Insider’s Guide to Philly
Recession-busting Philly Travel Tips from the Owner of Philly’s Most Affordable Food Tour
1. Check out some of Philly’s hottest restaurants at a fraction of the usual cost from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays June 3 through Sept. 2 as part of the Center City District’s summer Sips program. Appetizers are half-priced and selected drinks are $3-$5 during this special happy hour. Among notable restaurants participating are Jose Garces' Rosa Blanca and Garces Trading Company, George Sabatino's Aldine, the Independence Beer Garden and Charlie Was a Sinner. Visit centercityphila.org for more information. The evening gourmet food truck confab known as Night Market is also fun and affordable. It's happening just north of Center City at Callohill Street on June 18 and on Lancaster Avenue on Aug. 6. Or check out the Dollar Stroll in West Philly from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on both June 25 and Sept. 24 when restaurants located on Baltimore Avenue between 43rd and 50th offer food bites for only a dollar.
2. Another affordable way to sample the talents of some of Philly's best chefs while catching some sun is at a pop-up park. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is sponsoring three this summer: at 1438 South St., Logan Square (at 18th and Cherry) and across from Pat's Steaks in East Passyunk (the minds behind the popular Khyber Pass Pub and Cantina Los Caballitos will be doing the food for the Passyunk space). Returning this summer are the Spruce Street Harbor and Blue Cross RiverRink Summerfest parks on the Delaware River. The former features a free hammock garden and giant chess and Jenga games; the latter, a seasonal roller skating (free for those with Independence Blue Cross health insurance; not very expensive for everyone else). Food is from celebrity Iron Chef Jose Garces (some Cuban fusion from his retired Chifa restaurant as well as Distrito tacos from a truck), chicken sandwiches from the famed Federal Donuts and ice cream from Franklin Fountain. There are free al fresco yoga lessons daily at the nearby Race Street Pier. Check out the schedule here. The City of Philadelphia's Oval pop-up park will inhabit 24th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from July 15 to August 23 and feature more free games and concerts (on Thursdays) and movie screenings (on Fridays) as well as a craft beer garden and catering by food truck. The Porch is a pop-up park at 30th Street Station featuring food trucks and entertainment. Visit www.universitycity.org for the schedule and more info.
3. Lots of free programs at Penn's Landing (walk over I-95 on Chestnut Street from Old City to the Delaware River waterfront) this summer, including an Army band concert followed by fireworks on June 27 and smooth jazz concerts (every Friday in Aug. at 7:30 p.m.). Visit welcomeamerica.com for details on the the July 4 Roots concert and fireworks on the Parkway and all the other Independence week events (including a free hoagie chowdown). Or take a SEPTA trolley across Philly’s other river into West Philly and catch some free Shakespeare in Clark Park, specifically “The Winter's Tale,” at 7 p.m. July 29 to Aug. 2. Or attend one of the free staged readings of new plays at the URBN black box theater in West Philly as part of the PlayPenn Festival July 7 to 26. Visit PlayPenn.org for the schedule and reservations information. Or check out FringeArts Scratch Night," a free grab-bag preview of works in progress from local arts groups held the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m.
4. The air-conditioned Free Library of Philadelphia’s schedule of evening author events living up to the free in its name continues through the summer. Notable free appearances include Franklin Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin and now Ronald Reagan biographer H.W. Brands on June 4, Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick on June 17 and Food52.com Genius Recipes editor Kristen Miglore on July 14. See the full schedule here.
5. Take the local train to and from the Airport. The R-1 train picks up at all the airport terminals and has three dropoffs in the heart of Center City Philly. Then get around Philly on one of SEPTA’s one-day convenience passes for $12 or $28 (the latter covers unlimited bus/train/subway/trolley rides for a family of five, including your train ride in from the airport). The passes can’t be purchased at the airport but if you present your receipt from the R-1 at a SEPTA ticket counter at one of the downtown stations it will be credited when you buy your pass. These are great deals considering that a single bus or subway ride is $2.25, and that the train ticket from the airport is $8, and that the minimum price of a single local cab ride to/from anywhere in Center City is about $10. Or, if you’re 65 or over, just show your Medicare card for free SEPTA bus/train/trolley rides and $1 train rides. Another affordable option for just getting around town: the purple Phlash bus for $2 per ride or $5 a day.
6. Score a discounted “community rush” seat to events at the Kimmel Center or the Academy of Music. Click here for a listing of current "on-sale" shows (besides the Philadelphia Orchestra, which always have some discounted seats when they're at the Kimmel) and how to get the tickets. Or catch the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann outdoor amphitheater. Lawn seats perfect for picnicking are only $20 for their concerts and you can get to the Mann via a SEPTA Loop bus that picks up from Center City at regular SEPTA bus prices ($2.25 or a token). The orchestra is also doing one free outdoor concert at Penn’s Landing’s on July 2 at 8 p.m. Also make the longest day of the year pass a little faster by going to free concerts all over town all day June 21 -- see the schedule at makemusicphilly.org.
7. Make a day excursion to New York City for as little as $3 roundtrip (processing fees included) on a spiffy new Bolt or Mega bus, departing right across the street from 30th Street rail station (Mega also stops near the Visitors Center). Must purchase these nonrefundable tickets online (BoltBus.com or MegaBus.com) and the further ahead you make your reservation, the better the chances of snagging the $3 seats. Their more typical fares of $18 to $32 roundtrip depending on demand are still not that expensive and less hassle than the train.
8. If you’re in town the first week of the month plan your Philadelphia Museum of Art visit for that first Sunday when admission is pay-as-you-wish instead of the usual $20. Or visit any Wednesday after 5 p.m., when the pay-what-you wish admission includes family-friendly interactive activities, or Friday afternoons, when regular admission includes a free world-class jazz concert in the Great Stair Hall from about 6 to 9 p.m. See PhilaMuseum.org for the current schedule. The nearby Barnes Foundation gives away a limited number of free admission tickets each first Sunday beginning at 9 a.m. (the museum actually opens at 10). The also nearby Rodin Museum is always pay-what-you-wish. Or check out some of the many free open houses held at art galleries throughout town as part of Philly's First Friday of the month event. The University of Pennsylvania-affiliated Institute of Contemporary Art in West Philly is open Wednesdays to Sundays and always free.
9. If you’re going to be in town on a Friday at noon and like indie rock/blues/roots or folk music visit progressive rock station XPN.org or call them at 800-565-WXPN to sign up for the free weekly Live at Noon concert at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St. in West Philly. Past performers have included the Indigo Girls, Loudon Wainwright, Dr. Dog, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Osborne as well as less well-known but talented up-and-comers.
10. Go to www.phillyfunguide.com and sign up to receive the weekly “Fun Savers” e-mail blast to save up to 50 percent on local concerts, tours and theatrical events. The blast goes out on Thursdays for events scheduled that week.
11. Breakfast on the coffee preferred by Martha Stewart, Daniel Boulud, Jeans-Georges Vongerichten and other renown foodies along with some delicious flaky pastry while soaking up Philly’s hippest coffeehouse scene at La Colombe coffeehouse (the original Rittenhouse location at 130 S. 19th St., opposite City Hall or their big spanking new Frankford Ave. spot with food). Cost: $5-$10.
12. Lunch on one of Philly’s famous hoagies at Primos (various locations) or one of Philly’s even more famous cheesesteaks from Sonny’s, Campo’s or Jim’s in Center City or Pat’s, Geno’s, Philip’s, Tony Luke’s or John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Cost: less than $10.
13. Eat dinner at one of Philly’s many charming neighborhood BYO restaurants like Melograno (Mediterranean), Cuchina Forte (famous for gnocchi, also Bella Vista), Chloe (New American/Old City), Radicchio (Italian/Old City) enjoying some of the best cooking Philly has to offer with alcohol you purchase yourself for a fraction of what licensed restaurants would charge (Buy your wine at one of many Center City state liquor store locations – addresses and hours at www.finewineandgoodspirits.com and your beer at a bar or deli.) Cost: Typically less than $25 per entrée plus the cost of your own liquor. These restaurants usually don’t charge a corkage fee but many also don’t take reservations – expect a wait on weekends unless you go very early or very late.
How to Order a Cheesesteak: A Guide for Tourists
There is a protocol to ordering a cheesesteak at the cheesesteak epicenter of Ninth and Wharton, which, if not followed, can result in being sent to the back of the line Soup Nazi–style, or even worse, getting less meat. At Pat’s and Geno’s, you must order by saying the name of the cheese you want and then “with” or “without” (or as it is often pronounced in South Philly, “wit” or “witout”), which means with or without grilled onions. A correct and traditional order there would be “Whiz wit.” “Mushrooms witout” will get you a steak sandwich with mushrooms but no onions or cheese. You order and pay for your drinks and fries at a separate window.
This ordering system is chiefly used at high-volume shops, which need to keep their lines moving quickly, or other places (many out-of-town) who are trying to provide an “authentic” Philly cheesesteak experience. Slavishly adhering to the “wit or witout” phraseology at a more low-key neighborhood joint in Philly will mark you as a nervous tourist. Many of these out-of-the-limelight places don’t even offer Cheez Whiz. White American is the more common cheese default regionwide, along with provolone and mozzarella.
Acceptable cheesesteak condiments include peppers of all kinds, hot pepper relish, hot sauce, ketchup, dill or sweet pickles but not mustard and mayo (although a really good steak won’t need any condiments).
As weird and arbitrary as some of the above principles may seem, holding as tightly to them as you do to your wallet while placing your order should leave the impression that you know what you are doing, always a good thing for a stranger in a strange town.
Read more content from my "Great Philly Cheesesteak Book"
Four Meals in Philly
I set some eating priorities for visitors and newcomers to Philly in Primer, City Paper’s annual insider’s guide to the city. See the story on page 20 of this pretty navigable issuu.com document.
Slice of the Shore in Philly
Can’t make it to the Jersey Shore this summer? Go there gastronomically with a tangy pie from the here-discussed Joey Mack’s Boardwalk Pizza parlor in South Philly.
I pit snack foods already made by Tasty Baking’s new owners against comparable locally beloved Tastykakes in this scary City Paper story.