Cooking Light’s Best Cities: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In America’s fifth-largest city, the historic past provides a backdrop for a present that’s healthy and happening
By Chris Rodell
Cooking Light
April 2007

For a city that’s so enriched by its star-spangled history -- Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin -- it’s sometimes difficult to look beyond Philadelphia’s Colonial past and embrace what happens when a city really lets freedom ring. Because what makes the Philadelphia of today so downright dandy has little to do with Yankee Doodle.

Instead, it’s futuristic restaurants serving conveyor belt sushi. It is sleek 10-speed bikes coursing through expansive riverside parks. It’s where bounteous farmer’s markets with upscale organic produce are making a popular push past fast food fare. And it is evidence of what happens when discerning diners begin insisting on meals emphasizing flavor and savor over need and speed.

It was here that our Founding Fathers forged doctrines of everlasting liberty. More than 230 steamy summers ago, Philadelphia was the crucible where these elites hungered for freedom. Good thing for posterity’s sake they didn’t foment their rebellion in modern Philadelphia. The only thing the moneyed old men would be hungering for today are second helpings.

Best food
A cornucopia of fresh flowers, produce, sushi and sandwiches awaits at the famous Reading Terminal Market (215 922-2317, www.readingterminalmarket.org;). More than 90 vendors, two of them direct descendants of original 1892 stand holders, bustle for business amid the smells and sensations of this uniquely Philadelphia attraction.

Its feistier counterpart is The Italian Market (www.phillyitalianmarket.com) along 9th Street in South Philly. The market is lined with independent businesses originated by plucky immigrants determined to succeed in America, and the stores still buzz with that sense of commercial urgency. Locals line up for breakfast outside 910 Christian St. for what Lonely Planet describes as "Hipster hut meets grandma’s kitchen" at Sabrina’s (215-574-1599) where egg-white tri-mushroom omelets with an herb green onion cream cheese are a favorite.

Top dining spots
Had he been reviewing restaurants rather than revolutions, journalist Ben Franklin would surely have given the splendid City Tavern (215 413-1443, www.citytavern.com) a 4-star review. He dined and drank here, as did his treasonous counterparts. Just a few blocks of cobblestone steps from Independence Hall, the tavern preceded the nation by three years. It was demolished in 1854, but painstakingly rebuilt by the National Park Service in time for the 1976 bicentennial. Today, the most painstaking work is done by famed Chef Walter Staib who doubles as a dietary detective to ensure recipes like Martha Washington’s Colonial Pot Pie are both authentic and up-to-date to 21st century tastes.

There’ve been times when being on the deck of the Moshulu (www.moshulu.com; 215 923-2500) invited exposure to some of the planet’s most hostile elements. The 103-year-old four-masted schooner rounded godforsaken Cape Horn 54 times. Today Moshulu, a Seneca Indian word for "fearless," is moored on the Delaware River and has been sumptuously outfitted to match any land-lubbing counterpart. Enjoying its Chorizo Crusted Mahi Mahi on its stationary deck beneath the towering masts ensures a memorable meal.

No such hints of anything so historically inhospitable exist under the ornate dome at XIX (215-790-1919, http://parkphiladelphia.hyatt.com) where the classical austerity conveyed by the Roman numerals match the impressive architecture. Many consider its brunch with Crab Cake Benedict the best in town. The simple elegance of the menu doesn’t succumb to any potential pretensions of the grand surroundings. Instead, items like Lancaster County Free Range Chicken and Steamed Pennsylvania Lake Trout with Swiss Chard are simply elegant.

In this, XIX shares its farm-fresh culinary inspirations with the innovative bistro, The White Dog Cafe (215-386-9224, www.whitedog.com). Owner Judy Wicks opened the restaurant in 1982 with the stated mission of "doing well by doing good." Nestled among the brownstones in the University City section of town, the White Dog settles into the cerebral surroundings by hosting regular seminars titled, for instance, "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" All politics aside, both conservatives and liberals could unite behind servings of Organic Arugula, Roasted Local Wild Mushrooms and Niman Ranch Smoked Bacon Salad and entrees like Grilled Free Range Lamb Leg from Meadow Run Farm. Both are superb.

As the White Dog is frequently mentioned as a favorite of local waitstaff, it’s no surprise that their socially conscious acolytes are proliferating throughout the city. One outstanding example is Farmacia (215-627-6274, www.farmaciarestaurant.com), which shares many of the earthy ideals promoted by Wicks and the White Dog, where co-creator Kevin Klause was executive chef and partner. Today he’s pairing with the popular Metropolitan Cafe to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner entrees made like Eggplant Cannelloni made from organic ingredients deeply rooted in the rich southwestern Pennsylvania farmland.

And in a city renown for its history, no visit would be complete without a stop at historic Old Original Bookbinders (215-925-7027, www.bookbinders.biz), one of Philly’s best restaurants since 1865. A whopping $2 million renovation that closed the landmark restaurant for three years through 2005 is allowing it to reassert itself as the brawnier counterpart to Georges Perrier’s fabled Le Bec Fin as one of the city’s finest eateries. Its walls of top-tier celebrities feature galaxies of more than 400 stars, but none of those luminaries would dare dispute that the real king of Bookie’s is the lobster. Those with daintier appetites may find fulfillment with a fresh garden salad and a cup of Bookbinder’s Famous Snapper Soup.

So where might the Founding Fathers opt to dine if they came back to Philadelphia today to straighten things out (it can’t hurt to hope)? It would be Pod (215-387-1803, http://starr-restaurant.com), celebrity restauranteur Stephen Starr’s Pan Asian sensation. The Founding Fathers were futuristic thinkers and Pod, with its all-white interior, conveyor belt sushi bar and molded foam lounge chairs, is among the most futuristic restaurants on the East Coast. Its decor is often tagged with cartoon comparisons to The Jetsons, but dining at Pod is more like being immersed in a giant jello mold. When the music pulses, it’s all bouncy good fun. And like jello, it’s just so darn cool.

Best ways to step back in time
Strolling through Old City would be a charming afternoon if it were an ersatz Hollywood movie set. But Old City is the most historic square mile in America, and the lessons we can learn there have never been more relevant. Visiting Independence Hall, seeing the Liberty Bell, reawakens grade school recollections that the groundbreaking experiment in democracy has always been a deceptively tenuous endeavor. No where is this message clearer than the jewel-like National Constitution Center, the 3-year-old museum dedicated to saluting the document stipulating the breathtaking proposition that a rabble of individuals can determine their collective destinies better than despots or divine royalty. "Freedom Rising," is a patriotic tour de force reminder that when freedom gets taken for granted, freedom can get taken away.

Best ways to spend an afternoon
The bicycle industry should consider boosting someone like Jeff Dolan, not chiseled Lance Armstrong, as its most visible spokesman. Looking like a cuddlier version of lithe actor Andy Garcia, the always-smiling Dolan riding a bike through Philadelphia traffic inspires an if-he-can-do-it-I-can-do-it confidence when he pulls up to a hotel to launch one of his popular bike tours. Philadelphia’s broad avenues, secluded back streets, traffic-free enclaves and expansive parks are perfect for cycling. His Philadelphia Bike And Moped Tours (215-334-0790, www.philadelphiabiketour.com) -- slogan, "We’re Pedaling History!" -- will tailor your tour to your interests. Rather than bland box lunches, the meals are as important as the miles. Dolan’s tours stop at upscale markets for custom sandwiches and he has engineered ingenious arrangements with many top restaurants who don’t mind having disheveled cyclists with hearty appetites crowding their tables in the pre-dinner rush hours of 4 to 6 p.m.

Less energetic, but even more soul-soothing is a spring stroll through Longwood Gardens. Thirty miles west of Philadelphia in the historic Brandywine Valley, it was the country home of industrialist Pierre S. duPont (1870-1954) who decided in 1906 to purchase the whole of historic Pierce Park’s 202 acres (expanded today to 1,050 acres) for the purpose of providing a serene retreat.

Pack a lunch to watch the afternoon crew races up and down the Schuylkill River along historic Boat House Row (www.boathouserow.org) in picturesque Fairmont Park. The Dad Vail Regatta during the second week in May draws thousands of riverbank revelers to watch the exhilarating races.

Best places to stay
The Sheraton Society Hill Hotel (215-238-6000, www.sheraton.com) is the best option for those who want to have the past in their present. Located right in Old City, it is cobblestone steps from City Tavern, Old Original Bookbinders, Franklin Court and Independence Hall. It’s also one block from many Penn’s Landing waterfront attractions and is convenient to funky South Street and its exotic attractions.

The classical art-deco beauty of The Loews Philadelphia Hotel (215-627-1200, www.loewshotels.com/hotels/) in the historic PSFS Building, once the epitome of the still-appealing architectural discipline, makes Loews an artsy downtown landmark. The hotel gym/spa/lap pool offers an enticing option for those seeking a refreshing workout.

Favorite Foodie
It is a coincidence of historic proportions that Ralph Archbold and Benjamin Franklin share the same January 17 birthday. Clearly, Archbold was born to play Franklin. Archbold’s Franklin graces 11 postcards and the official Philadelphia tourist brochures. He is a big celebrity in a city where the biggest celebrity is Ben Franklin.

"For me, a perfect afternoon is greeting tourists and telling stories under the mulberry tree in Franklin Court and telling stories, just like Franklin used to," he says. "After that, I’d invite my friends to City Tavern for a bite to eat. There’s so much to do around town, but for a perfect day I advise strolling around Old City."

The can’t-miss destinations in Philadelphia are still the historic ones, he says. "Americans all yearn to see our roots and walk in the footsteps of Adams, Washington, Jefferson and Franklin," he says.

And in this town of great restaurants, what one item would Franklin insist on guests sampling Archbold doesn’t hesitate. "The cheesesteak!" he says. "Philadelphia’s truly a city to savor, but you can’t visit Philly without trying one of our famous cheesesteaks."

Cheesesteaks too rich for your diet? Then try Elizabeth Fiend’s Vegetarian Philly Cheese Fake. "I’ve been making them for years because I’m committed to bringing fun, flavorful healthy eating to the masses," she says of the wheat meat, pepper, onion and American cheese concoctions that have been featured on The Food Network and NBC’s Today Show. The recipe can be found at www.bigteaparty.com.

It’s the only authentically fake food you’ll find in this feisty and surprisingly tasteful town.

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