By Neal Broverman
Originally published on Advocate.com April 16 2012 2:00 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. Philadelphians can manage their booze too. Just ask Lêe, the owner of the new Hop Sing Laundromat (HopSingLaundromat.com). Buzzed about in food blogs for months, Hop Sing Laundromat is an upscale bar with the “most expensive well liquor selection of any craft cocktail bar in the United States,” reports Eater Philly. Sip a Nolet’s Gin martini for prices comparable to those of other urban bars with fewer options.
Since you’ve saved a pretty penny, make reservations for Vetri (VetriRistorante.com), Philadelphia magazine’s favorite restaurant in the city limits. When visiting a Northeastern city, it’s always smart to hit an authentic Italian eatery, and Vetri is certainly legit. With items like paccheri carbonara with foie gras, you might consider wearing loose-fitting clothes, especially if you indulge in the nine-course $135 prix-fixe dinner.
Any culinary traipse through Philly is incomplete without a visit to downtown’s Reading Terminal Market (ReadingTerminalMarket.org), a 120-year-old collection of stalls with fresh fish, hot pastries, and restaurants serving everything from Thai to Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. Give yourself time here — it’s a treasure.
There are also great eateries outside the city. One of the standouts is 1906, the fine-dining restaurant at Longwood Gardens (LongwoodGardens.org), a 1,000 acre green space in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley. Industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, long rumored to be gay, created much of what visitors enjoy today when he bought and refurbished the property in the early 20th century.
Also worth a drive is Marsha Brown (MarshaBrownRestaurant.com), possibly the best Creole restaurant outside New Orleans. A former church in the middle of New Hope, Pa., a once-popular gay resort that still retains a large LGBT population, Marsha Brown is a stunner, and every meal has an extra Southern kick that belies the homey Northeastern street scene just outside the front door.