Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Back home from Philly (Part 1 of 2)

Traci and I are back home from a whirlwind week in Philadelphia and Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ. This report covers the tourist side of our trip, in the days before Philcon. The next report will be the Philcon experience. Without further ado, some highlights!

WIZ WIT: We arrived in Philly three days before Philcon. It was our first visit to the City of Brotherly Love so we wanted tourist time. First stop: Pat's King of Steaks to sample the local cuisine. So much hype about Philly's legendary cheesesteak sandwiches. So much said that it wasn't a genuine Philly experience unless you ordered it "wiz wit", which means with Cheez Whiz and with onions. So I did. Verdict: pretty good, but I still wasn't quite sure about Philly's love affair with Cheez Whiz. So I did the natural thing when unsure about cheesesteaks wiz wit, and after just exploding my daily cholesterol count -- I finished it and went to Jim's Steaks (visiting bookstores along the way) and ordered another cheesesteak wiz wit. Verdict: Pat's was good. I like Jim's better. Tastier onions. Better balance between all the flavors. Current cholesterol count after two Philly cheesesteaks in one afternoon: off the charts. Epilogue: we later talked to lots of native Philadelphians about cheesesteaks and not a single native liked Cheez Whiz, or would even go near the stuff. Go figure.
Traci abstained from the whole cheesesteak thing and we decided later that evening to hit the Continental Midtown which was fabulous. Crazy 50's moderne decor, basket chair-pods hanging from ceiling chains, huge calamari salads, lobster mac & cheese, and yummy sidecar drinks. After a long dinner, we had a nightcap up on their roof deck and it was the end of a great first day.

WORLD-CLASS: Maybe Cheez Whiz wasn't such a big hit for us, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art sure was. I expected it to be pretty good, but it was truly one of the best museums I've seen. Good Picassos, Braques, Bocklins, Dalis....great ones by Degas, Toulouse-Latrec, Turner, Van Gogh, and Rubens. The only disappointment was Duchamp's NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE was loaned to Paris and wasn't there. Definitely one of the ones I wanted to see, but overall, what a great museum. We managed to hit an exhibition of Frank Gehry's design process over at the Perelman, and later, the Rodin Museum, which was tremendous -- especially THE GATES OF HELL (detail photo seen above).

LIFE IN THE SHIRE: We spent time with Joe McCabe (editor of FearNet.com) and his photographer wife Sophia Quach. Joe will be moving to LA next year because of his job, but he loves Philly. He said he feels like living in and around the town is like "living in the Shire." Personally, I can see why, when urban murals like the one above are part of the everyday scenery. This wasn't what Joe was talking about when he made the comment, but I've never seen a better piece of urban mural than this one (created by Meg Saligman). Just part of everyday life in Philly.

MORE URBAN MAGIC: Philly's Chestnut Park reminds me of Paley Park in NYC -- a secluded green oasis in an urban jungle. Love this gate designed by Christopher Ray, and the funky animal sculptures sprinked throughout. This wasn't a planned destination, but just surprised us out of nowhere.

STRANGE BIRD: Loved this bird, which is a detail from the same gate (seen in the upper right corner of the sculpture).

WEDNESDAY WITH WYETHS: I'm a huge admirer of the work of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Harvey Dunn and Dean Cornwell. Really, you can't go wrong with any of the Brandywine artists, or with Andrew Wyeth. So Joe and Sophia took us out to Chadds Ford, and the Brandywine compound, where we visited the Brandywine Museum. The museum has a little beeper that sounds off when visitors get too close to the paintings. I set the beeper off a lot when I saw paintings like the TREASURE ISLAND one above. Didn't care either. I've stared at these in books for years, so seeing the originals up-close was a huge experience. We visited N.C. Wyeth's house and studio as well, and it made me want to fly home right there and get back to work. So inspiring.

BE AFRAID: Had to show these. Joe works in the Comcast Center which dominates Philly's skyline and downtown. That's currently where Fearnet.com's corporate offices are. This is their bathroom signage.

LIBERTY & INDEPENDENCE: Our last tourist day in Philly was largely spent visiting the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall (the Hall seen in background here behind the Bell). In previous days, we'd had several meals at Reading Terminal Market, and we did another lunch there (DiNic's and Bassett's). For the most part, I hate formal tours, but we did a brief one for Independence Hall, and it was well worth it. All and all, Philly's a tremendous town! Philcon Report in the next blog entry...


Blogger ces said...

Another wonderful trip!

I'm too sleepy to be more lucid. Had to get up at the crack of dawn for the drywall repair folks show up any minute now to work on all 3 floors of our condo - we had prep work to do - and they called at 7:30 am (about 1 minute after the alarm went off) to ask if they could come then. Guess what they were told.

Look forward to Part 2!!!

11:05 AM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Thanks, Christine! I hope everything's OK over there! Normal repair or emergency repair? Hope you're OK.

Yeah, it was a great trip, but a mountain of catch-up to do now that I'm home. Will blog about Philcon sometime very soon...if we miss each other before Thursday -- Happy Thanksgiving!

11:25 AM  
Blogger DMcCunney said...

Thanks for the write-up on the tourist part of Philly. I grew up there, and still love the place, even though I'm in the Big Apple now. I could have told you about the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It isn't the Met in New York, but it's in the same class. And the Rodin Museum is a satellite of the Phila. Museum of Art, operated by them.

Another lovely art experience is the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, which has an extensive collection of Arthur Rackham illustraions, and sometimes trots them out for display.

And I see you made the pilgrimage to Pat's Steaks. If I recall correctly, Jim's Steaks is the byproduct of a schism in the family that operates Pat's, so they are competing on authenticity.

An old friend once called Philadelphia "the Junk Food Capital of the world", citing the cheesesteak, the soft pretzel, and Italian water ice as examples. I think he was on to something. And there was even an attempt at franchising the concept: there was a fast food chain called Philly Mignon that featured the cheesesteak on its menu. The one in NYC didn't last, and I don't know if they still exist. Likely not: the FTC went after the franchisors in 1984 for various rules violations.

Personally, I like the steaks without cheese, and just sauteed onions. I don't care for Cheez Whiz, and on one of Pat's steaks is the only time I ever ate it. I suspect the hot sauce available to add to your steak can cover a multitude of sins.

Should you get back there again, I also recommend Hilary's ice cream parlor on Chestnut St., which advertises a higher than anywhere else butterfat content in their product. You break your diet just looking in the window.

Should Hilary's not be around, Basset's Ice Cream is also recommended. Bassets is in the Reading Terminal Market, which is a Philadelphia treasure. If it's food, the Terminal Market has it, usually fresh from the farm. Having the Terminal Market a block away was a major fringe benefit for the Millenium Philcon worldcon.

And if you like seafood, I'll point at Bookbinders, and push the oyster stew. Philly also has a large and healthy Chinatown, though my favorite Chinese place, the Mayflower, was gone when I went back down for Millphil. A shame, as thier hot and sour soup was the reference standard I used in judging other Chinese places.

I liked Joe McCabe's comment likening Philly to "living oin the Shire". I think part of that was the result of city planning. When I was growing up there, there was an unwritten law that you couldn't build a building taller than the statue of Willim Penn atop the city hall clock tower (Which is about 30 stories tall, I believe.) So Philadelphia never developed skyscraperitis, and you don't realize how big a city it really is because it doesn't *feel* big. When I was living there it was also called a "city of neighborhoods", with areas that had maintained a consistent composition and identity for many years. Locals old me at Philcon that that is beginning to revive again, which I think is for the good.

Thanks for the kind words for my old home town. It has quirks (like Sunday "blue" laws) that are hold overs from the Puritan origins, but it has a rich history and character, and I'm pleased to see others recognize it.

2:55 PM  
Blogger ces said...

Thanks John! Actually the repairs were sort of inbetween normal and emergency. We think they either came from a minor earthquake or the condo just naturally "settling" - we bought it brand-new, a couple of weeks before they actually finished it. The one in the middle floor ceiling was just a fracture, but the one in the bottom floor staircase had cracked all the way through & had even begun a perpendicular crack. So, when we had the construction company's maintenance person install a new microwave last week, he noticed them & said the sooner we got them fixed, the better.

We're going out to a restaurant on Lake Union for turkey day dinner - no cooking, no leftovers, & no dishes to wash! May yours & Traci's day be filled with turkey & love!

6:39 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Hi, Dennis --

Just finished posting a Philcon report above, and saw your reply here. Awesome writeup. Printed this out so I'll have it when I return to Philly somewhere down the road. Traci and I loved Reading Terminal Market, had an ice cream called Gadzooks at Bassett's, and visited several other eateries there in the days before Philcon. Love that place. Great to hang with you in Philly. It was a pleasure!

Hi, Christine -- Happy for you when the repairs are over. Yikes. Good for you escaping the fuss and muss of Thanksgiving prep. :) Have a great one!

9:31 PM  
Blogger DMcCunney said...

Ahhh, so you did discover Bassets and the Reading Terminal Market. Excellent!

Should you get a chance the next time you are there, check out the terminal itself. What is now the entrance to the Philadelphia Convention Center used to be the Reading Railroad station train shed, with the executive offices of the railroad housed above. The architects did a nice job, incorporating some of the original tracks into the design in a nod to the history of the building.

10:20 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

We missed that detail, but I'll remember it for next time. Thanks! :)

7:45 AM  
Blogger Mair said...

John, great report on your visit - I have lived here all of my life and truly enjoy hearing other's interpretations on the area. And, yes, "real" cheesesteak fans do not go for the Cheez Whiz - out here in the suburbs, they use American Cheese - a nice mild goey mess - but delicious.

Now going to read your Part 2...

11:56 AM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Thanks, Mair. Yeah, Cheez Whiz is pretty horrible no matter how you present it. :) Philly was terrific! Hope to see you down the road! Stay in touch...

9:13 AM  

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