Notes From A Stroll: My Philly Faith Reinforced in 300 Steps

What I really wanted to be when I grew up was a spy.

Not a James Bond type (I’ve never had the haircut for it). And certainly not an actual spy–mired forever in government paperwork and politics with only brief intermissions where my life would be in terrible danger from enemies I never saw. No, I wanted to be a Cold War spy of the John LeCarre school, just some dowdy, plump little George Smiley clone, walking into and out of hostile territories like the world’s least objectionable traveling plumbing fixtures salesman.

I love LeCarre’s books and read them obsessively. And when I was a restaurant critic (closest this ex-cook, partially reformed fun-hog and total security risk was ever going to get to the covert world) , I used Smiley’s tradecraft as my model for how to carry out my day-to-day business affairs–learning fast and early how useful multiple fake identities could be, how a phony business card could open many doors, how to manage penetration agents in enemy territory, broker information and tail someone for days without them ever being the wiser.

It was fun. Most of the time, it was harmless. Sometimes it was not. And though I have been out in the overt world now for some time, I still remember a few tricks–which was how I ended up stalking this poor couple through the streets of Philadelphia this afternoon as they talked booze and restaurants, loving the fact that they knew, well…everything. Or almost everything, anyhow.

I picked them up shortly after leaving Serafina–where I’d gone for lunch, had no less than four different servers try to take my drink order, and been thoroughly underwhelmed by bruscetta jacketed in an acre of melted cheese and heart-shaped lobster ravioli that were only “homemade” (as the menu claimed) if one of the cooks is currently claiming residency in the blast-freezer of some dusty Brooklyn pasta factory.

Feeling disappointed (and kind of raw after paying a $40 lunch tab with no booze on it), I fell into step with the crowd–meaning only to go as far as the nearest bar, but finding myself walking behind a couple of young professionals obviously just making their way back from a lunch much more successful than mine. He was in The Uniform: pale blue button-down, rolled sleeves, khakis. She was in a white tank, sandals, denim skirt of conservative length. And they were talking about food. All kinds of food. About restaurants they’d been to recently and restaurants they’d been meaning to go to.

To me, hearing people talk about food on the street is like sitting on the train and overhearing someone mention your name. It’s impossible not to listen, and you immediately begin to wonder where they’re getting their information. What’s more, hearing folks talk about chefs and restaurants freely, of their own will, is like validation–proof that someone other than me (and my precious few compatriots here at Foobooz World Headquarters) actually cares about things like cheesemongers, Le Bec-Fin, taco trucks and pizza–that we’re not just shouting into the digital wind over here, talking to an audience of none.

And these two, they knew some stuff. They were talking about the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. and its Prohibition-era inspirations, transitioning seamlessly to the article in last week’s New York Times dining section about soda fountains and how one of them (the woman) had been to Franklin Fountain (which was mentioned in the NYT piece) but her friend had not.

“That’s what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I’m gonna be a soda jerk. That would be cool.”

Their strange, food-centric, stream-of-consciousness rap went on and, like Smiley after Karla or Esterhase after Grigoriev, I found myself falling into old rhythms–hanging back just far enough to eavesdrop, but not getting so close that it would spook them. From Franklin Fountain and soda jerks, they rolled on into Shane Confectionary–knowing that the space had been bought by the guys from Franklin Fountain, that they’d done it to preserve the historic space and that brothers Ryan and Eric Berley were doing everything they could to return the place to its 1911 glory.

After a couple blocks, I wished for a team of lamplighters of my own–a hand-off unit who could take over the tail, make notes, keep tabs. But since there was only me, I ended up shadowing these two myself, listening as they wound back to classic cocktails, then talked pizza, contriving to stay on them until they hauled up like children in front of b.b.go at 18th and Ludlow, their noses almost pressed against the glass, wondering what the place was and where it’d come from.

“I’ve never heard of this place before,” said the woman.

“I wonder what they do here,” said the man.

And I passed them by–leaving them to wonder and explore, my faith in the curiosity and engagement of Philly’s gastronauts once again reinforced. It’s why I love working in this town. Why it is sometimes so maddening, and sometimes such a joy.

Oh, and for the two of you street-walking grubniks, whoever you were? b.b.go is a fusion rice bar–a modern Korean joint, serving fast and healthy rice bowls. It’s worth trying if you’re in a bibimbap kind of mood.

Though something tells me you both might just be there right now, eating rice, sucking down boba tea and dreaming of jerking sodas.

b.b.go [official website]