Philadelphia is a great walking city. It’s a great history city. And it’s a great food city. I’ve visited Philadelphia a couple of times, and I was there again last week for a magazine editors’ conference. I didn’t have a lot of time to be a tourist because I was in sessions at the Penn’s Landing Hilton the vast majority of the time, but I did do a couple of things that I thought might be cool, and they were.
The first was to visit the historic Reading Terminal Market. This place – a mile-plus from my hotel but easily walkable – is a mecca for all things food. It takes up a whole city block (between 11th & 12th Streets, Arch and Filbert Streets), just a block from Chinatown.
If you’ve been to the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle or the Third & Fairfax Market in LA, it’s kind of like that: fixed shops selling mostly fresh, local, and ethnic foods, both the prepared sort and ingredients to take home and make your own meals. Reading Terminal Market is said to be the oldest continuously run market of its kind in the country.
When I first walked in on Tuesday night, about an hour and a half before the market was scheduled to close, I was overwhelmed. The place seemed so huge. There are street signs down each aisle so you don’t get lost. I loved the neon signs and the overwhelmingly delicious smells: bread, cookies, grilled onions, cheese, jambalaya, you name it.
I wasn’t there to buy anything, really. Just checking it out for the next morning, when I planned to walk back for breakfast and also buy some food to have in my hotel room. It was hard not to just buy everything in sight. I wanted a whoopie pie in the worst way. But I held out, just walking around, deciding what to eat the next morning, taking pictures. Until I started out the door and a cookie vendor announced that (because the market was closing) all remaining cookies were just a dollar. I can’t pass up a dollar cookie, so I bought an oatmeal pecan chocolate chip cookie and happily munched it as I walked back toward my hotel.
The next morning when I arrived at the market again I was so excited that I went directly to Beck’s Cajun Café, a New Orleans-style restaurant that I scoped out the night before, for an order of beignets and café au lait, just like they serve at Café Du Monde on Decatur Street in NOLA.
Except that they weren’t. The server was friendly and kept my coffee cup filled, and the beignets (six of them) were hot from the fryer and covered with powered sugar. But they were heavy and had a greasy taste and let’s just say that I’m glad the market had a bathroom because they did not set well with me. Ugh.
But I still had a swell time at the market. I bought a shopping bag and filled it with Philadelphia-style pretzels, cheese, a whoopie pie (yay!), and some chocolate. Everything looked so good, and the market was fresher and busier than it had been the night before. The Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) stands were open, too. Though most of the vendors are open daily, the Amish merchants from Lancaster County are only there four days a week.
I looked longingly at the breads and cheeses, produce, crepes, deli sandwiches, pastries, candies, flowers, coffee, Middle Eastern falafels, gyros, Indian specialties, and a bunch of other yummy stuff. There were also a lot of Philly cheesesteaks, meat – both raw and cooked – and fresh fish at the market – but these are not my thing.
After that trip, I hunkered down at the hotel for the next two days, and when I emerged at the end of the conference, I took a taxi to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, famous for its “Rocky” steps. This is a big, comprehensive art museum with American art, European art from the 12th century to the 1900s, modern and contemporary art, Asian art, and special exhibitions.
The museum also had a terrific – and I mean really terrific, by real restaurant standards, not by museum café standards – restaurant called Granite Hill, just one of several places to eat in the museum. I had the appetizer-sized gnocchi tossed with olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, butternut squash, and toasted pumpkin seeds, and it was so wonderful I wanted to lick the plate.
After that it was sort of hard to get in the mood to walk slowly and look at paintings, but the museum is huge and filled with lovely Impressionists and whatnot, so it was a good time. I especially enjoyed the special exhibit “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art.”
The bonus in all of this is when you walk out of the second floor exit, you have this fabulous view of the city (the museum is located at the very end of the Parkway Museums District), with monumental structures everywhere and statues and flags and fountains. The architecture is cool in every direction.
I walked back to the hotel, taking my time (it’s a couple of miles at least) and stopping at the Rodin Museum (below), the entry to which was included in my admission to the Museum of Art. There are a dozen other museums that beckoned – the Barnes Foundation, Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Franklin Institute among them – but I needed to get back, grab my bags, and head for the airport.
I have to backtrack just a bit and mention a few other places I ate dinner when I was in Philadelphia. I highly recommend any of these:
- FarmiCiA, a farm-to-table restaurant at 15 S. 3rd There I had wonderful squash risotto croquets atop roasted mushrooms (pictured above), a selection of breads and herbed butter, and a glass of pinot noir. This place had lots of vegetarian and vegan options along with plenty of choices for meat eaters. And it was really cute and cozy.
- City Tavern, established in 1773, at 138 S. 2nd This is one of those seemingly touristy places where the servers dress in Colonial garb, and I’d had a bad experience there before (with a nasty waiter who would not offer separate checks to my table of unconnected strangers). This time I was treated to dinner at City Tavern by one of the conference sponsors, so separate checks were not a problem and our group of 18 had a wonderful time. Unlike FarmiCiA, the menu at City Tavern is almost 100 percent meaty. The lone vegetarian entrée is fried tofu, described thusly: “In a 1770 letter to Philadelphia’s John Bartram, Benjamin Franklin included instructions on how to make tofu.” Really? All the editors at my table thought that was a fact that cried out to be checked. But I ordered it and it was actually pretty good, and the bed of linguine underneath was delicious. Others in my group ate lamb chops, salmon, beef tenderloin, lobster pie, and other entrees that made everyone swoon. We were a happy table.
- And last but not least, Cuba Libre, at 10 S. 2nd This restaurant was recommended by a local woman I met on a street corner, so I figured it was not a Disney version of Cuban food, and it wasn’t. The atmosphere was really fun (I wish I taken pictures). I went with an editor friend, and we shared three tapas: tostones (fried green plantains with Dijon-mojo dipping sauce) that tasted a little like fried green tomatoes; spinach and manchego buñuelos (cheese and spinach puffs with goat cheese-ranch sauce); and shrimp and corn fundido (basically a thick cheese dip with tortilla chips). They also served us bread with some kind of sweet butter that together tasted like French toast. We had a couple of cocktails, and were ready to leave but then the server convinced us to use our free-dessert coupon to split an order of warm banana bread with vanilla ice cream and some kind of caramel topping. Wow.
OK, enough with the food porn. I should mention that all of these restaurants were within easy walking distance of our hotel at Penn’s Landing and also very close to the historic district (Independence National Historic Park, Liberty Bell, Constitution Center, blahblahblah).
Here are a few parting shots of Philadelphia: