behind the walls during a cloudy, drizzly rainy day.
Some might file the Mutter Museum (19 S. 22nd St., Philadelphia, muttermuseum.org; 215-563-3737) under scary but that’s a misnomer. It’s not a Ripley’s Believe or Not type of museum, even though some believe that to be the case. If you’re curious about health conditions or fascinated by medical abnormalities, the Mutter museum will have considerable appeal.
Dr. Thomas Mutter assembled the initial collection, which is unique and captivating. The medical specimens and tools are endless and surprising. There are an array of diseased body parts, gnarled bones and odd surgical instruments. There are massive tumors, the death cast of the torso of celebrated siamese twins Chang and Eng and pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain. The Mutter is curious and provocative.
The Please Touch Museum (4321 Avenue of the Republic, pleasetouchmuseum.org; 215-581-3181), is completely different and a great changeup after the unusual world of the Mutter. It’s designed for children 8 and under. Our daughter, Jane, 8, enjoyed the entire experience. Our energetic third-grader finally was at home in a museum where she could pull, push and run around the tactile paradise.
Jane loved the roadside attraction exhibit, which includes a part of a Philadelphia public transit bus, which kids board. She enjoyed the river adventure exhibit, where children experiment with pumps, dams, jets and other forces that impact the way water flows. And then there is the gorgeous Woodside Park Dentzel Carousel, which was built over 100 years ago.
The museum is housed in Memorial Hall, which is the last major building from the 1876 Centennial Exposition and is filled with character.
It’s also stimulating outdoors in Philadelphia during the summer. If you have the time, venture out of Center City, which is the epicenter of town. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, which is similar to Boston. However, the Philly neighborhoods exude more warmth. While walking through the Italian Market of South street, we walked past a number of shops, most notably the exceptional DiBruno Brothers, which offers a sublime array of cheese, authentic Mexican restaurants and some old school pastry shops.
What impresses us the most about Philadelphia is that despite its horrible reputation, at least in the world of sports, the residents are friendly and courteous. The city is a big small town.
It’s been a half century since a fan fired a snowball at Santa Claus but that’s ancient history. Philadelphia is a friendly town and does a nice job of melding history with the contemporary.