The Philly skyline blends old and new. Photo by Sue Frause.
Whenever I visit a city for the first time, there’s the urge to see and do it all. But as I’ve morphed into a more seasoned traveler, I know that’s not gonna happen. So I just take in what I can and if it feels right, I’ll return.
That’s what happened in Philadelphia. I sampled small bites of what she had to offer and it was very tasty, indeed.
Philly is all about its neighborhoods and has oodles of restaurants that are called BYO’s. As in BYOB: Bring Your Own Bottle of wine. With no corkage fee, this alone is enough to make me relocate back east.
These are the restos where the locals go. They’re small and intimate, with young chefs and owners behind and in front of the stoves. Mercato is one of the newer ones, located in the “gayborhood” on Spruce Street, in the historic Camac Food Market Building. Chef R. Evan Turney is turning out tasty Italian inspired dishes such as Roasted Portabella & Arugula, Braised Calamari & Pasta, Crispy Skin Striped Bass and Mascarpone Cheesecake. Open seven days a week for dinner, cash only and no cellphones, please.
The heart of Philadelphia is Rittenhouse Square. Built in 1913, it’s a meeting place and the site of flower markets and art exhibitions. It’s also a park, an outdoor cafeteria, a playground and a place to snooze or kiss or dream. Don’t miss the sculpture Billy by Albert Laessle, a two-foot bronze billy goat where two-year olds hold court.
One morning I was fortunate to walk through the park with Robert Downey, the filmmaker and father of actor Robert Downey, Jr. He and producer Max Raab (executive producer of A Clockwork Orange) teamed up to make the documentary, Rittenhouse Square. Shot over the course of a year, it’s a loving look into the soul of an American park. And yes, the young Downey does resemble his handsome, white tressed father.
Afterwards, I walked into Capriccio, supposedly Philly’s first espresso shop that opened a dozen or so years ago on Laurel Street. Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom was playing while I ordered my tall, non-fat latte to go. How cool is that?
And I can’t visit a city without hearing live music. On a Sunday night, I headed to Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, located a dozen blocks from Independence Hall in the Northern Liberties ‘hood. It looks a little goofy on the exterior, like some sort of out building, but inside the former lunchroom of Ortlieb’s Brewery is a dark, narrow room that’s the perfect venue for listening to hot licks. Photos of living and long gone jazz players line the walls, along with album covers. My friend Bard and I were sitting in the Shirley Scott section, which pays homage to the talented Chicago Hammond B3 player.
It was jam night at Ortlieb’s, with a variety of players on stage, including upright bass player Warren Oree (founder of Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble). There were lots of students, whose musical prowess belied their young years. I chatted with tenor player Victor, who was born in Seattle and raised in Anchorage. His girlfriend Rhenda, who used to sing backup for Roberta Flack, was telling me that Ortlieb’s had sold recently and she wasn’t sure if it would continue on as the “music incubator” that it had become.
I’ll check on it the next time I’m in town.