Introduction. It would be easy to walk past this clock embedded in the sidewalk at the intersection of 17th and Walnut Streets in the downtown area, but its one of the many reasons to love Philadelphia, a city which honors its rich history, celebrates the contemporary, and openly embraces quirkiness and individuality.
“I see far stronger and more charismatic personalities strolling around Philadelphia’s neighborhoods than are being featured in most of today’s bland daytime soaps.” ― Camille Paglia
Contents : a.kitchen & bar | Bar Bombón | Comcast Center | Cook | The Dandelion | Di Bruno Brothers | Franklin Mortgage Investment Co. Bar | Gran Caffe L’Aquila | Le Bus | Liberty Place | Melt Kraft | Nic Grooming Barber Shop | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Pietro’s Coal Oven Pizza | Rittenhouse Square | The Rodin Museum | Spread Bagelry | Square 1682 | SuitSupply | 30th Street Station | Tria Cafe | Westin Hotel | Winthorpe & Valentine
“In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?” ― Mark Twain
Small and intimate should never be mistaken for underwhelming and a.kitchen&bar is proof. The lower case letters of its name are hardly an accident. If anything, they display a cool confidence in the quality of the food without the arrogance and fatal mistake of overly complicated menus and techniques which plague so many other restaurants. On separate visits we enjoyed :
― eggplant cutlet sandwich with basil mayonnaise and ricotta
― seared albacore tuna with new potatoes and clam vinaigrette
― smoked onion soup
― white bean hummus with duck confit and preserved lemon
Chef de Cuisine Jon Nodler could be accused of flying too close to the sun when it comes to serving eggplant, a vegetable that is rarely prepared well in most restaurants. As a result, its delicate flavors and texture are woefully under appreciated. Nodler easily succeeds where others fail as the eggplant cutlet sandwich is nothing short of fantastic, and is well paired with the smoked onion soup as a starter. The surprises hardly end there. The signature cocktails, “a.mericano” and “ashes to ashes” are knockouts, perfectly prepared and served. The former is made with Cocchi Torino, aperol, angostura, and soda; the latter, with Fernet Branca, and the holy trinity of palate pleasers, i.e., honey, lemon and ginger. The service, from the moment you walk in, is impeccable.
What better way to avoid the fog and rain than to duck into Bar Bombón on 18th Street ? Shelter, however, quickly yielded to serendipity as we discovered this great little restaurant by accident, specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine, right in the heart of the downtown area. There is no better way to forget about the fickle nature of winter than with Bombón’s signature cocktail, “La Jefa,” made with Angry Orchard Cider, apple, ginger, prosecco and strawberry. The restaurant’s interpretation of sangria was innovative and easily won us over. Along side the drinks, we also enjoyed :
― chicken empanadas
― Ellenos, i.e., plantains filled with beef, onions and peppers
― guacamole picante, with cilantro, habanero peppers, red onion
― sweet potato salad
It’s as if someone transplanted a restaurant from downtown Miami and dropped it in Rittenhouse Square. Bombón is undeniably destination dining and further elevates the City Center’s reputation as one of the best places for going out in metropolitan areas on the East Coast.
When it completed its acquisition of NBCUniversal, Comcast became one of the biggest media companies in the world, quickly transforming its home town of Philadelphia into a powerhouse on par with Los Angeles and New York City.
The 58-story building features The Comcast Center, open to the public, with 2 distinct characteristics : the first is a 2,000 sq. foot LED screen directly behind the concierge desk. It typically shows moving images in high-definition which have to be seen to be believed. The piano player on the left and the dancer on the right, for example, are life-size.
If you look up, the second characteristic, far more subtle but effective nonetheless, is a series of life-size figures walking across the structures in the building’s atrium.
On Christmas morning we, like so many other locals, made a pilgrimage after sunrise to Spread Bagelry. Although it was warm outside, nothing feels better in the morning than a hot cup of coffee and a warm bagel, especially when the bagels are made on premises. En route, we passed Cook, the cooking / kitchen lab nearby.
“There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves.” ― Thomas Wolfe
Although it was closed, we couldn’t help but be impressed with the kitchen-classroom as we looked in their windows (we must have looked like children peering into Santa’s workshop.) On a whim we decided to check their schedule before we traveled to the City of Brotherly Love again so we could enroll in a class or participate in a menu tasting.
Philadelphia is a city of many things, one of which is contrasts. Never is it starker than when one looks up to see the modern towers which define its skyline, only to then focus your gaze street level and see The Dandelion, an Old World, English-style pub located at the intersection of 18th and Sanson Streets.
“An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Ensure you visit; the place is beguiling. I can’t imagine a finer place to spend time, particularly on a brisk day than this pub, enjoying glasses of their Yards IPA along with their hearty, and absolutely fantastic, winter root vegetable soup with buttermilk croutons. Plan on leisurely passing the afternoon in one of the pub’s myriad bars and rooms to enjoy :
― British cheese board, featuring biscuits, chutney, and honey
― Rabbit pie, with bacon, mushrooms, onions and white wine
The only thing missing is Sherlock Holmes himself and the fog-filled landscape just outside the Dandelion’s windows.
The Brothers Di Bruno are, by Philadelphia standards, far more famous and important than, say, the brothers Karamazov. And for good reason. Since it was founded in the 1930’s, Philadelphia’s famous Di Bruno Brothers market has featured an incredible selection of imported cheeses, meats, sweets and Italian delicacies.
Upstairs is a cafe serving daily specials, freshly made salads, sandwiches, and soups.
Downstairs features a coffee bar and Italian pastries and it’s where Di Bruno shines brightest. When one enjoys the Sicilian classic, the cannoli, one should not find an air pocket in the middle of the shell. It proves the maker simply stuffed one side and then the other without ever ensuring the cream meets in the middle. No such mistake happens at Di Bruno where the employees make the dessert to order and ensure the entire shell is filled with the sweet creamy stuffing. It makes a difference.
Located on 18th Street Rittenhouse Square, The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., is not your typical bar. It’s a tribute to the seemingly lost of art of crafting drinks, made with only the finest ingredients by bartenders who have earned the reputation of being some of the best, if not the best, in the city. One of its many appeals is the resistance to jump on the latest trend and simply toss numerous ingredients in a glass and call it a drink. What they make here instead is authentic and timeless. The bar itself is a place where you can bring a date or gather with friends. It becomes crowded later on in the evening particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. Try heading there around 07:00pm before dining out and you should have no problem being seated. The drinks are a little pricey but quality should never be compromised.
The City Center’s Chestnut Street, like the downtown areas of so many other cities, experiences constant change and re-invention. One of the most welcomed additions is Gran Caffe L’Aquila, a stunning cafe with flawless pastries, coffee and customer service. What lured us in were the beautiful holiday decorations outside; what held our attentions, and what kept us returning, was the exquisite attention to details, ranging from the interior to the taste and presentation of the food, to the superior coffee, and most importantly, the service.
“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.” ― Erma Bombeck
Because of the warm weather, we decided to order the iced vanilla cappuccino, a beverage so delicate it was like drinking silk. We ordered it hot on our return the next day and it was as equally delicious. As perfect as they were, they were effortlessly overshadowed by the accompanying dessert―panna cotta infused with lavender and topped with fresh berries, one of the finest deserts I have ever had the joy of tasting. The presentation and service made such an impression, the couple next to us, who were clearly over the moon with their pasta lunch, looked over, admired our contentment, and ordered the panna cotta for their dessert.
Can a slice of pound cake be so good, it instantly becomes one of the four major food groups ? That’s a question whose answer becomes obvious when you stop by the city’s Le Bus on 18th Street. On a recent trip, the temperature was clueless to the season and Mother Nature was playing tennis with the rain drops. It must have been serendipity when a downpour started and we ducked into the bakery. It was warm, inviting and the smell of baked goods intoxicating. We immediately locked eyes on the display showcasing slices of pound cake, with the lemon and marbles ones clearly calling out to us. We bought one of each and after biting into them, promptly ordered several more to bring back to Washington. Le Bus is clearly on the list of reasons to return to the City of Brotherly in the very near future.
Liberty Place, located on Chestnut Street adjacent to the Westin Philadelphia has undergone a renovation with a larger variety of stores present. Check out Style of Man, for example, for a great shave and haircut and then grab an espresso from Saxbys Coffee before buying ticket to the Observation Deck for an incredible view of the city.
The city’s world-class Philadelphia Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of art in the United States and is frequently the only place on the East coast for once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions.
“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” ― Pablo Picasso
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” ― Leonardo da Vinci
French painter Fernand Léger was ahead of his time and embraced bold and modern interpretations of his beloved city of Paris. His groundbreaking and timeless work was showcased in “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis.”
From the exhibition celebrating the work of artist Michelangelo Pistoletto:
From the museum’s Tiffany & Glassware Collection :
“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” ― George Bernard Shaw,
The museum has proven to be one of the destinations for art lovers along the East Coast, and it pulled out all the stops in one of the most anticipated exhibitions during the Fall Arts season with “The Wrath of the Gods: Masterpieces by Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens.” Built around the stunning “Prometheus Bound,” by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, the exhibition is the first of its kind and also features the work of Michelangelo and Titian and their influence on the Renaissance .
Located on the 1700 block of Walnut Street is a gem of an Italian restaurant, Pietro’s Coal Oven Pizza. Although the entrance, which features sidewalk dining at a handful of tables, appears small, once you enter you will be surprised how large the space is and how far back it extends into the building which houses it. The menu is extensive, features generous portions and the food can best be described as family style. The entrée portions are so generous in fact, it’s not a bad idea to consider sharing them. We make it a point to visit every time we’re in Philadelphia and enjoy the casual atmosphere and very good service Pietro’s provides. Highly recommended is the fried calamari, perfectly seasoned and crispy. The pasta puttanesca dishes are a knockout and the garlic bread is freshly made. A word of caution, however. The restaurant becomes very busy for dinner service so it’s not a bad idea to visit just before 07:00pm on the weekends.
“I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” ― Oscar Wilde
Planned by William Penn himself, Rittenhouse Square is a fantastic park in the heart of downtown. Surrounded by apartments, hotels, restaurants and shops, the green space is a great respite and more often than not, features a musician or two near its entrances.
“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in by walking…a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.” ― Rebecca Solnit
The city’s Rodin Museum, after being closed for renovation while simultaneously cleaning the stone exterior, has reopened and never looked better. The iconic piece by Rodin, “The Thinker,” still sits stoically at the museum’s entrance.
One of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, The Burghers of Calais, returned to the museum after months of extensive restoration. Prior to the painstakingly detailed task, the famous sculpture appeared at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum.
And “The Kiss,” although a copy, never fails to impress and is clearly the focus of the museum’s interior atrium.
To debate bagels in Philadelphia is like knocking the Phillies―you’re risking warfare. The city’s residents take a great deal of pride in the breakfast bread and will debate the superiority of theirs over NYC-style with vigor. Philadelphia’s version in fact more closely resembles those made in Montreal, i.e., smaller, slightly sweeter and baked in wood ovens. The place to go is Spread Bagelry on 20th Street. I have to admit, I was skeptical at first but ultimately impressed (I ordered mine toasted and with a fresh berry jam.) Get there early as the lines on the weekends are long.
I cannot recommend Square1682 enough. We stopped in the restaurant mid morning on a weekend for breakfast. Located on 17th Street next to the Palomar Hotel near Rittenhouse Square, the self-described modern American kitchen has a contemporary but warm atmosphere and an incredibly friendly staff. We enjoyed :
― the breakfast sandwich, made with eggs, avocado, applewood smoked bacon, tomato on a croissant;
― the egg-white breakfast wrap, made with a whole wheat tortilla, avocado and grilled tomato;
― farm fresh eggs, served with ham, breakfast potatoes, toast with house-made fruit preserves; and
― French toast, made with orange mascarpone filling.
We started with great coffee and the meal only continued to get better. The sandwich made with the croissant was buttery, flaky and hot, and the eggs were cooked to perfection. We enjoyed the food so much, and had such a great time chatting with the staff, we returned the next day for breakfast again. The french toast with mascarpone is fantastic.
The Dutch-based clothing company SuitSupply has opened their latest North American store for men at 16th and Locust (they also have a store in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood.) The clothing is smart, minimalist, impeccably tailored with imported fabrics, and it’s priced at a fraction of what you would find at higher-end stores. Suits can be easily found for as little $ 600 and look as if they just arrived from Paris or Milan. The store stocks an impressive collection of sweaters and ties, too.
The city’s 30th Street Station is a throwback to another era, a tribute to a time when train travel was the primary mode of transportation along the Eastern seaboard and hubs were seen as important, vital places where the public gathered and mingled. Although the station does not have the soaring dramatic spaces of Washington, DC’s Union Station, or the sheer size and complexity of New York City’s Penn, it greatly improves on both because of its simplicity. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the station’s humility, if you will, is why it succeeds. The station’s most prominent feature is Walter Hancock’s “Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial,” honoring the state’s railroad employees who were killed in World War II (their names are engraved on the four sides of the base.)
This secondary waiting area has had its characteristic wooden benches removed, making it a more dramatically open public space.
Located near the city’s famed Rittenhouse Square, Tria Cafe serves locally made cheeses and features a noteworthy list of beers and wines. The cafe is small, intimate and the crowd is lively. The staff is knowledgeable, gladly recommending cheeses to be paired with their wines and beers. They’re also willing to allow you to sample. The place becomes packed at happy hour, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights and it’s not uncommon for customers to wait to get in. Its well worth it. I’ve enjoyed it on a number of occasions and have found that mid-day on a Saturday is one of best times to enjoy as the lunch crowd has left and the happy hour crowd has yet to arrive.
A sign appearing downtown. Someone is either deeply disturbed. Or a genius.
My hotel of choice when I travel to the city is the Westin Hotel Philadelphia on 17th Street, in the heart of downtown at Liberty Place. It has recently undergone a facelift and now has a more contemporary decor.
The rooms have been updated, too, and feature Westin’s Heavenly Series of amenities, bath linens, bedding, and mattresses. The bath robes are so luxurious, I ordered one and had it gift wrapped and shipped as a Christmas gift.
Their signature restaurant, Winthorpe & Valentine, has also undergone a major renovation, and it’s entrance is now much more prominent and clearly visible as one walks from Reception to the elevators.
The restaurant itself serves very good food and their Sunday brunch, in particular, are highly recommended. Our personal favorite is the pancakes with blueberries and the portion is generous enough to be shared by 2 people.
Their greatest asset is their staff, all of whom are the epitome of friendliness and exemplary customer service. Its location can’t be beat either. Within walking distance is the Comcast Center, Di Bruno Brothers, Rittenhouse Square and Walnut Street. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum are less than 5 minutes away by cab.