Savvy travelers to Philadelphia head for the newly vibrant neighborhoods that ring Center City
Story and photos by John Grossmann
Milk & Honey Market co-owner Annie Baum-Stein is holding court behind an alluring array of honey jars, each with a different five-digit number on the lid. Emblematic of the new breed of Philadelphia’s creative neighborhood shopkeepers, the petite brunette is offering tastes of the hyper-local honeys she sells under the brand Urban Apiaries and explaining why she and her husband opened this café and gourmet food shop in 2009 here in the Cedar Park neighborhood, across the Schuykill River west of Center City.
“We were very impressed with the sense of community. It’s a neighborhood you can walk your kids to school in,” she says. “There’s a park for community events and a farmer’s market. But before we opened, there wasn’t a food market in walking distance.” Living previously near the city’s legendary Italian Market, in the Philly neighborhood known as Bella-Vista, Baum-Stein and her husband Mauro Daigle knew that a neighborhood without good food is barely on the map. “We wanted to bring that here,” she says. “We want this to be a neighborhood people don’t have to leave on the weekend.”
Such is the renaissance of Philadelphia’s colorfully named neighborhoods that not only are the locals staying put more, but visitors to the city—savvy ones anyway—are venturing beyond Center City, especially after they’ve experienced its venerable historic sites. Lately, many of the city’s hot new restaurants, brew pubs, art galleries, parks, and bustling streetscapes are not downtown, but rather in the many low-rise neighborhoods such as East Passyunk, Northern Liberties, and Fishtown that ring Philadelphia’s urban core like a necklace. Restaurateur Stephen Starr’s modern take on a German beer garden, with pretzels and ping-pong? You’ll find Frankford Hall in newly hip Fishtown, a rebounding community hard by the Delaware River, where early generations of Philadelphians caught once plentiful shad. The city’s new $4.5 million skateboard park? Head for the Fairmont neighborhood near the Art Museum. For avant-garde art, climb three foot-worn flights of stairs in a former cigar factory to the Vox Populi galleries in the Callow Hill loft district. That’s just for starters.
Best of all, planning a several-day, several-neighborhood visit to Philadelphia is as easy as tapping into the wealth of insider tips provided by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp at: www.visitphilly.com/neighborhoods The GPTMC website provides thumbnail sketches of 14 well-vetted, “visitor-ready” neighborhoods; suggests great cafes and restaurants, many of them BYOB; points to must-poke-around-in-shops; and tells you how to get to each neighborhood be it on foot, taxi, or via bus or light rail. Philly’s neighborhoods also display the majority of the city’s more than 3,000 outdoor murals.
You’ll never leave the city’s skyline behind. And chances are you’ll return to Center City at the end of the day, as most of these 14 Philly neighborhoods don’t have hotels. One neighborhood that does is University City, just across the Schuykill River and easily reachable by Amtrak trains to 30th Street Station. Named for the adjacent urban campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, University City has both a Sheraton and the four diamond Arts and Crafts style Inn at Penn. The latter provides an iPad in every guestroom.
Two neighborhoods west of University City, on shop-lined Baltimore Avenue in Cedar Park, the buzz is back to bees, the ones that supply the rooftop hives of Urban Apiaries. “Our first year we had five locations,” says Baum-Stein. “We now have three to 14 hives at seven locations and we’ve found variations in taste and color from only three blocks away.” Accordingly, the honey is processed and jarred by zip code. A beekeeper drives in from nearby Berks County and goes rooftop to rooftop collecting this sweet, new neighborhood agricultural product. “Our biggest expense so far,” she jokes, “has been parking tickets.”
In some neighborhoods, the star stores are not new, but iconic spots that have defined their ethnic districts for decades. In Queen Village, there’s the venerable 4th Street Delicatessen. Opened in 1923, this corner Jewish deli plates corned beef sandwiches seemingly made from an entire brisket. Like most savvy politicians, President Obama pressed the flesh here during campaign season, and may or may not have ventured by the dessert case, where the chocolate éclairs are nearly as big as footballs and apple turnovers are the size of a tri-folded American flag. To walk off lunch, stroll down of Fabric Row, a run of third-generation Jewish fabric vendors, and smart shops like Bus Stop, which, in the words of owner Elena Brennan, “sells unusual designer city shoes that last.”
In Bella Vista, perhaps still best known for its Italian Market, awning-topped sidewalk produce vendors, seek out Isgro Pastries, where they’ve been handing filled-to-order cannoli across the counter for more than a century, and Fante’s, a legendary cookware shop. Before there was Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table, there was Fante’s—which sold mostly giftware when Mariella Esposita started worked there as a teenager after school in 1970. When her family bought the business a decade later, she and her brothers changed the focus. “Fante’s used to be mostly china and glass. First to go were the Hummel figures. I hated dusting them,” she says. “We decided to expand the small corner of the store that always did well—cookware and kitchen gadgets, like garlic presses.”
Today, the offerings range from pepper mills (scores of them) and oar-sized wooden spoons to a $1,900 kite-shaped copper pan for poaching turbot. With but a little prompting, Esposita can tell stories of the many celebrated chefs pictured on her walls–James Beard, Julian Child, and Emeril—and of the neighborhood, which has changed its ethnic cast in the last decade or so. “South Philly used to be known for clothing factories,” she says. “A bell would ring at 4 o’clock. When that bell rang, everyone in the Market would get ready. But when the factories closed, the Market started shrinking. As people who owned the stalls started dying off, their kids didn’t want to continue the business.”
Increasingly, the “Italian Market” shows the impact of Mexican immigration to the Bella Vista neighborhood. “When we opened, we were the third Mexican restaurant in the area,” says Juan Carlos Romero, owner of Los Taquitos de Peubla, a popular storefront taqueria. “Now there are 15 to 20 Mexican restaurants in this area.” They’ve not only brought home cooking to the neighborhood’s new Latino population, said to number 15,000, but also, of course, to city visitors clued in that a Chuleta Ahumada Con Quesco awaits them on South 9th Street, where once the more likely choice would have been Rigatoni Marinara.
So, kudos to the Greater Philadedelphia Tourism folks for serving as tour guides to Philly’s changing and revitalizing neighborhoods. To set off for Philadelphia without delving into its detailed neighborhood web notes and recommendations would be as foolish as not exploring at least several of those very neighborhoods on your next trip to Philly.
John Grossmann has written about food and travel for Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY. He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).