Relish Trounces Famous in Election Day Power Food Matchup

Everybody was at the West Oak Lane restaurant — even civil-rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson. But Famous 4th Street Deli was quieter than ever.

Katie McGinty poses with Mike Toub in front of Relish (left), while Rev. Jesse Jackson answers questions inside the restaurant. (Photos: HughE Dillon)

Katie McGinty poses with Mike Toub in front of Relish (left), while Rev. Jesse Jackson answers questions inside the West Oak Lane restaurant. (Photos: HughE Dillon)

Look, I know we’re all dying to see how that awful reality TV show — Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump: Election 2016 — will end tonight. History will be made, one way or another, the kind that we’ll explain in careful detail to our grandchildren one day from the comfort of our dimly lit subterranean bunkers. (Too soon?)

But I’m preoccupied today with a different Election Day showdown, one that primarily revolves around food and political gossip. That’s right, we’re talking about Famous 4th Street Deli vs. Relish. For as long as I can remember, candidates, kingmakers, campaign whisperers and reporters have delicately squeezed into Famous, at 4th and Bainbridge streets, to talk shop and eat giant corned beef sandwiches off tiny tables.

Something changed in the spring; The gathering at Famous was small throughout the day during the April 26th primary, while Relish was jam-packed with political bold-faced names. You could sense a disturbance in the force. Philly Mag’s Holly Otterbein wondered if Relish was emerging as the new go-to spot for Election Day gatherings thanks to the Northwest Coalition’s growing clout. Today, there seems to be little doubt that Relish has won most local elected leaders’ stomachs. Civil-rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson topped the long list of pols who camped at the West Oak Lane restaurant for most of the afternoon, braving nose-to-nose crowds for the promise of heart-stopping (in a good way!) mac and cheese, green beans, and fried chicken.

Mayor Jim Kenney shrugged when I broached the topic.  “I mean, that was actually a very small group of people who started that down at Famous, and it kind of got overrun by other factions. I think it was Bill Green Sr., Neil Oxman and that crew. It was only a small group of people. And then the [Vince] Fumo people wound up there,” he said. “I like the food up here, too, and I did really well up here in the [mayoral] election. That combination of South Philly and the Northwest actually made it happen. So I like to come up here.”

(Kenney also riffed on Philly Mag reporter Dan McQuade’s recent observation about the number of times he has said “shit” in a tweet. “Shit is a curse word?” the mayor asked. “I don’t understand. I don’t think it’s that bad of a word.”)

I reached out to Inquirer political columnist Chris Brennan, who was hunkered down at his usual table at Famous, a square little number where President Barack Obama once sat. “Good and knowledgable crowd,” he said, “but more elected officials seem to have chosen Relish.”

City Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell (left) and Blondell Reynolds Brown (right) flank Gov. Tom Wolf. (Photo: HughE Dillon

City Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell (left) and Blondell Reynolds Brown (right) flank Gov. Tom Wolf. (Photo: HughE Dillon)

In between selfies and plates of hot food, most of the politicians in Relish seemed confident that Clinton would top Trump. “I think the people of Pennsylvania will vote overwhelmingly for fairness,” said Gov. Tom Wolf.

Everybody was over the moon about the reported turnout; voters standing in lines that snake along a city block is not exactly something you see a lot of any more. City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell described a West Philly church that was forced to allow voters inside its sanctuary because the line had grown so long.

“I think people are coming out with a purpose, between African-Americans, Latinos and women. I think he bullied and tortured them enough during the course of 18 months. And I think now it’s payback day,” Kenney said.

Katie McGinty was on hand, chiding her opponent, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, for promising to vote later in the day, possibly to avoid having to disclose whether he’d voted for Trump until the last possible minute. State attorney general candidate Josh Shapiro moved through the crowd inside the restaurant. So, too, did state treasurer candidate Joe Torsella, state Sen. Anthony Williams, City Councilwomen Helen Gym and Blondell Reynolds Brown, and former Councilwoman Marian Tasco. 

IBEW Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty hung around for a while with his own personal cameraman, which he said was part of a podcasting project, or something. Also spotted: Former federal prosecutor Joe Khan, who is set to run in the spring Democratic primary against District Attorney Seth Williams, and former city managing director Rich Negrin, who has long been linked to the race as well. (No sign of the D.A., at least while I was there.)

State Rep. Dwight Evans, on the ballot today to take over Chaka Fattah’s congressional seat, talked about being anxious to get to Washington, D.C. If Clinton wins, he said he expects people will want to some sort of return on her much-hyped promise to create 10 million jobs. (BillyPenn credits Evans with Relish’s rise in the Election Day Power Food rankings, a system we just completely made up.)

Not surprisingly, Jesse Jackson stole the show when he arrived unannounced, attracting a swarm of well-wishers as he stood near a small stage where WURD-900AM was hosting a live broadcast. This election, he said, is the most divisive he’s seen since the 1964 presidential race.

“There was a strong idealogical battle between segregation and desegregation. It was the Jefferson Davis Democrats and the Lincoln Republicans, in a sense,” he said. Then — as now — the country was churning with inner turmoil over race, civil-rights and criminal-justice issues. “It was a division, but eventually we prevailed,” he said. “Now we’re a better nation than we were, because we built bridges.”

Jackson said he chose to visit Philadelphia because the city could determine if Clinton wins the state’s electoral votes, and “that could determine the course of the nation.” He complained that states that don’t allow early voting — a group limited to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alabama, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — are engaging in “a more dignified form of voter suppression,” he said. “Voting is the crown jewel of our democracy.”

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