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This article by Angelina Sciolla was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The City to the South Beckons

Bookended by two major cities, central New Jersey

offers its residents plenty of urban escape options. Most times we

gravitate north since, to the north lies the beacon of art, culture

and fashion; the custodian of all tastes, good and bad. On any given

weekend night in New York, one can cruise the Mercer or the Algonquin

hotels and sip a $15 martini, court a smug waiter at Lotus or admire

the ambience of the meat packing district between bites of sushi that

has been rolled with frightening perfection by artisans.

Traveling south to Philadelphia, however, one might find lots of cobblestone,

aspiring actors trolling the streets in 18th-century costume mending

flags or flying kites, tourists taking a crack at the Liberty Bell,

and every edible surface glazed with cheese whiz, a substance that,

in a pinch, can be used in lieu of crazy glue.

Well, not exactly.

I’ve never substituted cheese whiz for crazy glue, but I do know Philadelphia,

the city which lies an hour in the other direction, also boasts nationally

renowned restaurants, celebrity chefs, as well as the requisite amount

of culinary snobbery. But you probably devour the New York Times food

section, so you already know that.

What you may not know is how and where to experience the flavor of

Philadelphia, literally and metaphorically. As you navigate your way

through lovely clear weekends into the official dog days of summer,

take note of these recommendations and consider a southern turn down

1-95 to the nation’s birthplace. While Philadelphia is not the city

that never sleeps, it is, indeed, the city that always eats.

New York has uptown and downtown. Philly has east and west of Broad

Street. In the eastern half, you’ll find Old City, the neighborhood

that cradles most of the city’s (and the nation’s) historical treasures.

The site of a never-ending restaurant boom, Old City buzzes on weekends,

offering romantic dining spots for couples and chaotic drinking holes

for rambunctious singles.

For couples looking for the perfect dinner scene, Old City boasts

some serious conversation pieces that double as restaurants. Cuba

Libre (10 South Second Street, 215-627-0666) offers the sounds and

flavors of Havana, "antes de Castro y ahora tambien." Places

like this still exist in old Havana, amigos, but for the moment, this

reasonable facsimile will have to do for most of us.

At Cuba Libre, chef Guillermo Velosa whips up Cuban delights including

papas rellenos, ceviche, and ropa vieja, a melt-in-your-mouth brisket

stew. A refreshing and potent mojito goes well with everything on

the menu and should be sipped reverently while fanning oneself with

a straw hat. The wrought iron trim and Creole decor left behind from

a previous inhabitant seems both incongruous and strangely appropriate.

Garish brothel-style drapes separate the bar from the dining area

where you can either get lost in the candlelit crowd or make yourself

a part of it.

Newly minted Morimoto (723 Chestnut Street, 215-413-9070), the notorious

Iron Chef’s Philadelphia incarnation, is a pricey but worthwhile visit

for couples and sharply dressed singles with money to burn. This stunning,

ultra-modern dining room is the perfect setting for Mashahura Morimoto’s

mix of the traditional Japanese and peculiar pan-Asian. A sushi bar,

raw bar, and familiar tempuras share space on the menu with less familiar

but tasty octopus and tofu dishes. The balcony bar is strictly for

cooling your heels while waiting for a table, but from this vantage

point you can scan the fetching food on the plates below and catch

a preview of your own Morimoto show.

Once you have landed in the food and drink-laden neighborhood known

as Old City, you will find your pick of dinner and cocktail choices,

so if you’re adventurous, you might try just showing up with a companion

on a warm summer night to browse the selection. From the din of the

Continental, a chrome and linoleum martini meat market, to the warm

Celtic hearth of Plough and the Stars, there are an endless number

of bars, lounges, and restaurants for every palate and personal agenda.

My own favorite is Sassafras (48 South Second Street,

215-925-2317), a shabby chic sliver of a bar where you can sip Dubonnet

on the rocks or bite into an ostrich burger at one of the intimate

tables in the back. Lights are low, conversation bounces between the

tin ceilings and cracked tile floors, and the ambience is pure Paris

Left Bank (not that I was ever there).

Another favorite is Kabul (106 Chestnut Street, 215-922-3676), an

Afghan restaurant that will leave your wallet heavy, but not your

stomach, so consider this a pre-dancing destination. Offering savory

rice dishes, pawlau and kabobs, Kabul is the place to orient yourself

with the culture of a fascinating country, or country-in-progress

as it stands now. Do not leave without experiencing some homemade

Afghan ice cream drizzled with saffron sauce and pistachios.

Pure romantics may want to visit the wine bar at Ristorante Panorama

(Front and Market streets, 215-922-7600) before stepping into the

al fresco dining room for some tasty seafood risotto or homemade

spaghetti putanesca. You can dine at the bar as well and circumvent

that cabernets-from-around-the-world hangover with large helpings

of crisp calamari.

While many folks opt to stay in Old City, people looking for more

relaxed and even more sophisticated surroundings will move west toward

the other side of Broad Street. On the way, you might stop at Trust

(21-27 South 13th Street, 215-629-1300), a sleek gem that gleams in

orange and blue at the oddball corner of 13th and Sansom streets,

just off Broad. Ignore the surrounding seedy bars and shops and step

into this glass house to sample the Mediterranean cuisine prepared

by award-winning chef Guillermo Pernot. The colorful cocktails and

young, J. Crew crowd blend well with the friendly "Space Odyssey"

decor. Even the bathrooms in this place are worthy of pilgrimage,

but I’ll let you discover their little secret for yourself.

Once across Broad Street — or the Avenue of the Arts as it is

now known — where most of Philadelphia’s notable cultural institutions,

including the new Kimmel Performing Arts Center, line the thoroughfare,

you will find many of the jewels in Philadelphia’s culinary crown.

These include the world-renowned Le Bec Fin and its younger relation,

Brasserie Perrier, which has outdoor seating. Old favorites Susana

Foo, Striped Bass, and Circa have been joined by a new generation

of restaurants and bars.

More Cuban fare can be found at Alma de Cuba (1623 Walnut Street,

215-988-1799), a restaurant and lounge with cushy sofas, ceiling fans,

Latin jazz, and a bevy of breathtaking waiters attired in supper club

white jackets. The mojitos here are good too, as are the Alma coladas.

Dinner is served upstairs in the romantic dining room. The downstairs

lounge is suitable for either canoodling or cruising, and the flattering

light attracts all ages.

Without a doubt, Rittenhouse Square has become the magnet

for couples and singles alike who want good food, a good view, and

the elegantly fitting cocktail.

Restaurant mogul Neil Stein has all but taken over the 200 block of

South 18th Street with Rouge (205 South 18th Street, 215-732-6622),

and Blue (227 South 18th Street, 215-545-0342). Both places face the

square, boast sublime sidewalk seating, and attract the beautiful,

rich, and cosmetically enhanced to their tables. Less perfect voyeurs

show up as well for the French-continental menu and to people-watch.

While Rouge offers a tiny neo-classical interior, Bleu is bigger and

more accommodating for large groups.

Sandwiched between the two restaurants is Devon (225 South 18th Street,

215-546-5940), a seafood house with one of the most talked about singles’

scenes in town. While the dining room in the back serves everything

from tasty Caribbean crab cakes to grilled tilapia, the bar is insanely

overrun with hopefuls in their pressed cotton Dockers, Seikos, Express

halters, and Kenneth Cole wedgies. Occasionally a Louis Vuitton bag

will jut out and hit you in the eye while you’re maneuvering towards

the bar, but typically it’s a fake. The food, however, is not and

is worth a try.

Just a few steps off Rittenhouse Square, couples in need of conversation

and endless stares over an evocative votive candle can find it at

the just-the-right-sized Friday Saturday Sunday (261 South 21st Street,

215-546-4232), consistently voted one of the most romantic dining

spots in Philadelphia. Reservations for a weekend table are recommended,

but if you wing it, you will have the pleasure of waiting for your

table upstairs in the tank bar, an intimate room with a big fish tank

that has a calming and often aphrodisiac effect on patrons. The grilled

Chilean sea bass salad with wasabi vinaigrette, hearty mushroom soup,

lobster ravioli, and superior service have kept this destination on

the map for over 20 years.

In need of a nightcap? Boathouse Row in the Rittenhouse Hotel (210

West Rittenhouse Square, 215-546-9000), is by far the most elegant

sports bar you’ll stumble upon. The masculine-theme room is spacious

and offers a wide screen television for sports viewing. Or not, since

the ambience encourages substantive conversation and fuels one’s appreciation

for single malt scotch. You can shuck peanuts here and toss the shells

on the floor while pondering the price tag on one of the swanky hotel

suites upstairs.

Or if you feel young and frisky you can haul it over to Bar Noir (112

South 18th Street, 215-569-9333), a basement bar that attracts celebrities,

singles, and feisty college kids. DJs spin everything from trance

to jazz to the golden oldies of the disco era. Nibble on a late-night

Mediterranean wrap or just drink some Yuengling and groove with the

neighbors.

Speaking of DJs, Shampoo (417 North Eighth Street, 215-922-7500),

the most versatile nightclub in Philadelphia, boasts 10 rooms, 6 floors,

and the most eclectic mix of clientele, music, and moods. A mixture

of ’60s pop art, ’70s kitsch, and ’80s overwrought glamour, Shampoo

literally has a mood, a feel, a vibe, and a theme for just about anybody.

The party varies by the night, so it’s best to call ahead to find

out exactly where and when you’d fit in.

If you want casual beats, try Silk City Lounge (Fifth and Spring Garden

streets, 215-592-8838) on the first Friday of each month when they

do Soul Samba, a night of Latin rhythms designed to make you sweat,

drink, and sweat some more. And there’s dancing too. The crowd is

mixed and friendly and the drinks are cheap. If you work up an appetite,

simply walk across the hall to the 24-hour Silk City Diner for some

nouveau greasy-spoon fare.

Finally, for tango, swing, or anything more ordered than a loud throbbing

free-for-all, try the Tokio Ballroom (122 Lombard, 215-922-2515).

Afterwards, you can walk downstairs to the Victorian dining room and

enjoy the French, Japanese, and Thai cuisine.

So next time you want to trek to the big city for a night of dining,

drinking, or dancing, consider the alternatives. Philadelphia in the

summertime can be just as hot as New York.


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