I’m always wary of friendly strangers especially in another city, especially when I think the stranger is trying to sell me something. So when the restaurant owner offered to help my family and me as we wandered around Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, I saw dollar signs in his eyes.
“What can I help you folks with?” the smiling fellow asked.
“We’re looking for a Philly cheese steak,” I answered.
“You’re in luck!” he said. “We happen to have a cheese steak special going on right now here at Down Home Diner.” He began to gently lead us to a Formica counter while I sensed his net swooping down around us. Aw, what the heck, I thought. We might as well eat here. The four of us—Peter and I, and our sons, Ross, 15, and Scott, 24—were starving, and sitting down for a spell sounded fine.
Peter, Ross, and I had driven up to Philadelphia the night before to rendezvous with Scott, who’s in the Air Force and would be deploying to Iraq the next day. He’d been stationed in Japan since the summer, and we only had 24 hours to visit before taking him back to base. While I was delighted to be able to get reacquainted with Philadelphia, one of my favorite cities, I knew this would be a bittersweet weekend. Saying goodbye to loved ones heading into harm’s way is never easy.
Christmas music tinkled in the background as busy shoppers, bundled up against December’s chilly temps, thronged throughout Reading Terminal, buying produce, meat, baked goods, and exotic foods. I love going to markets, and Reading, a cavernous indoor market with 80+ merchants, never disappoints, especially this time of year as holiday decorations lent a festive atmosphere to this downtown institution.
The four of us settled onto our stools, and before long, our subs arrived, oozing melted cheese and grilled steak and onions. Jack McDavid, the proprietor, checked to see if we needed anything and then asked, “Where are you folks from?”
We told him we’d come up from Virginia Beach to spend time with Scott before he went overseas. Jack shook Scott’s hand and thanked him for his service. Soon other folks along the bar were wishing him well, and before we knew it, Jack had quietly picked up our check and paid for our family’s lunch with little fanfare. I got tears in my eyes as I realized, for the first time, how unselfishly our soldiers, sailors, and airmen serve their country—and how many families feel the pain of their loved ones’ absence.
Needless to say, I felt guilty about how I’d viewed our benefactor and thanked him profusely for his kindness. “It’s the least I can do,” he said. Indeed.
Years ago Pennsylvania promoted itself with the slogan “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” I remember back in 1985 when Peter and I were headed to Canada for our honeymoon, everyone we met greeted us warmly as we passed through PA. Subsequent visits have reinforced my belief that people in Pennsylvania are some of the friendliest around. Even strangers smile at you.
Philly fits right in with its friendly, down-home vibe. Even though it’s the second largest city on the East Coast (and sixth largest in the U.S.), it feels smaller and less forbidding somehow. Maybe it’s the sense of community you feel, thanks to its cozy neighborhoods like South Philly, Chinatown, Penn’s Landing, and the Italian Market. In addition, Philadelphia offers visitors an astonishing variety of historical and cultural attractions. On a previous visit, my appreciation for America’s struggle for freedom had literally been reawakened. I shivered as I recalled hearing the Thomas Jefferson reenactor recite the Declaration of Independence during my visit with Peter a couple of summers ago—a powerful moment.
Now on this cloudy December day, my family and I headed to the Franklin Institute, a museum we’d explored in the early 90s when Scott was little. Even though he’s grown now, both he and Ross enjoyed this science museum, brimming with hands-on activities including a giant heart, a climbing wall, a sky bike, and more. Our visit coincided with a Cleopatra exhibit, so we brushed up on our Ancient Egyptian history and marveled at the the queen’s artifacts, discovered in the ruins of a royal palace sunk beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Both boys really enjoyed the institute’s two newest exhibits: Changing Earth, which showed how Mother Nature alters our planet; and Electricity, which traces the path of electric energy from the power plant to your home. I gave the Climbing Wall a go and tried to hoist my big self in an interactive pulley display before deciding neither is as easy as it looks.
For dinner that night we patronized Paradigm, a restaurant that offers a discount to members of the armed forces, one of a number of attractions, restaurants, and boutiques in Philly that offer money-saving values to the military. We stayed at the Omni at Independence Park, located adjacent to some of Philly’s most historic sights, and spent a cozy evening watching TV and catching up with Scott. The next morning duty called, and we drove our oldest son to a nearby base for a tearful goodbye. (Sidenote: His six-month deployment ends this month, and we expect to buzz up to Baltimore to see him on his way back to Japan. With luck he’ll be home on leave for a week or two this summer.)
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
Peter, Ross, and I had another day or so in Philly before heading home and tried to stay busy so we wouldn’t feel sad about Scott’s departure. We lunched at a cozy downtown snack bar called European Republic, which I’d found when doing a search for best cheap food in Philly—my little trick for discovering affordable foodie finds in other cities. Specializing in European-style frites, the European Republic offers 20+ tasty dipping sauces for its fries as well as homemade soups, pastas, and wraps.
After lunch we visited the Independence Seaport Museum, where we explored maritime exhibits and crawled through the WWII submarine Becuna moored in the Delaware River right next to the museum. That evening Peter and I left Ross in the hotel and enjoyed dinner at the Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar, a trendy nightspot featuring creative cocktails and a funky-sophisticated vibe. My rosemary gimlet with St. Germain, vodka, lime, and rosemary was as delicious as it sounds. Peter tried a Real Deal Martini with Tanqueray gin, dry vermouth, and a lemon twist.
Our first appetizer, grilled octopus served on lightly braised spinach was tender and tasty, and our second, ahi tuna tartare accompanied by Asian love sauce—pozu with mayo and wasabi caviar—knocked our socks off. For our main course, Peter and I shared a continental salad with grilled chicken and feta and barely finished it. The hotel was an easy walk from the Continental, and while the city was just starting to heat up with Saturday night fever, we were happy to head back to the Omni, after stopping for some European Republic seafood bisque for Ross.
Sunday dawned cold and clear, perfect weather for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the third largest art museum in the U.S. and famous for its Greek temple façade as well as the massive “Rocky” steps that call to mind the da-da-da-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da theme song every time I think of them. Inside you’ll find masterpieces of American and European art, as well as Asian art, textiles, and sculptures. Even though Ross is a teen now, I always ask for family-oriented guides, which add an educational dimension to an art museum visit. One guide called “Travel through Art,” invites family members to study Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance” and consider his use of perspective as well as imagine what the figures in the painting might be thinking about. We decided the elegant lady in pink was thinking, “Gee, I wish I could dance like that.”
The highlight of our visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art was brunch in Granite Hill, newly opened and managed by the same restaurant company that wowed Peter and me the night before at the Continental. Upscale, but not pretentious, Granite Hill focuses on approachable French fare. For starters we sampled a smoked fish plate featuring heavenly whitefish salad that popped with flavor and moist salmon served with capers, onions, lettuce, and a pot of mustard. Ross enjoyed a decadent brie and bacon omelette while I opted for a simple, but savory goat cheese sandwich. Peter loved his “le haute dog” so much we planned a mission to Little Italy to buy some of the sausage on our way out of town.
After lunch we found our way to D’Angelo Bros. Specialty Meats—“Often copied, Never duplicated,” the sign says—a brightly lit space smelling of spices and fresh meat. Sonny, grandson of the founder, patiently showed us some of the more unusual sausages he makes—rattlesnake and peacock sausage, anyone?—and said he can make sausage out of pretty much anything. Sonny was out of boudin blanc, the sausage served at Granite Hill, so Peter and I had to decide among the many other types on display. As Sonny wrapped up some chorizos and French garlic sausage for us to take home, he said proudly: “Everything here is like none other.”
That’s how I feel about Philly. It’s exotic yet friendly with a small-town feel. As Peter, Ross, and I headed southward toward Virginia, the spicy scent of sausage hovered over us, like memories of times gone by. We talked about Scott and the dangers he faced and how much we would miss him. We remembered the restaurateur who bought us lunch and hoped we would show similar kindness to strangers one day. Above all, we felt a kinship to Philadelphia, a city whose name comes from the Greek words for brotherly love.
To plan your Philadelphia getaway, visit www.visitphilly.com.