We jumped at the chance for a mini-vacation, or a long weekend away, this summer when Robert was asked to speak at a conference in Philly on a Friday. Getting to the airport on Thursday night proved challenging, since we ran into throngs of teenage concert-goers on the Silver Line; they yelled and squealed and generally made the ride unpleasant, and when our bus broke down inside the tunnel just beyond South Station, things got worse. The children tried to shake the bus, moving it from side to side; they cursed and used abusive language at the bus drive; they shouted, railed, waved fists, swayed drunkenly; and they drank more, what I thought was beer and what Robert said darkly was "probably something worse," from a refilled Gatorade bottle passed around. We were all eventually herded off our bus and down the tunnel to another waiting bus, behind the bus that was going to have to be towed, but one charming young man decided to stop along the way to relieve himself--right in front of me, in the tunnel. I flipped out, yelling at him and at the subway worker who was ushering along the culprit--now walking placidly onto the new bus while his urine dripped down the tunnel and he left wet footprints everywhere. "Whaddayou want me to do about it?" the T employee asked. I refused to get on a new bus with "these animals" (as another, more sympathetic T worker later called them), so Robert and I walked back to South Station, exited, and took a cab to the airport. So much for a fast Silver Line ride. . .
Despite interminable "weather" delays, once we got to the airport, our trip was relatively uneventful. We had a lovely flight, with absolutely no visible (or tangible) weather at all. When we landed and marched off to "the airport hotel," we discovered a small snag: Robert had merely told me to book a room at "the hotel that's at the airport," so I searched for Philadelphia airport hotels and discovered a Hilton, which is where we'd reserved a room. He was actually presenting at the Marriot, which is really right at the airport (it's connected), while the so-called Airport Hilton is actually further away. Ironically, we'd booked a special no-cancellation rate at the Hilton, so we got the Marriot people to give us a ride to the Hilton, and then vice versa in the morning for the conference.
Around 1:00, after Robert presented at the conference, got shuttled back to the Hilton, and changed out of his suit, we took a cab from the Hilton into downtown Philly (never call it that--it's City Center, not downtown, apparently) to our hotel for the next couple nights, the Sofitel. Robert had stayed here on business before, and he really loved it, in part for the decor, the service, the fruit sushi breakfast he's only been raving about for years, and the cushy pillows and duvets on the large beds. The hotel was indeed very modern, and the bed very large and soft. The bathroom was startlingly large--larger than our kitchen. They let us check in nice and early, and we quickly wandered back out for a walk around downtown Philly (there I go again). I particularly liked the Chrysler-building-wannabe skyscraper, as you can see above.
We walked over to Reading Terminal Market for another one of our progressive lunches: a wonderful, juicy, garlicky sandwich at Dinic’s, roast pork and garlicky greens; a Fisher’s Amish-style hot pretzel with butter (really quite different than New York softer hot pretzels); warm cookies from 4th Street Cookies; and a butterscotch-vanilla ice cream soda from Basset’s. Known as the oldest ice cream parlor in America, Basset's counter help answered Robert's bizarre inquiry, "What’s your signature flavor?" with a similarly bizarre answer: "Anything with vanilla." We thought the vanilla-butterscotch was indeed delicious, and we probably wouldn't have otherwise ordered it.
After lunch we walked to the Franklin Institute, where I hadn't been since the Girl Scouth Jamboree on the 75th anniverary, when I was 10 or so, and my troop spent the night in and around the famous giant heart. Robert had never been there at all, and he did love the heart exhibit (including information on elephant hearts), the aviation exhibit (restored Wright brothers stuff), the train exhibit with a neat role-playing game and a real train that they had to lay down track for in order to drive into the basement in the 1930s. Here's Robert in the train, and the giant heart is above left.
In our experience of wandering around, Philly has great fountains and public art--one display had giant game pieces, another had a two-story giant clothespin. When the museum closed, we walked back to our hotel via much art and many fountains and relaxed until our late dinner reservation.
We had dinner at the Iron Chef's restaurant: Morimoto’s. It was expensive, of course, and noisy, but really, really wonderful. Everything was delicious and inventive and very special. Even the cheapest omakase was fabulous, and the a la carte items were also standouts: tofu made at our table in a stone pot from soy milk and sea salt; zensai appetizers (three "pieces," really separate dishes, for $5 each, beautifully presented and including a chilled vinegary seaweed, so delicate you couldn't believe it was seaweed; a soy-glazed seared scallop; and a tasty bonito sashimi); and morimoto sashimi (giant cubes of fish, each buttery and melting, in five different varieties, topped with special sauces and garnishes.
Saturday morning, Robert was disappointed to realize that the Sofitel restaurant had stopped serving the fruit sushi breakfast platter a year ago. Still, we got the recipe, so I can make it for him someday at home. Gnawing instead on a hot pretzel bought on the street (nowheres near as good as Fisher's), we wandered over to the Independence Hall area, stopping first at the Visitors' Center to get our tickets--they're free, but you have to reserve them earlier in the day. We saw all the exhibits, as well as a short John Huston movie about Franklin and the other founders, and then we went through security into the Liberty Bell area. The bell is surprisingly unsecure itself, not under glass or anything, just behind a rope, so you can get within two feet of it. I was very shocked. Robert asked an unsmiling, silent man to take our picture in front of the bell. As Robert backed up, I tugged his arm and muttered through the side of my mouth, "You're right in front of it. Right in front of it. Right in front!" but Robert never noticed. The man eventually said, "You know, you're right in front of it, right?" and retook another with us three feet to our left. I like this picture, though. After all, it really is us right in front of the Liberty Bell.
Next we went into Congress Hall, then the Philosophical Society museum (in Philadelphia hall). We certainly don't recommend the latter: it's nothing more than a crazy mishmosh of items displayed in just one room: hand-drawn fish from the eighteenth century, modern color wheels, 1950s slides of corn from genetics studies, colonial silhouettes, and Indonesian bamboo sticks with poetry written on them. By this point, though our 12:15 tour for Independence Hall was ready, so we joined up with our group, having made efficient use of our time. Here's me in the room where they signed the Declaration of Independence.
We tried to make one final stop in the historic area, to see the Tiffany mosaic in the Curtis building, as noted on all of the maps, but they made you walk around all four sides of the building only to find out that it's entirely closed on the weekend--no Curtis building, no Tiffany mosaic. However, while walking around four sides of the building, we did see this pickup truck with Georgia plates and a lot of odd parts of bells (Liberty bells, perhaps?) in the back. I'm not really sure what it was doing there, but we took a picture anyway.
At this point, ready for lunch, we walked down 4th Street to the corner of 4th and South Streets, to Jim's Cheesesteaks. It was very hot as we stood in the long line that twined around the block. Robert walked down to the Rita's Water Ice on the funky South Street in between 2nd and 3rd and bought a very good lemon water ice to sustain us while we waited on line. We still finished it before we even entered the store to order. I got a cheesesteak with whiz (and onions, of course) and Robert got one with Provolone (and onions). We agreed that the whiz (no one says "cheese" whiz) was better because it moistened the beef more--the steak was very, very lean, too much so, and could have been more highly seasoned. Overall, it was good, but not great: the places in Dudley Square are holding their own by comparison, though we have to admit that the atmosphere at Jim's was good though.
After lunch, walking down South Street to the water, we stopped at Rita's again and had our first-ever Philly gelati, by which they mean a tall paper cup filled with frozen custard on the bottom of the cup, then a water ice of your choice, then a tip of frozen custard on the top (the frozen custard at Rita's, you see, is real, custardy and great, not just regular soft-serve ice cream, and it's impossible to get in Boston; the water ice is intense and softer than the Lemon Ice King, a little more like a Hawaiian shave ice); we had raspberry ice and vanilla custard, and the combination was indeed wonderful.
We walked over to the ships on the wharf, because we always like ships, and because we wanted something slightly different from eighth-grade American history lectures from tour guides. First we saw the Becuna submarine, where we managed to tag onto a tour led by a friendly man named Randy who had served on three ships in the Navy in WWII, one of which was the sister ship to the Becuna, identical to this ship in layout, mission, etc. He was able to keep saying things like, “I’d tell the guys in this room to wear their headphones, and I know they only did it while I was here, then as soon as I left, they’d tear them off; they said they needed to be able to hear the engines,” or “This was the most coveted sleeping quarters. sometimes I wasn’t getting along too well with the captain, and this is where I would just hide out.” The submarine was interesting even without Randy, but with him it became the best boat tour we've ever been on. Meanwhile, scrambling through the rooms listening to him, I got good at getting through the hatches feet first, and Robert kept thinking how awful it would be for him to have been confined on a submarine (head bumps galore). I read everything--all the placards and information sheets as we walked through--so when people on the real tour said things like, "Now, tell us, Randy, where was the laundry room?" I was able to cluck my tongue and mentally tell them where the washing machine had been, before it was removed to make room for additional equipment.
Next to the Becuna is the Olympia, a steel-hulled battleship, which featured in history as Teddy Roosevelt ’s big stick. This ship started us greatly by looking huge and spacious after the sub. It was interesting, but there wasn't as much to read, and we were following a family with two obnoxious little boys (I mentioned to Robert that a simple scavenger hunt--find the biggest gun on the ship, find the captain's quarters, find the bathrooms, etc.--would have kept them busy. Robert wanted to know why I hadn't made up a scavenger hunt for him!).
Finally, we walked down the pier to the sea museum itself, mainly because it was included in the admission for the ships, and we wandered through; it was small, but okay. The water at the water fountains tasted terrible, but Robert did get this picture of himself on a steerage bunk (just as short as the submarine bunks). He thinks his knees would have been bumped in the aisle quite a bit.
After a relaxing late afternoon nap, for dinner we went on our friend Laurie's recommendation to Monk’s on 16th and Spruce, not very far away at all from our hotel; while we waited for a table, we walked to a nearby Rita’s (they're very handy) on Spruce and had a passionfruit ice and vanilla custard gelati as an appetizer. Dinner was a small (25 mussel) bucket of mussels steamed in beer and leeks and garlic, with Belgian fries, bourbon mayo, and brown bread to soak in the juices, plus some nicely cooked octopus (braised in beer, then sauteed, served with a salad and with a lemony vinegraite) and a Belgian lambic (Boon framboise, tarter and more bitter than the sweet Lindemann’s we've had in the past). Happy and not too warm for once in the day, for dessert, we walked back past Rita’s and had a strawberry-vanilla custard swirl cone, before returning to our hotel around 10:30.
After a leisurely morning getting ready and packing (and enjoying more movies on HBO, HBO2, and Showtime), we checked out, leaving our bags in the lobby, and walked over to what various sources on the Internet seemed to tell me was the best dim sum in Philly, at Imperial Inn in Chinatown. Aside from the shock at the fact that the waitresses all sounded like middle American high school girls, rather than typical Chinatown dim sum cart drivers, we enjoyed the meal and the subtle differences from Boston, New York, and LA-style dim sum. We stopped for a post-dim-sum mango shake with boba at the Sidewalk Sweet Shack up the block, and then began our sightseeing for the day.
Our first stop was the National Constitution Center, a brand-new, gleaming, independently owned museum, not part of the National Historic Park. I do not recommend this museum to anyone: the museum itself had some well-done exhibits and some mildly irritating ones (including audio-visual exhibits with both a video and closed captioning, but with no option to skip the video if you're a fast reader who has already read everything), and their opening multimedia movie/live theatre presentation was oddly Disney-ish in feel, but it wouldn't have been terrible based solely on these criteria. In fact, the final room, with life-size bronze statues of all the founders standing and sitting around a room as though in the process of debate, was quite nice (here's Robert comparing his height to George Washington's). No, what really got me about the museum is that it's sneakily anti-abortion. I, at least, don't think before visiting a museum, in general, "Hm. I wonder if this museum is anti-abortion and anti-women's rights and will subtly send these messages in the subtext of all of their exhibits." It's generally not something I worry about, though now I may start. Why do I say this? Well, though I haven't found any hard evidence on the web beyond this link, which suggests connections between "pro-life"/anti-abortion webrings, the Philadelphia Constitution Party, and the National Constitution Center, the museum itself gave some clues.
Next, to calm me down, we walked over to the Betsy Ross house and workplace, which was pleasant enough, but rather skimpy on the actual historical information. More rewarding was the Franklin house/museum, with the wonderful courtyard you can walk around and read about Franklin's house and different rooms. The underground museum below (free) is old and run-down, rather musty-smelling and with some broken exhibits, but it's free.
At the end of our historical sight-seeing for the day, we decided to have a late lunch by sampling another cheesesteak. We took a cab to Geno’s/Pat's, and walked around looking at the sandwiches on the plates of patrons at both--to us, Geno's looked a whole lot better than Pat’s (more whiz, more juice), so we had one "whiz with" (cheese whiz with onions) to share. After lunch, we walked back through the old “Italian Market” area, which now seems to have a nice mix of taquerias in with Italian grocers and cafes. We saw crabs and fishmarkets along the way, and we had a lovely $2.50 shaved ice with a whole mango and five ripe strawberries chopped up with the freshly shaved ice and sugar syrup. Mounded up in a bowl, this delicious concoction took the one woman employee fully 15 minutes to make, at the going-out-of-business-next-week Kaisa Sweets. We certainly don't see how they made a profit on us, what with the labor and the amount of fruit, but then again, everything in this place was on sale: the counters, the shaved ice machine, the cash register, and so on.
Very full, but trying to walk off lunch so that we'd soon be ready for dinner, we walked up 9th to South Street, then down South Street to Avenue of the Arts and up to our hotel. It was a long walk, through many odd neighborhoods that Robert kept insisting weren't any good. My argument was that they weren't posh, but they were up and coming--a fledgling Internet cafe, a new Bread and Circus, etc. (Ironically, when we finally got out of the part of town that Robert thought was sketchy, we found two drunk guys hurling hubcaps at each other on a corner a block away from Symphony Hall.)
We discovered the analogue of the Copley Mall, which of course entailed a brief pass at the Williams-Sonoma summer sale table. From Williams-Sonoma, we walked straight to Roy’s: yes, we know Roy Yamaguchi's Hawaiian Regional Cuisine is not inherently Philadelphian, but he's the only one of the major Hawaiian chefs whose food we hadn't yet sampled either in Hawaii or via cookbook or both, and the restaurant was here, empty (at this unfashionably early hour), and close to our hotel. Robert had three-course price fixe for $33 (appetizer sampler, which included one rib, one dumpling, one large shrimp; full-size main course--mac-crusted fish in lobster butter sauce; and full-size melting chocolate souffle dessert) and I had three appetizers as my dinner: ahi poke, mochi-crusted soft-shelled crab, and papaya-hearts of palm salad. Everything was delicious--obviously not Morimoto-style inventive, or out-of-the-ordinary, but flavorful and fresh and Hawaiian, and we enjoyed the meal immensely.
We headed back to our hotel, where we just picked up our bags from the lobby closet and hopped in a cab to the airport. The airport got chaotic, as you might expect, when our plane was delayed for about an hour, and the plane before it they almost didn't let us on standby for. Still, we got back to Boston just fine, and it was a wonderful three-day vacation. I always tell Robert, I don't think anyone else can have as much fun on a vacation as we do.
Just for the sake of comparison, here are the two different kinds of cheesesteaks (all with onions, with whiz) we had: Jim's is on the left, and Geno's is on the right. Although the lighting is different, the color is pretty accurate: Geno's did indeed have better, crisper rolls and juicier meat.
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Created: 08/04/05. Last Modified: 08/12/05.