City of Gastronomic Love

For the price of a few good meals in another metropolis, diners in Philly can eat well and still have the dough for cocktails and culture.

BY Neal Broverman

April 16 2012 1:00 AM ET

Being centrally located is usually a good thing, but Philadelphia, sandwiched between the nation’s capital and New York City, the self-described center of the universe, is too often a tourist afterthought.
So what’s Philly got going on when Georgetown or Chelsea is just a few hours away by train or highway? Plenty.

Philly is a quiet cultural powerhouse, with dozens of museums, several of which can be accessed cheaply with a CityPASS (CityPass.com). The city’s newest institution is the Barnes Foundation (BarnesFoundation.org), featuring the donations of Philadelphia chemist Albert Barnes. The 93,000-square-foot museum will house the largest collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern artwork in the world when it opens May 19 in the city’s cultural corridor, with works by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, and Renoir.

More pleasant than her attention-hungry neighbors, Philly has a more human-scale cityscape than New York and streets that brim with activity in a way D.C.’s don’t. Affordability is also an asset, not only in lodging but food. Chefs from Germantown to downtown say they can take risks that Manhattan chefs cannot, since rents here can be as little as a third of New York City’s. The most famous culinary export is the greasy cheesesteak, but there is much more sophistication to be found, with little guilt, as the city prides itself on eating and drinking without obsessively counting carbs, gluten, or fat grams.

In that spirit, no trip to Philadelphia’s gay village is complete without a stop at El Vez (ElVezRestaurant.com), an inside-outside cantina with funky L.A. influences. The design is eye-catching — red banquettes, unisex bathrooms, a souped-up bike on the wall—yet the food isn’t just more window dressing. The guacamole with pistachios and the bowls of melted manchego cheese are criminally delicious, as are the frozen blood orange margaritas. Many out-of-towners visit El Vez before planning a night of clubbing, only to wind up well-fed and asleep by 9 p.m. 

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