Philly Eats, High and Low

Jim Quinn

Jim Quinn Magazine

“I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday,” W. C. Fields said sometime in the early 1940s. Fields, born in Philadelphia and tied with fellow native Man Ray for recognition as Philadelphia’s merriest Dada prankster, was right about the city back then, but this is now. Philadelphia is booming, and so are its restaurants. Everybody, including critics who hated the town in the old days, knows you can get great food at great prices at any number of places. Here are ten or so. And because this is ANTIQUES, each comes with a bit of history.

STREET EATS

Pat’s King of Steaks | Geno’s Steaks: Possibly the oldest and second oldest restaurants still run by the original families are across the street from one another in South Philadelphia at the confluence of Ninth, Passyunk, and Wharton. Both are open twentyfour hours a day every day of the year except Christmas (Geno’s) or Christmas and Thanksgiving (Pat’s). No reservations. No phone. No indoor seating. Free condiments, mostly throat scorching. Rarely a dull moment. Calvin Trillin, the only non-Philly food critic who understands our food, described the cheesesteak as, “the kind of sandwich that tastes better when you’re leaning against a Buick.” Both Pat’s and Geno’s have now added plain pipe-rack outdoor tables without diminishing hometown flavors. Order onions, “with or without,” and—this is an insider’s tip—ask for your steak “inside out,” which means that the bread is scraped out, leaving only the crunchy crust and a soft tasty mush of meat and cheese.

In 1930, more or less, brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri ran a hot-dog stand at the crossroads of Ninth, Passyunk, and Wharton. Sometime in 1933 they temporarily ran out of hot dogs, or maybe got hungry for something else. Whatever. One of the brothers went to a store and bought some beef, which they cut up on a deli slicer and fried with onions. A passing cabbie said something like, “What is that [expletive] delicious smell?” And Pat (or Harry) gave (or sold) him the first Philadelphia steak sandwich. Soon Cheez Whiz (or its equivalent) was added and a legend was born. A cheesesteak does not come on a sandwich bun, I was told by Pat, but on a half-loaf of Italian bread. “That way you start eating on the soft, cut end and keep your pushing hand on the round heel, otherwise, ‘specially with Cheez Whiz, things get messy.” Other cheeses are available, try provolone.

Geno’s Steaks had name troubles when it started. Owner Joey Vento wanted to name it Joe’s but there already was a Joe’s Steak Place. He tried Gino’s, but that name was taken too. So he changed the spelling to Geno’s, and because he got tired of explaining to people who asked where Geno was, he named his son Geno so he could say, in the long ago, “asleep in his mother’s arms.” Geno’s is the big bright neon jukebox of a cheesesteak stand. Pat’s, the bare fluorescent bulb stand. Geno’s has its outside walls lined with American police force badges. Pat’s walls say nothing. Geno’s has a sign that says “This is America! When ordering Please Speak English!” This was viewed as anti-immigrant, a serious charge in left-wing, working-class, anti-discrimination Philly. Joey insisted he did not discriminate, and served everybody. “But if we don’t understand you, you’re getting a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz, no arguments we can’t understand.” On March 19, 2008, Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations ruled that Geno’s did not violate the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance. The dispute continues.

Which is the best sandwich, Pat’s or Geno’s? Half the fun of going here is arguing about that. Calvin Trillin (see above) says arguing about food is what proves the tradition is alive. Both places are final destinations for twenty-first-birthday celebrations, when young men and women, legally allowed to drink at last, are led from bar to bar (twenty-one in all, of course) to have a drink in each. They wind up semi-standing here, slumped against laughing pals who encourage them to add more and more and more extra-hot whole cherry peppers to their last conscious act of adolescence. Get in line around 2:30 a.m. for the show. Imitation cheesesteaks have spread from Pat’s and Geno’s to other cities and other Philly locations, but if you’re going to try this famous sandwich, get it at the source. Pat’s, 1237 E. Passyunk Avenue | Geno’s, 1219 S. 9th Street

HAUT CHEF PHILLY

Philadelphia was one of the first beneficiaries of the 1960s restaurant revolution. The low prices of the city’s real estate at the time made startups cheap. And many chefs trained in France, Italy, or Switzerland found it a kinder, gentler homestead than Manhattan.

The first of the new chefs was the legendary Georges Perrier, who introduced the city to genuine haute cuisine. My first Perrier meal at Le Bec-Fin (at the then outrageous price of $14 a person) was staggering. The restaurant quickly became a post-grad course for cooks who would hold a job there for six months, quit, and then by mentioning Perrier’s name, take over another local restaurant. Georges retired a few years ago but his legacy lives on. After Georges came Jean-Marie Lacroix, also retired now, who made the Four Seasons a required stop for every acclaimed European chef visiting the city.

Vetri: Marc Vetri’s restaurant at 1312 Spruce Street is as resolutely high-cuisine Italian as Georges Perrier’s and Jean-Marie Lacroix’s were French. Marc Vetri is famous for traveling to Italy in search of authentic recipes. He is also famous for starting a long string of other restaurants, including pizza parlors. Vetri is set in the same Spruce Street town house that Le Bec-Fin started in. Marc has sold his string of restaurants to a new owner who promises to keep up the quality, and although Vetri was part of the sale, Marc still runs the kitchen, cooking the same revolutionarily traditional food that made him famous and widely imitated. Vetri, 1312 Spruce Street 

 

Bibou and Le Cheri: Pierre and Charlotte Calmels are the married couple who own and operate Bibou and Le Cheri. Bibou, an attractive restaurant that looks like a French farmhouse set in a Philadelphia row house in a semi-industrial neighborhood, is run by Pierre, and Le Cheri, which takes up several formal rooms in a Center City mansion, is run by Charlotte. Both restaurants fill up fast. Make reservations far in advance. And be prepared for many restrictions, BYOB and, at Bilbou, cash only, among them.

It seems counterintuitive to say that both restaurants are friendly and relaxed, but they are. They simply want to serve great food with minimum fuss. And there are advantages for the customer in BYOB. You pay at least four times the retail price for wine in other restaurants, and you tip on the price of the wine, too. Order by the glass (the worst bargain in any restaurant) and you pay several dollars more than the retail price for the bottle. Menus change daily and are similar in the generous use of expensive ingredients like foie gras and caviar. A recent menu at Bibou (they’re available daily online) included arctic char and snail ravioli with black trumpet mushrooms and watercress emulsion; and squab and sweetbreads wrapped in cabbage with buckwheat gnocchi, beech mushroom, chestnuts, and natural jus. Whatever it is now, it will be different when you go. And good. Le Cheri features the same care, the same inventiveness, and because it’s à la carte, lower prices. Bibou, 1009 S. 8th Street | Le Cheri, 251 S. 18th Street 

INDOOR STEAKS

Years ago, when Philly had almost no steakhouses, everybody blamed the popes. Not any particular pope, all of them since the first century AD, when—according to the Roman Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor—meatless Fridays were advised for those who wanted a little weekly Lent to add to the big one. This advisory got stronger and stronger until finally when I was a boy eating meat on Friday became the Eighth Deadly Sin. Then in 1966 Pope Paul VI, now officially Blessed Paul, took away the sin and Philly ate up. There are many very good steakhouses in town, most of them imported branches of upscale national chains. But there is a homegrown steakhouse that managed to survive from the old days and is frequently called the best in the city.

The Saloon: This big bustling high-end restaurant mixes old-time Philly standards (New York strip, fillets, Veal Parmigiana, and Clams Casino) with new inventions (lobster with oyster mushrooms, broccoli rabe with cannellini beans and Italian sausage), a superb wine list, and faultless service. The Saloon makes every best restaurant list in the city, and gets the well-heeled season-ticket-holder crowd for every local sport. Pregame this is one of the happiest restaurants in the city; you can feel the hope springing from every human breast. Postgame—the 76ers, Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers being what they almost always are— there’s a certain solemnity at the bar, modified by what may be the best mixed drinks in the city. The Saloon, 750 S. 7th Street

EAST PASSYUNK 

Mr. Martino’s Trattoria: Mr. Martino’s, owned and operated by Mark and Maria Farnese in the East Passyunk neighborhood, is the best-kept non-secret in the city. It’s so odd and so charming everyone needs to feel they’ve discovered it. The restaurant is small and housed in an old-time wooden walled hardware store turned romantically dim. Mark runs the floor, Maria is completely alone—by choice—in the kitchen. The name Mr. Martino’s derives from a restaurant the couple found on their first trip to Italy, long ago. The food is excellent, Italian, and stubbornly independent. One of the city’s celebrated food writers once wrote a head-shaking column saying he had told Maria one of the dishes was obviously a mistake, all she needed to do was follow his perfectly sensible advice. “Why would I do that?” Maria said. “I already make it the way I want it.” Mr. Martino’s Trattoria, 1646 E. Passyunk Avenue 

The second best recommendation is simply to roam around East Passyunk, a neighborhood that has changed utterly without gentrifying much. Full-sleeve tattoos on twenty-somethings, splendid moustache and beard inventions, coffee shops with handmade art objects on the wall, bicycle shops, and yoga schools rub elbows with Catholic school uniform stores, boutiques for the woman who wants to look like a grandma going to a christening in 1957, rundown bars, upscale bars, the kind of bars that are always celebrating the bartender’s birthday, sellers of mozzarella and ricotta cheeses made according to recipes brought over from Calabria in 1906, and Marra’s, at 1734 E. Passyunk Avenue, an excellent pre-art pizza parlor.

ITALIAN MARKET

Blue Corn: Blue Corn is a handsome little restaurant in the middle of what many Philadelphians still call the Italian Market, mentioned in all guidebooks as a tourist destination. Many of the fruit and vegetable stands that line the east side of the street are now rented by Mexicans and South Americans. This is the place to shop for nopalitos, chicharrones, hot and hotter peppers, breadfruit, bulb fennel, and, when in season, zucchini flowers. The stores have mostly remained Italian, with two famous cheese stores, Claudio’s and DiBruno’s, and Sonny D’Angelo’s handmade sausages. Blue Corn is a newcomer to the west side of 9th, with black metal tables and chairs, a portrait of Zapata, and a loving cup (runner-up prize) from Philadelphia’s multi-ethnic football (soccer to outsiders) league. Service could not be better. Unlike Geno’s you are not asked to order in the waitstaff’s native tongue, but if you want to practice your Spanish they’ll try to understand. Sample one of the many mole dishes; do not miss the tacos that come in your choice of three flavors (pork cheek, tongue, and plain beef). Definitely order the spongey, thick, succulent nopalitos, the best of many on 9th Street. Blue Corn, 940 S. 9th Street 

NORTHERN LIBERTIES/FISHTOWN

Standard Tap: Ever get tired of the bartender who’d rather watch TV? Try Standard Tap, no TV. This big, agreeably ramshackle bar-restaurant has dark wooden tables, bare bones decor, and a crowd of thirty-somethings who look like Passyunk East kids who’ve gained two pounds a year and found a good-paying job at last. The food is standard American Bar—chicken pot pie, mussels and sausage, possibly the city’s best burger, and what my nine-year-old daughter declares to be the best french fries she’s ever eaten (high praise from a fussy eater). This is a friendly, not to say datable, crowd, drawn here by food and each other, of course, and also by beer. In the early twentieth century Philadelphia was a renowned beer town. The Schuylkill River had great water, and the ethnic neighborhoods greater thirst. Schuylkill water got worse and the beer got boring. Late in the last century Philadelphia joined the craft beer revolution with many homemade mini-brews and it even evolved its own hops-rich malty style. It is now rated one of the fourteen best beerproducing cities worldwide by Frommer’s Guides. Standard Tap serves nothing but locally produced beers (twenty or more on tap daily). Always order a beer, always ask the bartender’s advice, and talk to your neighbor. Standard Tap, 901 N. 2nd Street

Frankford Hall: Stephen Starr is a businessman who makes restaurants out of concepts. He owns some nineteen of them in Philadelphia and another dozen or so (it’s hard to keep up) in New York, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., and Florida. The amazing things about his restaurants are the seeming idiosyncrasy of the concepts, the variety of cuisines (Japanese, French, Spanish, among others), and the high quality of the food. The concept of Frankford Hall is a simple one—a German-style outdoor beer hall for Philadelphia. There are three things that would seem to make this impossible: rain, heat, and cold. The city is cold from January to March with a reliable heat wave in the summer. And rain is always possible. But Frankford Hall has huge circular fire pits for winter, and in summer you can always order another cold beer. The beer on tap includes local craft brews and many German imports. The crowd is casual and young but a few years older than Standard Tap’s. These are the people who run the Baby Boomer people who run Philadelphia. The menu is German, rich in sausages and sauerkraut with specials like s’mores for kids, who can melt marshmallows over the fire pits. Or try s’mores yourself; you know you love them. Frankford Hall, 1210 Frankford Avenue 

CENTER CITY

(Sansom Street) Oyster House: Because Philadelphia had Catholics and Catholics had to have fish on Friday night in the old days (see above), Philadelphia had fish houses that took their addresses as part of their name. Sansom Street Oyster House, now called merely Oyster House online, is one of the few survivors. It has kept its menu intact: Manhattan and Boston clam chowders, dark, heavily flavored snapper soup, Oysters Rockefeller, many fish of the day, and split grilled lobster. A big lunch crowd comes back even bigger for Sansom Street’s version of Happy Hour: raw oysters, a buck a shuck. Oyster House, 1516 Sansom Street

CHINATOWN

Ocean Harbor: Ocean Harbor has more Chinese and ChineseAmerican customers than any other Chinatown restaurant in Philly—always a good sign. The big room has aquariums on one wall and Asian soap operas on the televisions. The full menu is reliably good, the company is, if anything, better. Bring a child and every waiter will manage to get to your table to smile and joke with him or her. The big star here is dim sum. The waitstaff goes from table to table pushing heated carts with tiny plates of pork meatballs, shrimp, and big leaves stuffed with rice and bits of Asian sausage, water chestnuts, and veggies. Eat at large tables with many neighbors or at tables for two or four. When you’re finished, a waiter counts the plates to figure the cost. There is a bar, and Chinese Tsing Tao beer is recommended. When you order, ask for traditional Bo Lei Tea and you’ll make your waiter smile. Bo Lei is bitterer than the usual restaurant Oolong, and the Chinese say it aids digestion. Ocean Harbor, 1023 Race Street

Terakawa Ramen: Asmall Japanese restaurant on the eastern edge of the city’s Chinatown, Terakawa serves Japanese noodles (ramen and udon). Chefs, waitstaff, and customers all seem thirty-something and thriving. The seats are cubes of blond oak but carved in a manner that makes them surprisingly comfortable; the food is hot, tasty, and cheap. The menu proudly informs you that the broth is made with “Heritage Berkshire pork bones.” It sure tastes good. Most bowls cost less than $10. Turnover is quick, cube seats at the counter quicker. No reservations, and there is sometimes a line that stretches out into 9th Street at lunch hour. Come after 1 p.m. Terakawa Ramen, 204 N. 9th Street

JIM QUINN is a novelist (Waiting for the Wars to End) and a former restaurant critic (But Never Eat Out on a Saturday Night), whose candor in all things has made him a Philadelphia treasure.