Newsletters  | Mobile

The Philadelphia Experiment

But the strongest case I can make for this city's revitalization is its diverse restaurant scene. For the last 20 years, telling New Yorkers what to eat has been my business. As a former highfalutin caterer, I have prepared intimate parties in private homes as well as splashy events like a sit-down dinner for 300 at the Guggenheim Museum. It was also my pleasure to tell people where to eat, providing restaurant advice by matching the specific occasion to the perfect location. But lately, when people ask me to name my favorite restaurants, I tell them that on the whole, I'd rather eat in Philadelphia.

This city has been the culinary hub of my adult life as I traveled up and down the Northeast Corridor. In the early seventies, when it was still a thrill to find fancy food in funky places, I had my first "fusion" meal (today's upmarket name for flavors from a city's melting-pot neighborhoods) in a renovated storefront restaurant called Frog. During that period, I also ate at Wildflowers, Astral Plane, and Lickety Split; the names may sound outdated, but what was going on in those restaurants is still influencing cuisine today. Before terms like regional and free-range became commonplace, these entrepreneurs were using what they could get their hands on: the bounty from the countryside, where tradition kept the farmers rooted in agriculture, not agribusiness. Although they may not have gotten the press of their Californian counterparts such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, people like Steve Poses of Frog were at the forefront of a culinary revolution, scratching seasonal menus on blackboards out of necessity, not merely fashion.

Today, the city has almost too many destination restaurants to mention: Striped Bass, Morimoto, Susanna Foo, La Croix, Salt, as well as offerings from headlining chefs that show up on hot-restaurant roundups, such as Marc Vetri's eponymous 10-table hybrid of classic and contemporary Italian cooking, or Guillermo Pernot's fiery ¡Pasión!, to name just a few.

And witness the city's burgeoning "bring your own bottle" movement. Liquor and wine distribution in Pennsylvania is run by the state, and restaurateurs pay the same amount as their own customers (their only discount being the 7 percent sales tax), so it might seem that the BYOB trend grows out of restriction. But it's actually about freedom. A BYOB is often more of a personal statement for the chef-owner, with a smaller number of seats than most conventional restaurants and a spontaneous seasonal menu.

Most people don't typically figure the cost of the bottle into the cost of the meal, and, for that reason, BYOB's are almost recession-proof, quickly building a coterie of repeat customers. First-timers often complain about the very things that make BYOB's so lovable to regulars: the panache of limited seating, the excitement of small, select menus listing specials that may be snapped up by the time they get a chance to order.

At the popular Django (526 S. Fourth St.; 215/922-7151; dinner for two $70), Aimee Olexy and her husband, Bryan Sikora, are big proponents of the "buy local, cook global" philosophy, showcasing food that is fragile in its seasonality. Order a dish such as cannelloni of wild dried Montana morels, sautéed wild leeks, and white-asparagus vinaigrette when you see it; it may take another growing cycle before you see it again.

This surging scene reminds me of years ago, when a chef from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, told me: "There are three kinds of cuisine in America. There is French, there is Oriental, there is Philadelphian."

Now that I live in Philadelphia, I am more guide than guest these days. For the most part, friends who come to visit aren't interested in the Liberty Bell. I let them do a couple of cartwheels in my thousand-square-foot loft, and that's all the Philadelphia freedom they seem to require. In addition to giving restaurant advice, I also encourage them to see the beautiful public gardens in Independence National Historical Park, near the just-opened National Constitution Center, a strikingly angular structure designed by Henry N. Cobb. "Center City Philadelphia has the nation's largest concentration of people who walk to work," reports Mark Alan Hughes, senior fellow of the University of Pennsylvania; strolling through this immaculate public ground, you can understand why. People in Philadelphia live with history on a daily basis. They have access to national landmarks not found in most other American cities. I might not stand in line with schoolchildren to see the most significant institutions of our colonial heritage, but I rarely miss the opportunity to walk through the park on warm days, stretching out on a bench to have my coffee.

Early one recent morning, I was awakened by the irritating, all-too-familiar sound of rattling jackhammers: a 7 a.m. crew was outside, tearing up the historic Belgian Block surface of New Street, a short stretch connecting Third and Fourth Streets in my neighborhood. "Typical city wreck and ruin" I grumbled as I closed my windows against the noise. Weeks later, when the work was done, I watched several masons get down on their knees to reline the street—by hand—with the blocks they had painstakingly saved. When people ask if I regret my experimental exodus, this is the poetic, quintessential Philadelphia moment I conjure up.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition