By David M. Williams
The sun shines on Philadelphia.
LAST AUGUST, THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA narrowly lost out to Boston for ESPN’s title as the “sports capital of the world.” But ask any Philadelphian what their favorite sports teams are, and you might as well pull up a barstool- you’re in for the long haul.
Here is a city whose identity has become as entangled with sports as it has with the historic landmarks that populate its cobblestone streets. A city whose major thoroughfare is more notorious for the personalities of its championship ice hockey teams than it is for any cultural institution that lies upon its path. A city whose art museum is visited more often to mimic the fictional athlete who traversed its steps, than it is for gazing at a single painting on display within its walls.
Yet, Philadelphia is also a city defined by its embrace of the underdog. This town wears the proverbial chip on its collective shoulder with pride. Expectations are always kept in check.
Just ask Maui native, and Phillies center fielder, Shane Victorino about his hanai Philly brethren and their reaction to the foreign state of optimism. After an early exit from last season’s playoffs, Victorino found himself having to defend his level of disappointment compared to that of Philadelphia natives, after they took issue with his overly optimistic comments via social media.
However, these days, there seems to be something different about the outlook in Philadelphia. Fitting for a sports town, some locals claim that things started to change after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. Other fans point to the re-signing of All-Star ace Cliff Lee as the real turning point. Regardless of the origins of this new streak of optimism, the marks in the win column span the freeways and quiet alleys: There is something shining brighter throughout the cultural community of Philadelphia.
Emerging in the last decade are a spate of new culinary wonders, bespoke retail boutiques, galleries and a nightlife that-dare I say it-has been known to rival other metropolises both above and below us on the Eastern Seaboard.
If you’re looking to fancy up your daytime duds, Philadelphia has an emerging community of boutique tailors and classic male-centric specialty stores. The sharp-dressed man heads straight to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood’s Rittenhouse Row, which features a string of upscale shops. The classic being Boyd’s, a boutique department store that offers impeccable service and the best tailor talent for a steady 70 years.
The new, cutting-edge showroom at Commonwealth Proper offers modern-yet-retro business suits, as well as a retail line of pocket squares and ties, which you can’t seem to miss on the streets of Philly this summer. The more vintage, upscale hip travelers should visit Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which showcases artists who produce “high quality work marked by fine craft and intellectual rigor.” This ranges from craft spirits for the home cocktail cabinet, to home furnishings, accessories and clothing for men and women. It’s not uncommon to leave Art in the Age with an entirely new wardrobe, as well as concept for your “new” living room décor.
After getting all dressed up, Philadelphia’s thriving culinary community provides for plenty of places to go. A visitor may be excused for expecting Philly to be dominated by the sports bar canon of hoagies, cheesesteaks and wings. Sure, before or during a ball game this is entirely suitable fare. However, in a city that received 19 James Beard nominations, Philly’s restaurant realm proves it can stand toe-to-toe with even the most competitive gastro-centric cities. And although the trend has been sagging away from classic fine dining, when it comes to refinement, Chef Marc Vetri’s namesake restaurant is still the one to beat.
It seems fitting that in a city famous for its old-school Italian Market, the current king of Philadelphia’s culinary world is a chef who turned rustic, authentic Italian into “pure culinary art.”
Vetri reigns supreme in Philadelphia, as this year it is one of five James Beard finalists for the most outstanding restaurant in the country. Opened in 1998 in an intimate townhouse in Center City, Vetri offers an elaborate tasting menu-only option that has garnered Vetri numerous accolades, declaring it as the best Italian restaurant in the country. Just ask any of Philly’s top chefs and they will point you toward perfection by way of Vetri’s classic spinach gnocchi with brown butter. A plate that can redefine the way one thinks of pasta with one bite of the feather-like, potato-less gnocchi, dressed in brown butter and topped with shaved ricotta salata.
Yet while most flock to its doors for the astoundingly delectable tasting menu that Vetri offers ($135 per person), locals sneak out to the more family-focused Vetri outpost, Osteria.
In a community that prides itself on tiny neighborhood “finds,” one of the best ways to experience this is at the husband-and-wife operated Bibou, a French restaurant that after a recent visit, wine critic Robert Parker declared to have “as great a bistro fare as one can imagine.”
This past March the storied French restaurant Le Bec-Fin closed its doors after holding court for decades as one of the most widely acclaimed French kitchens in the country. Yet, the summer traveler need not worry as it has already been announced that the landmark restaurant is slated to reopen this spring under the new ownership of Nicolas Fanucci. The former general manager of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry brings with him another French Laundry alum, chef Walter Abrams, as they aim to return Le Bec-Fin to its fine dining brilliance. This presently leaves the Fountain Restaurant located in the Four Seasons Hotel on Logan Square as the best option to partake in the classic, posh, old-guard arena of Philadelphia fine dining.
It was while working in the kitchen at Vetri that Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov first laid the foundations for his intimately inspired Middle Eastern-focused restaurant Zahav.
Now a standout restaurant, tucked at the foot of the Society Hill towers in Old City, Zahav has taken hold as one of the top restaurants in the city. A more relaxed, yet sophisticated, vibe that caters toward a younger audience, Solomonov follows Vetri’s lead if only in the sense that the “new” Philadelphia culinary style is creating a world based on one’s own personal history. Nothing expresses Solomonov’s passionate connection to his Israeli roots quite like his hummus-tehina. A simple antipasti-style dish of creamy hummus dimpled with the perfect touch of olive oil, dusted in za’atar, and served with an Iraqi flatbread called laffa, which is baked to order.
You may be surprised to discover a craft-beer world embraced with a vigor unseen anywhere else in America. Joined by the rarely lauded fact that Philadelphia’s Standard Tap is widely considered the first gastro-pub in the U.S., it resides in an emerging hipster enclave that boasts a European-style piazza teeming with cafes, tapa joints and gastro pubs that spill into its center.
The city’s modern day taprooms continue to redefine what neighborhood dining is about, and perhaps none are doing it with more aplomb than the Rittenhouse area’s Pub & Kitchen. It is a high-end, mood-lit pub that offers up the city’s best burger: 8 ounces of a proprietary, custom blend of dry-aged Creekstone Farms beef, that is glazed with bone marrow butter, topped with sautéed onions and served with fries. Its decadence makes it worth all $18 of its price tag.
For a nightcap, The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company takes on the vibe of a Prohibition-era speakeasy and does so with one self-declared mission at hand: “to make the best cocktails around.” Franklin Mortgage is tucked in a non descript basement just off of Rittenhouse Square and features a cocktail menu with categories such as “Rebellious Spirits,” “Required Reading,” and “I Asked Her For Water She Brought Me Gasoline,” which offers libations like “Midnights Children”: Old Granddad Bourbon, Zacapa Rum, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, House Mulled Wine Syrup, served on a single rock.
If the late-night traveler wants to make it a double, they can take the few-block walk off the park, down the back alley-like Ranstead Street, and look for the non-descript dark door with two backwards R’s that mark the Ranstead Room. A classically styled bar from Philly’s preeminent restaurateur, Stephen Starr, the Ranstead Room prides itself on classic drinks made with house-made mixers, hand-chipped ice and fresh-squeezed juice.
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods within neighborhoods. Historic sections and emerging sections are nestled within the larger sectors of the city, defined by the cardinal directions. Center City is our “downtown.” Running east and west between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, it is home to the city’s central business district and almost all of the tall buildings.
It is not unheard of for a traveler in Philadelphia to never leave Center City during their stay, but for the sports fan in the sports town the trip starts in South Philly. Few events can distill the essence of a city in the summertime quite like the experience of taking in a baseball game at the local ballpark. Toward the southern end of Broad Street, right before Philadelphia’s most famous thoroughfare comes to an end (at the gates of the recently redeveloped Navy Yard), lies the sports complex that serves as home to all four of the city’s major sports teams. The Philadelphia Phillies calls Citizens Bank Park home, as does the (football) Eagles, (hockey) Fliers and (basketball) 76ers. The stadium, built in 2004, has garnered Food Network awards for “Best Ballpark Food,” which goes beyond just the meat-friendly Philly staples of cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches, as PETA also has voted CBP America’s No. 1 vegetarian-friendly ballpark.
However, if a ticket proves hard to come by, as Citizens Bank Park also continuously sets records for attendance and sellout streaks, a train ride from Center City, or a 25-minute car ride from the sports complex will reveal the newest addition to the Philly sports world, the waterfront PPL Park, home to Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. Completed in 2010, PPL Park will serve as home to the MLS All-Star game on July 25, as well as housing events such as NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Quarterfinals and USA 7’s collegiate Rugby championship in early June. In a town bursting at the seams with sports fans, it seems adding some “new school” sporting events are rather welcome, too.
No matter how the Phillies’ season plays out, the summer of 2012 in Philadelphia will be remembered most for the May 19 opening of the Barnes Foundation’s world-renowned art collection at its new location on the Ben Franklin Parkway, which serves as the spine of Philadelphia’s museum district. Not without controversy as examined in the 2009 documentary film, The Art of the Steal, the moving of the Barnes collection is being described as “one of the most significant and anticipated cultural events in Philadelphia’s history.” The Barnes collection is widely considered to include some of the most important works of art created over the past 150 years, including major works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.
The opening of the Barnes also coincides with the reopening of the Rodin Museum after undergoing a three-stage rejuvenation.
Only a short walk down the parkway from the Barnes, the Rodin Museum is home to 130 sculptures and highlights a magnificent blending of art, architecture and nature. Holding court at the end of the parkway is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which this summer may even sway a few avid Rocky fans to enter its doors with an anticipated exhibit called Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia, running from June 20 through the length of summer and creating an unprecedented art world trifecta on the parkway.
A visit to Philadelphia would be incomplete without visiting America’s most historic square mile at Independence Mall, which now includes the National Constitution Center and the National Museum of American Jewish History to go along with Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. This summer also will mark the arrival on Independence Mall of the four-star Kimpton-owned Hotel Monaco, which will feature the largest rooftop lounge in the city-the perfect perch from which to sip bubbly and take in the summer breezes-after a long day of ball games, shopping and dining.