Forty Years Later, Are These Philly Favorites Still the Best?
From Pat's to Ponzios, we revisit some of the most notable Best of Philly winners from 1974.
For the 1974 debut of Best of Philly (which was actually the Best and Worst of Philly), the editorial team sought out dozens of worthy bars and restaurants on which to bestow awards. From the then-brand-new (and now just-closed) Le Bec-Fin (Best Meal Over $25) to Rittenhouse’s Seafood Unlimited (Worst Meal Under $2), they cataloged the city. These days, a handful of the original Best Of winners remain—a rather impressive feat in an age when new-and-trendy seems to win out so often over the tried-and-true. (Am I right, Le Bec?)
Is there some special Best Of mojo that has kept the hangers-on hanging for so long? I visited five of the oldies to see, first, if they were still worth the trip, and second, if there is, in fact, a secret that has kept them thriving for decades, with no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. Here’s what I found. …
Famous 4th Street Deli
Then: Best Deli: “Where you can still get it while it’s hot. Fresh, not fatty. Corned beef is excellent. Your mouth could water driving by.”
Now: If you really want to see a young kid’s eyeballs pop out of his head, take him to the Famous, as it’s known, and order a sandwich, as I discovered on a visit with my seven-year-old son. What emerges from the deli counter is less a sandwich and more a towering tribute to gluttony and smoked meat.
“How are we supposed to eat this, Daddy?” was the question he asked after laughing his butt off at the sheer ridiculousness of the portion (and this was a regular sandwich … not the impossibly huge “zaftig” version). It’s a fair question, seeing as a human being is physically unable to consume a Famous sandwich in the normal fashion—i.e., by biting into it head-on.
One of my first visits to the deli—actually, to the newer 19th Street outpost—was with D. Herbert Lipson, chairman of this magazine, who was also at the helm back in 1974 when we gave the award to the original 4th and Bainbridge location, which is still there. Lipson showed me how to do it: You order one sandwich to split between two people and get a couple of extra orders of thinly sliced bread on the side. The servers don’t seem to mind a bit that you’re sharing food, and I’m guessing this must be the norm, given the size of things. (Plus, one regular sandwich will set you back $10 to $20. But when you split it, it feels, however nonsensically, like a bit of a deal. (And people always like a deal—then, now and forever.)
We’ve done this sandwich-splitting on a few occasions now, and after eating our fill, we always seem to leave with a box containing lunch for the next day. I’m not normally a big fan of restaurants where people walk away raving about the portions, since the quality of the food tends to be inversely proportionate to the amount they give you, but at the Famous, those two things are just about equal.
Bassetts Ice Cream
45 North 12th Street, Center City | 215-925-4315
Then: Best Ice Cream: “Bassetts … has the purest flavorings and the highest butterfat content around. Great if you love ice cream. A little hairy if you’ve got a heart condition.”
Now: On a recent overly warm day, I walked over to Reading Terminal Market to take in the scene at Bassetts ice-cream stand, which you can’t miss if you enter through the 12th Street doors. There, on the left, an impressive line of toddlers, grandparents and everyone in between stood waiting for cookies-and-cream on sugar cones (my go-to), vanilla on waffle cones, and other varieties from among the 40 flavor options.
I imagine the line has been like that on most warm days since 1892, when the stand—and the Terminal—opened for business. While hundreds of other merchants have come and gone, Bassetts remains as the Terminal’s last standing original vendor. Back then, the ice cream was produced in the basement of the building, using ingredients purchased from other merchants in the Terminal, and there were just a handful of flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and peach.
Today, the stuff is actually made way out in Johnstown, and you can find more far-out flavors, like green tea and vanilla raspberry truffle. I asked Michael Strange, Bassetts president and the great-great-grandson of the original owner, to tell me about some flavors that weren’t such big hits over the years. “Well, the story goes that back in the 1800s, green tomato ice cream was one of our flavors,” says Strange, who was scooping ice cream as a teenager when our 1974 issue came out. “I’ve tried making it since, but I didn’t find it particularly palatable.”
Strange also tells me about the time his predecessors concocted borscht ice cream. “It was in honor of Khrushchev’s visit in the 1950s,” he explains. “I’m told it was made at the request of the State Department.”
Still, Strange says no matter how unpopular a flavor is, once he discontinues it, people crawl out of the woodwork to complain. “Even the least-selling flavors seem to have a dedicated hard-core cadre of followers,” he observes. “And boy, do they let me know about it.”
Strange credits his success, in part, to customer service (the counter employees are some of the nicest at the Terminal) and to the loyalty of customers who come back year after year. “You know the regulars when they ask for their ice cream in a ‘dish,’ meaning a porcelain dish with a metal spoon, the way they did it back in the ’30s,” says Strange. “The tourists, they don’t know to do that.”
7 Route 70 West, Cherry Hill | 856-428-4808
Then: Best Breakfast: “Big, hot, tasty portions. Quick and clean.”
Now: I spent most of my formative years in South Jersey, so believe me, I’ve been to more than my fair share of diners. Whether it was an after-church meal, a quick bite on the way back from the Jersey Shore, or late-night burgers and coffee on weekend dates during high school, a diner was the primary source of sustenance outside the home. Strangely, I never once went to Ponzio’s—easily one of the most popular diners in South Jersey, then and now—until I began working on this story.
The breakfasts are certainly the same as they were when we wrote about them in 1974: big, hot and tasty indeed. And Ponzio’s has been in the same family since one decade before that. Prior to 1964, when the current family bought it, Ponzio’s was known as the Ellisburg Diner.
I also had dinner. The drinks, served from a bar that didn’t exist until more than 10 years after our original Best Of, were stiff and so, so cheap; the prime rib and pan-fried steak ($18.99!) were some of the tastiest pieces of meat I’ve ever tried in a casual restaurant; and the servers were the kind who have been in the business for many years and truly enjoy their jobs. One Ponzio’s waitress, Joan Browning, has been there since the original 1964 opening.
We were also treated to songs by a 12-piece old-guys group. No, they weren’t hired to perform at Ponzio’s. They were just having a dinner meeting at the restaurant and broke into song every 10 minutes or so. Their rendition of “Wonderful World” was very charming. (A table of local blue-hairs swooned.) Something tells me Ponzio’s has had its share of memorable moments like this one.
Ponzio’s co-owner Nick Fifis tells me the biggest thing to change since our 1974 Best Of is the amount of competition out there. “There are just so many chains today,” says Fifis. “And their food has gotten better in recent years, which has really made us stay on our toes.” Fifis says they’ve asked focus groups—yes, a diner with focus groups—whether they should drop the “diner” designation to signal that this is a restaurant with better food than your typical diner. “But in the end,” he says, “we decided to just be the best diner out there.”
Moore’s French Fries
1100 East Philadelphia Avenue, Gilbertsville | 484-256-5452
Then: Best French Fries: “Made right in front of your eyes. Thick and rich and crisp. Served in a cone with vinegar or mayonnaise. A super tasty bargain.”
Now: Moore’s has been around for more than 70 years, but I had never heard of it until I pulled out the 1974 issue. It’s located in the indoor portion of Zerns Farmers Market, a flea market way out in Montgomery County, at the intersection of Routes 73 and 100. Zerns vendors sell ugly silk flowers, Russian civilian surplus gas masks, 10-cent candies and novelty signs, among many, many, other things.
I wasn’t sure exactly where Moore’s was inside the mart—actually, I couldn’t even remember the name Moore’s (I had made a note on my phone, which was dead, naturally)—so I just started asking people where “the french-fry stand” was. The other vendors looked confused, since there are more than a few spots where you can get french fries at Zerns these days. But I wanted the french fry stand.
Finally, I tracked down Moore’s. It’s a tiny booth (spot #121, which will help you find it on your visit) with two stools. Behind the counter are boxes of potatoes, a steel french-fry slicer, and two vats of burbling liquefied lard. Yes, these fries are still notably vegetarian-unfriendly.
The menu is pretty simple: french fries, large ($3.50) or small ($2.50). That’s it. And condiments are basic, including generic ketchup, which is unfortunate (you should have Heinz 57 on the counter), and cider vinegar in the kind of spray bottle you might store window cleaner in. Didn’t see any mayonnaise. But didn’t want any, either.
I ordered a large basket of fries (the cones of yesteryear have been replaced with traditional cardboard boats) with lemonades for my kids, and it’s worth noting that the lemonade here is fresh, like the fries: squeezed to order with a big crank juicer. The fries aren’t particularly crispy, but that’s okay: They taste like potatoes, which is refreshing in a world where so many fries don’t. “We’ve always done it the same way, year after year,” owner Cathy Moore says simply, in regard to Moore’s longevity. “You don’t fix what ain’t broken.”
I can’t help but agree. And hey, if I ever need a Russian gas mask for Halloween, now I know where to go.
1237 East Passyunk Avenue, South Philly | 215-468-1546
Then: Best Steak Sandwiches: “If the peppers are still good enough for the Mummers, then some things never change.”
Now: Actually, Pat’s didn’t just win Best Steak Sandwiches in 1974. It also won for Worst Steak Sandwiches, thanks to its ill-fated Northeast Philly location, which opened in the mid-’60s and closed in the mid-’80s. “You can take the name out of South Philly,” went that write-up. “But the quality just doesn’t travel well. Even the bread’s soggy.”
But the shop in South Philly is still serving long lines of customers, 80-some years after Pat Olivieri, great-uncle of current owner Frank Olivieri Jr., is said to have invented what we now know as the cheese-steak. And Olivieri is quick to point out—even 40 years after that Worst Of award—that the Northeast Philadelphia location was a separate entity, owned by a relative who had “split” from the family. I can still hear the good ol’ Italian grudge in his voice.
In the great Pat’s-vs.-Geno’s debate, I’ve always landed squarely on the side of Pat’s (although Tony Luke’s is my favorite steak overall). And no, it has nothing to do with the politics of late Geno’s owner Joey Vento, who made headlines more for his opinions than his sandwiches. But where neighboring Geno’s presents a sandwich with a lot of pomp and circumstance and neon and attitude, Pat’s just slides a drippy sandwich in front of you and says, “Eat up.”
Olivieri tells me the sandwich hasn’t changed a bit since 1974, other than the fact they recently switched bakeries for their chewy rolls—“But that was only because the original baker closed.” No doubt this consistency plays a major part in Pat’s longstanding success. But what else? “Hard work,” says Olivieri. “And good luck.” And the same whole hot cherry peppers—presumably what the magazine was referring to in its write-up—are still available for free to those who dare. The biggest change, I imagine, is the price. I wonder what Great-Uncle Pat would say if he knew a Pat’s cheesesteak would cost $9.50 in 2013?
I’m guessing he’d ask about royalties.