Philadelphia has become like a strange dreamworld for New Yorkers and those other Big City devotees who read (or write for) the New York Times. It’s a place they come to deliberately have their expectations exceeded, to begrudgingly fall for while they’re here and then pine for while away. We are the Westworld of cities at this moment–the place you come to make all your dreams come true.
So today, the Times ran a piece by Robert Draper titled “A Four-Day Feast In Philadelphia.” And alliteration aside, it did exactly what I mentioned above. First, there was the de riguer mention of those same tired cultural touchstones (gritty neighborhoods, soft pretzels and cheesesteaks). Then the sudden “discovery” that there are things here which are like the restaurants in New York, only, you know, not in New York, which seems to always confuse New Yorkers. The fact that these restaurants are good? That this entire city is not peopled entirely with sweatpants-wearing troglodytes gruntingly double-fisting hoagies while squatting around trash fires in the Italian Market like some lost tribe of East Coast cargo cultists? That’s almost too much to take in at first. The shock too extreme.
But that’s the way these pieces are written. That’s the arc. And in this one, Draper came to town (from Washington D.C. possibly) to eat at Kanella, Vedge, ITV and Vernick because “if you are looking to reclaim a coherent sense of America after this nervous breakdown of an election season…eating your way through Philadelphia is a fine way to start.”
Hear that? We are America writ whole, the nation’s coherency. And all of that despite our love of trash food. “Even leaving aside its indigenous cheesesteak sandwiches and soft pretzels, Philly as a culinary destination feels like an organic accomplishment — the natural outcome of being itself — rather than a banal eventuality of economic development.”
Anyway, Draper had almost nothing but love for Kanella and its “casual air” and “informality.” He booked a table early at Vedge, worried that an all-vegan dinner might leave him unsatisfied, and so made sure to “[leave] myself time for a cheesesteak in the event that my vegan dinner proved to be a lighter-than-air experience.” But that turned out to be a ridiculous (and dated, and small-minded, and unnecessary) fear.
He’d hoped to eat at Laurel. Knowing that reservations for Nick Elmi’s first restaurant still often come with a 90-day wait, he nonetheless seemed to think this was all nonsense, so tried to walk in on a Tuesday, and was turned away, forced to linger instead at ITV in the “agreeably scruffy” East Passyunk neighborhood where he fell for the smoked trout and indie rock soundtrack. And then there was Vernick, which he loved because everybody loves it. Because if we, as Philadelphians, ever want to set a trap for moneyed, food-loving visitors from other major American metropolitan areas–to get them (and their wallets and their famous friends) to stay here forever and leave all their other second-rate cities behind–all we ever have to do is book them a quiet table at Vernick and let the rest play out precisely as it did for Draper.
“But the surmounting culinary triumphs combined with the graceful ambience left us all in agreement: We would be back again and again, if only we lived in Philadelphia … and why, exactly, didn’t we live in Philadelphia?”
Anyway, the whole piece is up online right now, and despite my making fun of the trite formula, Draper does actually have some great meals and hit on some of the things that do make Philly a dream city for so many who come to visit here–the prices, the places, the people, our easy way with alliteration and agreeable scruffiness, plus the fact that the quality of our restaurants is a surprise to everyone except us.
A Four Day Feast In Philadelphia [New York Times]