Anthony Bourdain Exposes, Tickles Philly’s Underbelly

Philly does a lousy job of playing it cool—which is why we’ll never be all that cool.

Nearly five years ago, I came to Philadelphia for the first time in my life, to interview for the job that would eventually bring me here to live. The night before that interview, I realized I’d forgotten to pack a few necessities—and so wandered down out of the Doubletree Hotel and into Center City to do some shopping.

Eventually, I picked up a few things in a small clothing store that was getting ready to close for the night. The clerk noticed my debit card was from Kansas and struck up a conversation.

“So,” I asked. “What do you think about Philadelphia?”

A pause. “It’s OK, but there’s not much to do here,” the clerk said. “If you want to have fun, you go to New York.”

I laughed inwardly, because as a kid who grew up in a town of less than 3,000 people, I was familiar with the syndrome: The next town over is always a little better than your own. I was surprised to see it in Philadelphia, but I had a few things to learn about this city—about how the perpetual chip on its shoulder masks one of the deepest-seated municipal inferiority complexes around.

And I thought about that this week when Anthony Bourdain’s Philly episode finally aired.

Nothing so perfectly exemplified this city and its troubled little-brother relationship with the rest of the world as the fact that Bourdain—through several television networks and dozens upon dozens of episodes of high-middlebrow food porn shot throughout the world—had never bothered to make an official televised visit here. And oh, how it stuck in the city’s collective craw. I heard it a few times around town, before Bourdain ever arrived. “We’ve got a great restaurant scene! He just doesn’t know it! Really!”

We tried to act like we didn’t care, but we cared so much. When Bourdain finally arrived to shoot an episode of The Layover, we were validated. We followed his every move. We speculated about what joints might make it on the air, and which ones might get cut. We knew we’d finally made the big time. “See? We’ve got a great restaurant scene!”

We care so much. We do a lousy job of playing it cool. Which is why we’ll never be all that cool.

Philly? You don’t need Anthony Bourdain to tell you that DiBruno’s is great or that Michael Solomonov is a national treasure or that drinking hot dog water is a damned stupid idea. You know this already. Bourdain’s stamp of approval doesn’t change anything.

Instead, we have viewing parties.

There’s nothing wrong with this. But it’s funny, because Philly’s reaction to Anthony Bourdain coming to town is almost exactly how my last Kansas hometown—population 80,000—would’ve reacted: thrilled and vindicated to be on national TV, DVRing the proceedings to see if you or your friends got on the air. There’s none of the swagger or cool confidence you’d expect from an East Coast metropolis of more than a million people.

That is, oddly enough, part of Philadelphia’s charm: This is not a city that tends to get too big for its britches. That makes it more affordable, easier to raise a family, easier to settle than places with (ahem) more robust self-confidence.

So Anthony Bourdain has come and gone. But nothing’s really changed. We’re still the same Philadelphia we were last week. Just don’t tell anybody: That’s plenty awesome enough.