The stretch of blocks on East Passyunk Avenue from Broad Street to Passyunk Square was mostly calm Tuesday evening, the second night of the Democratic National Convention.
Just before 9 o’clock, a fleet of the Philadelphia Police Department’s major incident response vehicles slowly meandered down Broad Street in what was largely a silent spectacle of flashing blue and red lights. They were tailing the protest throngs marching their way down to the Wells Fargo Center.
Couples and small groups of onlookers clustered on corners along Broad Street, watching the traffic amble along, but few wandered down Passyunk Avenue, where many businesses reported an average or slower-than-usual night.
“It’s a bit slower than our normal Tuesday nights,” Barbara, a hostess at Le Virtu, told me as she accommodated guests on the patio of the popular South Philly Italian eatery.
“Things definitely feel a little different from when the Pope was here. We don’t feel closed off. We can get around easy, but we’re still not busier than usual,” she said as two women walked in for dinner wearing T-shirts with “Bernie” emblazoned across their chests.
When Pope Francis spent a few days in the city last fall for the World Meeting of Families, the city was barren, with visitors locked into security barriers and locals fleeing for more appealing locales like the Jersey Shore. Several of Philly’s restaurants reported grave deficits, with many throwing away or giving away the extra food they stocked for the hundreds of thousands of pope zealots who were apparently broke, not hungry or just plain stingy when they descended upon Philly.
“The city is best when it presents itself as itself,” said Francis Cratil Cretarola, who co-owns both Le Virtu and Brigantessa on East Passyunk Avenue. “For the pope, it wasn’t really Philadelphia the people were visiting. When you shut down access to the city and divide it in half with security checkpoints, you destroy the entire flow and feel of Philadelphia.”
But this time around, while security measures away from the Wells Fargo Center are comparably lax, there seem to be other factors at play. (Further, the blankets shrouding construction sites and the “out of sight, out of mind” stance of the DNC Host Committee toward neighborhoods outside of Center City and South Philly make it debatable whether Philly is showing its authentic self.)
For one, some restaurants are reporting that it’s hard to tell if business is slow because it’s summer.
“In general, it’s slow around this time of year,” said Joey Devito, a bartender at Stogie Joe’s Tavern on East Passyunk Avenue. “But in terms of traffic from the DNC, I haven’t seen it.”
And the delegates are apparently sticking to their schedules, leaving little opportunity to sit back and drop cash on long meals.
“It looks like most people with the convention are sticking to their itineraries,” Devito said, based on his observations as a server at One Liberty in Center City during the day. “Around 4 and 5 everyone just seems to get on the train or bus to the Wells Fargo Center and people don’t venture out beyond that. Everyone’s down by FDR Park, so I guess it makes sense.”
Monday evening’s downpour also played a role in the slow start for a number of the restaurants along the avenue.
“It was pouring down rain, so Monday things were slower,” said Angelica Cesari, a manager at Birra, where a number of patrons sat at the tables lined up outside Tuesday evening. “And for Tuesday, it’s not terrible,” she said.
A few restaurants on the more eastern end of the corridor seemed to be doing better, which they attributed to spillover from the “Ahlan Wa Shalan Philly” block party that joined delegates and locals in celebration of Arab Americans on Tuesday at the nearby Singing Fountain.
The hostess at the dim sum restaurant Bing Bing said it seated about 35 parties in an hour-and-a-half beginning at 7 o’clock.
At the Mexican restaurant Caballitos across the street, one waitress reported that its Monday and Tuesday nights weren’t much different than usual. But Tuesday evening, it saw the most convention-goers yet.
“We had a party of 20 people come in from out of town. Only about five of them spoke English, and they were all wearing T-shirts that said, ‘Proudly Undocumented,'” one of the waitresses reported. At the local favorite Stateside, server Devlin Tricamo said, “We’re seeing slightly less business than usual” for dinnertime.
Center City locations were apprehensive that the distance to the Wells Fargo Center would kill any prospects of a DNC business boon, and so far, their traffic has been a mixed bag.
“We’re not getting anybody,” said a waitress at Midtown III restaurant. “It’s strange, but the convention is in South Philly, after all, so nobody’s up this end.”
Chris’ Jazz Cafe is seeing business as usual, owner Mark DeNinno said. “Our numbers are the same, but maybe we’ll get more along the way. There’s a lot of excitement in the city, especially where I am. It’s protest central.
At SliCE Pizza in Rittenhouse, server River Chapman said business was steady on Tuesday with larger delivery orders than normal, but overall it didn’t see much more people than usual.
A number of other Center City restaurants said they’re benefitting widely, mostly from the private parties that convention organizers and attendants booked.
At SOUTH Kitchen and Jazz Parlor, groups like the National Black Caucus and WURD Radio booked up some hours. State Rep. Dwight Evans also hosted an event.
Last fall, businesses blamed former Mayor Michael Nutter for setting up unrealistic expectations for the papal visit. Leading up to the DNC, Mayor Jim Kenney led a campaign to keep locals in the city and businesses open. The businesses are open. They’re optimistic, but they’re treading lightly.
With a day-and-a-half of the DNC left, the restaurateurs who have been planning since as early as February for the event say they’ll continue to promote their specials via the hashtag #DNCDeals. Establishments along East Passyunk Avenue are hoping for huge crowds Wednesday night when they’ll stay open an extra three hours until 1 a.m.
“Our avenue events usually do really well. They’re popular with the neighborhood, and I think it’ll be really busy regardless of whether people from the DNC come or not,” said Cesari, the manager at Birra.
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