Philly for foodies and historians

by Mary Gallagher

For fun, food and a huge dose of American history, we took the pleasant two hour ride on Amtrak to enjoy a fall weekend in Philadelphia. It couldn’t have been more perfect with trees just at their golden stage, warm afternoons and cool nights. The main historic sites were busy but not crushingly so. Although in looking over my notes and disappearing waistline I think we just ate and ate in this colossus of a restaurant town!

The Independence National Historical Park covers nearly 45 acres in the center of Philadelphia’s Old City. Here you’ll find the Liberty Bell Center, new home to the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center -150,000 square feet devoted to honoring the ideas embodied in the U.S. Constitution, historic Independence Hall and the new Independence Visitor Center. This is the largest visitors center in the nation with a hefty gift shop, various information displays, theaters showing orientation films, a coffee (espresso!) bar and connection to a public parking facility. The US Park Service and rangers do a terrific job of answering questions, explaining every detail of history while guarding these historical artifacts. This was some of the best work by outstanding security people, in addition to the rangers, I’ve ever experienced and they should all be hired away for anyplace we might consider seriously protecting – like an airport. Courteous, English speaking, competent and thorough without treating anyone in a demeaning manner made this tiresome worthless exercise at long last a reasonable experience. Plus one finished with the feeling, for a change, that these folks actually stood a chance of identifying a real perpetrator.

If you’re a real history buff with good eyes and don’t mind reading a lot of informative displays, placards, maps and other “stuff” or looking at computer screens you can spend hours in the National Constitution Center. They even have a theater in the round performance that combines a live visible narrator with a media display and lots of patriot music.

After I had been there and came back to read more information about the design team, it wasn’t too surprising that this was the same team that did the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC where I’ve never been able to read more than a few words out of the thousands and thousand on display. Perhaps someday these fellows will pass 40, start to squint and need to carry a flash light to survive in their own designs.

Philadelphia has themed walking tours for all types of interests throughout the historic district and other neighborhoods of interest. You’re already well aware of all the school classes I slept through so how much better to let costumed and entertaining experts present the stories in a highly absorbable way to adults and children alike. We spent a few hours with Ed Manger of Philadelphia on Foot and I thought he was great – interesting, humorous and really knew his subject. We take guided tours on almost every visit to any thing or place – trust me this quality in a guide is way too often the exception. Contact Ed at (215) 627-8680 (800) 340-9869.

There is no shortage of historic churches to visit and we saw the Christ Church from 1744, the Quaker meeting hall and ran out of time for a whole slew of others.

Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously operating street in America and they have a house museum at #126. The Betsy Ross house is at 239 Arch Street but no one is positive she ever lived there although the house is from 1760. In fact she may not have even sewn the flag!

We did the Lights of Liberty night laser, sound and light show following a costumed “Liberty Leader” around Independence Square. It is a lot of walking, listening to 3D sound on headphones and watching historical stories enacted through lighting displays projected onto the sides of buildings and other surfaces at various sites. The sound was amazing and when we heard horses galloping up from behind most everyone spun around to determine which way to jump. This is a slightly treacherous tour if you have any night vision issues or walking and balance problems. It was very dark and you walk on a variety of pavements, up and down curbs, in dark alleys and on grass. The guides protect everyone as we crossed the street but they did not have flash lights every few feet to help one otherwise. The wonderful realistic 3D sound headphones were very affective at blocking out other noise and muffled your brains acknowledgement of the actual space around you. I felt very vulnerable – not to crime but just generally towards twisting an ankle or walking into a tree. Call 215 LIBERTY, www.lightsofliberty.org

Finally I screamed stop stop no more history give me tacky shopping and off to South Street, between Front and 10th Street; Lombard and Bainbridge we went. This was literally still within walking distance of our hotel. There are dozens of shops, restaurants and galleries located at this popular tourist attraction. Some interesting thrift stores and antique emporiums, Condom Kingdom has a large store with a rather singular focus on certain body parts and everyone had watches for sale – knockoffs for cheap but wild fun designs.

Seller of African Imports

I’d rather spend my afternoon here than any mall. In the old city areas near the historic district many boutique and fine design shops and galleries have sprung up during the revitalization. They tended to be a little more on the upscale than most of South St. I found out later that we gave in too soon and should have ventured just a few more blocks for some other interesting fare.

All this sight seeing and walking means intensive eating to maintain ones strength! And eat we did at almost every turn.

Amusing and funky at Johnny Rocket’s on South Street for fries and cokes, Saturday lunch at a packed City Tavern for food with a historical theme, dinner at one of the “concept King” Stephen Starr’s stars Tangerine, beyond bountiful brunch at the Omni Hotel and a surprisingly gourmet extravaganza of fine fare on board the Moshulu, the largest four masted sailing ship in the world still a float. Renovated and reopened in ’03, this is not your typical theme restaurant with steam table food or poor excuses for seafood even if we are on the water. You’ll love it and it is packed with happy clients.

We stayed, almost on top of the historical area, at the Omni Hotel at Independence Park, 401 Chestnut Street and it was perfectly located to walk everywhere. The hotel was quiet, clean with large rooms and a very pleasant young staff. Sunday brunch was like a Las Vegas extravaganza and again the staff were particularly accommodating. Philadelphia offers hundreds of packages and hotel accommodations at every rate imaginable. If you stay right in the downtown area there is no need for a car or even in most circumstances a cab except to and from the train station.

Like the security people, the visitors and convention assistance for visiting this city and all of Pennsylvania is phenomenal. They will do everything and bury you in information. Greater Philadelphia Tourism 215-599-0776
www.gophila.com
Recent Restaurant News:
In the City

* Astral Plane – This 31-year-old restaurant in an historic townhouse was chosen as the spot for Bette Midler’s 30th birthday party. The dramatic setting includes flowing fabric on the ceilings, mismatched china and silverware and pictures of film stars on the walls. Executive Chef Rodolfo Ramirez uses the freshest locally grown ingredients in his contemporary American cuisine. 1708 Lombard Street, (215) 546-6230, www.theastralplane.com
* Deux Cheminées – Chef/owner Fritz Blank has created one of the most highly regarded classic French restaurants in the country. Opened in 1979, Deux Cheminées, which translates into “two fireplaces,” is in an historic townhouse that was designed by Frank Furness in the 1880s. Menu highlights include crab soup Marguerite, a rack of lamb and venison with spaetzle. 1221 Locust Street, (215) 790-0200, www.deuxchem.com
* Fountain Restaurant – This award-winning restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia has been a favorite for special occasion meals for decades. Rated as the best restaurant in Philadelphia by Zagat’s, the award-winning Fountain overlooks the exquisite Swann Fountain on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Some favorite items on the global cuisine menu include veal medallions with lobster ravioli and asparagus soufflé. One Logan Square, (215) 963-1500, www.fourseasons.com/philadelphia/dining
* Friday Saturday Sunday – This romantic, cozy restaurant, serving classic American dishes, has been a favorite date spot since it opened more than 30 years ago, when it was launched on a dare. The restaurant has a very popular second floor wine bar with an extensive wine list, and is committed to a meager $10 mark up on all bottles. 261 S. 21st Street, (215) 546-4232, www.frisatsun.com
* Judy’s Cafe – This casual gay-owned Queen Village restaurant specializes in “comfort” food. Some of the favorite menu items include chicken breasts coated in pulverized cheddar sticks and Judy’s famous meatloaf. No restaurant birthday celebration can compare to the one found here, in which the waitstaff dresses the celebrant in a blonde wig as lights flash and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” plays. 627 S. 3rd Street, (215) 928-1968
* Le Bec-Fin – Famed restaurateur Georges Perrier introduced Philadelphians to fine French cuisine when he opened this upscale restaurant in the 1970s. Although the dining room has undergone a major renovation, the food and atmosphere remain formal. Long a favorite of critics, the restaurant recently earned back its fifth star from Mobil Travel Guide. Reservations and proper attire are a must. 1523 Walnut Street, (215) 567-1000, www.lebecfin.com
* London Grill – Terry and Michael McNally purchased this bustling Art Museum area tavern in 1991. Since that time, they have created an innovative Contemporary American menu with international influences. In the tavern, patrons can enjoy upscale bar food, while the dining room offers more formal cuisine. London is also well known for its quirky seasonal events, including an annual Bastille Day party in July. 2301 Fairmount Avenue, (215) 978-4545, www.londongrill.com
* Philadelphia Fish & Company – Owners Janet and Kevin Meeker have operated this popular seafood restaurant for more than 20 years in Old City. Executive chef Kevin Cliggett dishes up entrees such as grilled ahi tuna mignon and seared sea scallops. The restaurant’s best bargain is its $6 bar menu, which changes daily. 207 Chestnut Street, (215) 625-8606, www.philadelphiafish.com
* Rose Tattoo Cafe – The garden party atmosphere of this Fairmount restaurant has made it a popular date spot since the 1980s. Contemporary cuisine is the specialty, and some classics include the cream of mushroom soup, crab cakes, lobster quesadillas and ribs with barbequed peanut jalapeno sauce. 1847 Callowhill Street, (215) 569-8939, www.rosetattoocafe.com
* Sansom Street Oyster House – This Center City restaurant has been a favorite hangout since it opened in 1947 for diners seeking simple, freshly prepared seafood dishes. Patrons are drawn here for the snapper soup, the traditional crab imperial and fried oysters and chicken salad, a restaurant special. 1516 Sansom Street, (215) 567-7683, www.sansomoysters.com
* White Dog Café – While Chef Michael O’Halloran serves up international dishes using organic and free-range ingredients, owner Judy Wicks organizes lectures, tours and films on social issues. Located in three adjacent Victorian brownstones in University City, the restaurant has long been a favorite for several generations of West Philly students and residents. 3420 Sansom Street, (215) 386-9224, www.whitedog.com

In the Countryside

* Black Bass Hotel – This romantic inn/restaurant in Bucks County dates back to the 1740s. The restaurant continues to serve new American cuisine, including coffee-lacquered duck with fresh ginger pear chutney and wild mushroom ravioli, in a charming setting along a riverbank. 3774 River Road, Lumberville, (215) 297-5770, www.blackbasshotel.com
* Crier in the Country – If the rumors are true, the ghosts of the original owners of this Victorian mansion in Delaware County watch over diners as they indulge in dinner at this French-Continental restaurant. 1 Crier in the Country Lane, Glen Mills, (610) 358-2411, www.crierinthecountry.com
* William Penn Inn – This historic inn/restaurant has been hosting guests and serving traditional American continental cuisine since 1714. The restaurant hosts an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet on Thursday evenings and a popular buffet brunch on Sunday. DeKalb & Sumneytown Pikes, Gwynedd, (215) 699-9272, www.williampenninn.com

New Restaurant Openings

* Lolita – Owner Valerie Safran and her partner/chef Marcie Turney serve up Mexican cuisine with a twist, including chipotle grilled beef tenderloin and soft corn tortillas with orange glazed pork, at this new 56-seat, cash-only BYOB restaurant in the rejuvenated B3 (Blocks Below Broad) neighborhood. 106 S. 13th Street, (215) 546-7100
* Meritage Philadelphia – James Colabelli and partner Taylor Barnebey plan to be both owners and waitstaff at this 12-table, 34-seat restaurant serving classic regional cuisine (French, Italian and American). The food selections will be accompanied by a serious wine list, and the tasting menu will change weekly. 20th & Lombard Streets, (215) 985-1922, www.meritagephiladelphia.com
* Old Original Bookbinder’s – The long awaited return of this landmark restaurant is scheduled for mid-September. This legendary seafood house will reopen as a newly designed 200-seat restaurant with an open kitchen, the world’s largest lobster tank, oyster bar, outdoor dining area and a clubroom. The menu will include some of their past signature dishes, including snapper soup, lobster and strawberry shortcake. 2nd & Walnut Streets, (215) 925-7027, www.oldoriginalbookbinders.com

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