When I told a friend I was going to Philadelphia for a couple days, he said, “second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia.” That old W.C. Fields joke is funny, but two days in this art-filled, foodie city made me wish for two weeks. There’s lots to explore. Chef-followers will recognize Iron Chef Jose Garces, Top Chef Kevin Sbraga, and empire-building chef Stephen Starr. Locals will tell you about their favorite mixologist Katie Loeb.
CT Bites readers will discover the American food revolution took root early in Philadelphia, and it’s flourished. Philly’s vibrant city streets are filled with interesting architecture, art, museums, restaurants, cafes, clubs and bars. Yet, it’s a polite city. People murmur, “Excuse me.” And if they see you with a map in your hand and a befuddled expression on your face, they offer directions. Showing the Brotherly Love is what they do.
The Philadelphia food story begins with the Germans, who first arrived in 1683. Today, lines form out the door Fridays and Saturday’s at Brauhaus Schmitz, which specializes in New German cooking. The room is filled with sturdy wood tables beneath vintage German travel posters and an enlarged, framed Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian purity law of 1516 that set down the recipe (and tax code) for beer. Brauhaus is less crowded at lunch. At the bar, skinny young hipsters in plaid shirts drink flights.
House-cured charcuterie, thinly sliced, is arrayed on a wood board. Riesling salami, chewy, tangy and slightly sweet. Bünderfliesh, air-cured beef, soft-textured and mild-flavored. Foie gras liverwurst a dream of rich, smooth goose liver and pork shoulder encased in a band of goose fat. Speck, cured pork belly, meltingly fatty. Chutneys filled with golden raisins, and a compound butter brightened with lemon zest, and bread from Metropolitian Bakery, which revived old-world baking in Philadelphia in 1993. (www.metropolitanbakery.com, with several locations around the city)
Brauhaus Schmitz’s pork heaven continues with the sausage board. Speckwurst is Chef Jeremy Nolen’s over-the-top smoked bacon-and-pork sausage. Baurenwurst, farmers sausage, smoked beef and pork, spiced with garlic and pepper. Hungarian sausage, paprika-red and spicy. Weisswurst, pale, tender, smooth and elegant.
Beer’s brisk bitterness is perfect with the meats. Brauhaus carries over 100 beers, with 30 on draft. From the deep and interesting German beer list, we tried an unfiltered lager, Traunstein lolzer Swickel (5.3% ABV). It was crisp with some notes of grain. A dark wheat beer, Dunkelweizen Andechser Weissbeir Dunkle, was bright-tasting, clean, yet rich, with a bit of clove flavor. Monschshol Kulmbacher Schwartzbrew had roasted coffee flavors, yet was light-textured.
The excellent pretzels are hand-rolled by pastry chef Jessica Nolen, Jeremy Nolen’s wife. She bakes them the way they do in Germany, dipping them in a solution that creates a dark, shiny shell, and soft textured insides. Her apple steudel is a favorite. It’s plump with apples, blanketed in crisp, thin, layers of pastry.
We were thrilled to see that Brauhaus has a schnapps list. Schapps are the essential way to end (and sometimes start!) a German meal. Sipping a small glass of high-octane, clear fruit brandy burns through the richness of a German meal. These are not sweet drinks. The best contain the essence of fruit. Apple or pear are my favorites.
Chef Nolen has a book coming out this fall. It’s called “New German Cooking,” (Chronicle) and will feature Brauhaus Schmitz specials like roasted duck legs in pomegranate sauce, with white beans and kohlrabi. Vegetarians will find his novel take on maultaschen (German ravioli usually filled with ground pork and nutmeg). He most untraditionally fills the pasta with kobocha squash in garlic hazelnut butter and sage.
718 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Several bars in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood made the Top 50 Bars list put out by the blog Foobooz.com. Oyster House is where Katie Loeb, author of “Shake, Stir, Pour – Fresh Home Grown Cocktails,” mixes fresh juices, herb syrups, and infused liquors into inventive elixirs. (1516 Sansom St., 215-567-7683, oysterhousephilly.com) The Corner Fooderie specializes in craft brews. (1710 Sansom St., 215-567-1500, thecornerfoodery.com) Pub and Kitchen has an intriguing cocktail, wine and beer list (1946 Lombard St.
Not on the list, but a neighborhood mainstay is Rouge on Rittenhouse Square. Rouge evokes a sexy intimacy with gray silk draped walls, ornate mirrors and a cozy bar scene. (205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622, rouge98.com)
With a bit of time before an appointment, we were rejuvenated by Happy Hour oysters at Pennsylvania6. $1 a piece for briney Watchhouse Point, Virginia, oysters, deeply cupped, salty, with good minerality. With them, we drank local Yards Brewery Philly Pale Ale. (901 N Delaware Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19123, (215) 634-2600 www.yardsbrewing.com with tasting room with pool tables.)
The next afternoon, heading back to our hotel around 4, after a vigorous walk down Benjamin Franklin Parkway after going to art museums, we were restored by a good cup of fresh brewed loose-leaf tea and a luscious, light European cake at Miel Patisserie. 204 S. 17th St., Philadelphia, (215) 731-9191
Reading Terminal (Walking distance from Rittenhouse Squaure, 10-15 minutes.)
Reading Terminal is not just for tourists. You’ll see locals at this former train station -- cops eating breakfast, young professionals picking up cheese, bread, and local chefs buying fruit, fish and sausages. Brauhaus Schmitz’s sausages are sold at their Wursthaus Schmitz stand. (Yes, we returned to Connecticut with charcuterie and sausages. We travel with a soft-pack insulated bag.)
Reading Terminal is where you can try Philly classics like cheese steak and scrapple. Dutch Eating Place offers fuel-up, cheap-eats breakfast. Their hot apple dumplings were featured on TV Food Network. Scapple is a peppery pork-parts and cornmeal loaf. There’s a pan-fried vs. deep-fried debate, and I’m in the pan-fried camp. Dutch Eating Place deep fries their scapple. Reading terminal’s stands offer scrapple to take home and pan fry. Uncooked scrapple looks grey and unappealing, but trust me, it will fry up nice and crispy.
Philadelphia’s favorite chefs like to play around scrapple. George Sabatino, who opens Aldine in Rittenhouse Square soon, has been known to serve homemade scrapple with paw-paws, a native fruit. Chef John Taus, who has cooked in many of Philadelphia’s best known restaurants, has gotten wild with Thai scrapple.
Chinatown is near Reading Terminal. You might see Jose Garces eating the Shanghai-style soup dumplings at Dim Sum Garden. Or chef Marcie Turney (of Barbuzzo, Lolita, Jamonera and Little Nonna’s) enjoying a bowl of soup and noodles at Pho 75.
Of course, the fun of travel is… making your own discoveries. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. One of the hippest neighborhoods is known for BYOB restaurants. Passyunk (pronounced “pashunk”) is filled with boutiques, coffee shops, gastropubs, and cheesesteak rivals Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks. Keep your cheese steaks. Top chef Nick Elmi has a tiny BYOB, Laurel, with a fresh take on French fare (foie gras and cocoa terrine with blood orange), 1617 Passyunk Ave., 215-271-8299, restaurantlaurel.com.
Where to Stay
After lunch, we drove to our hotel to check in. The Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel is in Rittenhouse Square, the tony center of the city. It was built in 1926, which means the rooms are roomy. And the entire place was recently renovated. The lobby is hip, contemporary Euro, with colorful modern couches, balls of light, and walls of word art. The rooms, freshly decorated in a Modernist style, offer space to spread out, and the all-important workstation to plug into.
The fitness center’s big, 2,000-square feet. The business class floor has a private lounge serving breakfast and happy hour – an open bar with wine, and, on the night we stopped in, warm mini reubens, and glasses of humus and colorful raw vegetables. Views out the 8th floor windows of Art Deco buildings. At breakfast, a buffet is also offered in the hotel restaurant Tavern 17.
For more atmosphere, stroll down the street to Parc Bistro & Brasserie, a lovelingly recreated vintage brasserie that transports you to France in a heartbeat. Restaurateur Stephen Starr understands that dining is theatre. Parc Brasserie’s is a stage set to evoke nostalgia for a past we all long to have lived. At breakfast, grab a sidewalk bistro chair facing the park. At night, at the zinc bar, you’ll find locals eating bowls of moules at quarter to to 11 on a weeknight. Parc Bistro & Brasserie, 227 South 18th Street, Philadelphia, 215-545-2262, www.parc-rstaurant.com.
Alma de Cuba, a Starr restaurant too, is a dimly lit, sophisticated ode to Cuba. Over a low Latin beat, we we sipped lime-filled caipringas and minty mojitas, and shared crisp mini tacos. Five ceviches on the Nuevo Latino menu, and we loved the fluke, a sushi ceviche, raw fluke with mango sauce and whisper-thin slices of orange habenero pepper. For traditional, hearty Cuban, carne asada, roast pork, is served in thick, tender, slices in orange sauce.
For dessert, the Cuban Cigar is a clever bit of restaurant theatre – the chocolate cigar, ganache-covered cake, paper cigar band, and sugar matchbook. The server lights a sugar match. The scent of caramelized sugar wafts through the air. 1623 Walnut St., 215-988-1799, almadecubarestaurant.com
Also in Passyunk is a restaurant my friends raved about. People making fuss over Dutch food? Yes, Noord Eetcafe has people raving about its house-smoked fish, Amsterdam mussels with fennel, star anise and basil, and rabbit leg confit with baby turnips. Noord is elegant, candlelit, and BYOB. 1046 Tasker St., 267-909-9704, noordphilly.com BYOB
At Bistrol La Minette, chef Peter Wolsey makes authentic French bistro fare. 623 S 6th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147 (215) 925-8000
New Restaurants from Star Chefs:
Top chef Kevin Sbraga recently opened The Fat Ham, serving juleps and decadent, contemporary Southern cooking (fried lobster and mac ‘n cheese with bbq potato chip crust), 3131 Walnut St., 215-735-1914, sbragadining.com
Iron Chef Jose Garces’s Cuban diner, Rosa Blanca, offers good value for rotisserie chicken, beans, and rice and empanadas., 707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555, rosablancdiner.com,
HipCityVeg, 127 S. 18th St., 215-278-7605, hipcityveg.com
Vegan Commissary, 1703 S. 11th St., 215-964-3232, vegancommissary.com
Check out those murals! Philly has 3,600 murals, a public art project that began as an anti-grafitti program. You can take a tour, by foot, bus or bike, but it’s just as fun to discover them unawares. http://muralarts.org/tour
The must-see museum is the Barnes Foundation. This collection of post-impressionist and early modern paintings is as much about the art as it is the life of the man who collected it. The art is hung exactly as it did at Dr. Barnes home in Lower Merion, in symmetrical compositions matched with iron work and antique furniture. Barnes, who made his fortune with eye drops that prevented infections and blindness in newborn babies, was devoted to teaching people how to look and think about art. Matisse, who created the murals of dancers said the Barnes Foundation was the only place to look at art in the U.S. www.barnesfoundation.org
Just just across the street from the Barnes is the Rodin Museum, an intimate and sedate Beaux Arts building that houses a collection donated to the Philadelphia in 1929 by entrepreneur Jules Mastbaum. The museum and garden were recently renovated.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art beckoned in the distance, but, museumed-out, we headed back on foot along windy Ben Franklin Parkway towards city center. Though tired, we ducked into the Free Museum, where the guard suggested we go up to the 4th floor to see the Shakespeare Book exhibit. We stayed a mere 10 minutes, long enough to take in delightful workmanship of Shakespeare editions through the ages.
In Rittenhouse Square is the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a rare book collection. Especially interesting to those of us who like to imagine the lives of writers, is the third floor, where Marianne Moore’s Greenwich Village apartment has been reassembled. Moore, the Modern poet who wrote the famous “Poetry, I, too, dislike it” was once the most famous poet in American.
By car, it’s about 3 hours. Once you’re in the city, you won’t need a car, as it’s easy to get around on foot, by bus, or taxi. Which makes taking AmTrack an appealing alternative. The ride takes two and a half hours.
Traveling with Kids
Philadelphia has tons of things to do with kids, from exploring the Old City, seeing the Liberty Bell and the Ben Franklin museum, Natural History Museum and nature walks. For more information, go to Philadelphia’s excellent tourism site, visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com, has loads of information on Philly’s neighborhoods and restaurants