Philadelphia for the Poor and Thirsty

Alan Allport, December 2005

McGillin's Old Ale HouseThe northeast urban renaissance has made downtown Philadel-phia an infinitely more attractive place for visitors to stroll, shop, and dine at all hours than was the case, say, 10 or 15 years ago. This cultural revival has come at a literal cost, however, for Philly's bars and restaurants are now quite a bit more expensive than they used to be; price-conscious travelers have more and better, but also faster, opportunities to empty their checking accounts in today's City of Brotherly Love. Still, those on a tight budget can find excellent and affordable eateries with a little detective work. Since a comprehensive dining survey of Philadel-phia's neighborhoods could fill an issue of the American Historical Review, this article will stick to the midtown area where the meeting hotels are located. All restaurants listed should be within walking distance, or at most a short cab ride. We'll start with the most basic gastronomic choices and work our way up the food chain, so to speak.

The two grab-and-go foods most closely associated with Philadelphia are the pretzel and the cheesesteak. Pretzels come in "hard" and "soft" (fresh-baked) varieties; the former can be picked up in the supermarket, the latter from street vendors on almost any Center City sidewalk—though caveat emptor so far as taste and hygiene are concerned. Instead, try the Fisher's Pretzels stand in Reading Terminal Market at 12th and Arch Sts. This Victorian farmer's bazaar across the street from the Convention Center is a must-visit; its 80 merchants sell everything from traditional Amish farm produce (grown in Pennsylvania Dutch Country) to falafel and sushi. The market is open 8 a.m.–6 p.m., Monday–Saturday; many of its restaurants close at 3 p.m. Rick's at the market is probably your best bet for a cheesesteak, a gooey South Philadelphia specialty that is either revolting or delicious, depending on your palate. Also at the market, try the roast pork sandwiches at Dinic's or the snapper soup at Pearl's Oyster Bar. The tastiest cheesesteaks can only be found outside the Center City area, but if you're heading down to Penn's Landing then try the fresh rib-eye at Sonny's Famous Steaks, 216 Market. For a fast sub—"hoagie" in Philadelphiese—stop by a Wawa at 912 Walnut, 1038 or 1707 Arch. These oddly named convenience stores are open round the clock and are useful for soft drinks and hot and cold snacks.

Simple and cheap pub fare can be found in the city's many watering holes. Personal favorites in the meeting area include: Moriarty's (1116 Walnut) for its gigantic chicken wings; Fergie's (1214 Sansom) with its quiet (no blaring TV!) old-country atmosphere; McGillin's Old Ale House (1310 Drury) which claims to be the oldest continually operating saloon in Philadelphia; Independence Brew Pub (1150 Filbert) with its superlative beer-battered fries; Nodding Head (1516 Sansom) a microbrewery with a rotating collection of ales on tap that also does a very nice Sunday brunch; Monk's Café (264 S 16th St.), a Belgian-style brasserie offering a remarkable selection of draught and bottled beers; and The Bards (2013 Walnut), a no-nonsense Irish pub with good, filling grub.

As far as Philadelphia restaurants proper are concerned, the most economical option is to bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB). Mention of BYOB requires, however, a brief tutorial in Pennsylvania's byzantine licensing laws. Although take-out beer is sold (expensively) in delis and groceries across town, wines and spirits can only be purchased from a handful of state-owned retailers. The state stores closest to the meeting hotels are at 5 N 12th Street, 1628 JFK Boulevard, and 1218 and 1913 Chestnut Street. They are only open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and are closed on Sundays. OK, got your vino? Then call at Effie's (1127 Pine) for Greek seafood; La Boheme (246 S 11th St.) for Moroccan/Mediterranean; Minar Palace (1605 Sansom) for authentic Indian; Kingdom of Vegetarians (129 N 11th Street), which is 100 percent vegan and kosher; Maccabeam (128 S 12th St.) for Middle Eastern (also kosher); Vietnam Restaurant (221 N 11th St.)—self explanatory; or Valentino Ristorante (1328 Pine) for Italian. For an introduction to Philadelphia's Chinatown, try Lee How Fook (219 N 11th St.) or Lakeside Chinese Deli (207 N 9th St.)—excellent for dim sum.

Don't want to haul bottles around yourself? Then the French-style Caribou Café (1126 Walnut) and its amazing crepes; Friday Saturday Sunday (261 S 21st St.), which offers chic but affordable new-wave American cuisine; Mexican Los Catrines (1602 Locust); Astral Plane (1708 Lombard) with its romantic décor and fine vegetarian dishes; or Italian Le Castagne (1920 Chestnut) might be for you—just bear in mind that drinks tend to enlarge the check.

Finally, if you want to sample the Philadelphia good life but don't want to mortgage the farm in the process, there are ways of going about it. An evening meal with wine at Georges Perrier's signature restaurant Le Bec-Fin (1523 Walnut) will easily set you back a couple of hundred dollars, but there's a three-course lunch option for just $45, and the downstairs Le Bar Lyonnais provides first-rate dinners from the same kitchen at a relatively bargain price.

—Alan Allport is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the Univ. of Pennsylvania and the LAC staff assistant.