explore: a weekend in Philadelphia

Inspired (as so often) by Sam, who recently took a why-not? trip there, and spurred by the news that a WWI-themed opera would be playing for two weeks only, I decided to look into the feasibility of a mid-February weekend in Philly. For its balmy climate. The stars aligned: we could catch a Sunday matinee at the opera, go out for dinner at a BYOB–giving us an excuse to drink the *outstanding* wine we were given for Christmas–and since it was President’s Day weekend, catch the “American Spirits” Prohibition exhibition at the Constitution Center for free. I found a $99 deal at the city center Sheraton, roundtrip Bolt Bus tickets for about $30 each, and managed to book us into the incredible Matyson for a late-ish Saturday night dinner (not an easy feat, as I’d forgotten that this was the closest Saturday to Valentine’s Day, and shit was BOOKED UP. Urgh.)

Pictures! (and highlights, after the jump.)

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Best things:

– Matyson dinner was unreal. To start we had two dishes that combined dark, bitter greens with meat and grains, and even though I know you’re all sick to death of hearing the words “kale” and “quinoa,” the combination in my starter with squash, pepitas, parmesan, and oregano was bright, sweet, and bitter at once, and only slightly trumped by T’s brussel sprouts with smoked venison sausage, barley, and egg. Although there were some fantastic-sounding fish dishes, and a bouillabaisse special, we had a serious red to drink. Beef-cheeks-serious. Both the beef and the braised pork belly were basically melting into the greens, and we sat at our high four-top in the front of the restaurant and toasted to having won at life. Sadly there were lines out the door at both the nearby fancy cocktail bars, but we found a fun, un-artisanal one for a couple of perfectly decent post-prandial Dark & Stormys.

– The Prohibition exhibition was inventive and smart in ways that reminded me of the NYPL’s Lunch Hour show – you could follow the Charleston steps on a proper dance floor while a jazz band played, and the passing of the complex prohibition legislation was rendered as a flashing carnival ride that turned Congress from “wet” to “dry.” You could sit in a pew and listen to Billy Sunday preach, and play a rumrunner in a video game trying to outmaneuver the feds. It was great, and based on Daniel Okrent‘s book and the Ken Burns documentary, so there was a lot of information packed in with the fun and games. It’s on until April 28th, if you want to go. Go!

– We didn’t do any serious history touring, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the pageantry around the Liberty Bell and the founding of the Republic at the Independence National Historical Park is accompanied by a constant set of reminders that this was a very, very partial vision of “freedom.” Amid the displays about the signing, there’s an excavation showing the proximity of the slave quarters to the exact spot where the Declaration was signed. You really couldn’t visit the Liberty Bell and come away with an uncomplicated, jingoistic pride in national origins – and according to T, at least, this is all pretty new – he doesn’t remember much mention of slavery when he visited as a kid, and certainly not this prominently. So, progress.

– It was pretty cold, so we couldn’t exactly saunter freely, but we did explore a little bit of hipster Philly, north of 3rd street, and it was great. Lovely boutiques and vintage stores, a bit of Brooklyn-fetishism but not too much, and tons of places I’d like to go back to when the weather’s nicer.

– The opera was interesting and pretty impressive. I’m not in any position to judge the music (this apparently won the 2012 Pulitzer for music, which I didn’t know existed) but the staging was elaborate, and the whole thing pretty absorbing and atmospheric. It’s a small and unashamedly sentimental story, based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, and although I have my reservations about it all historically, I’m glad I went, and glad to see that it was a packed house.

– Phood in Philly is phantastic. We had four meals in all, and I remember them all in great detail – a ham and cheese at the counter at Smucker’s in the buzzy Reading Terminal Market, with incredible salty slabs of ham, made by a lovely young Amish lady in a peach apron and neat white headdress. Brunch in colorful El Vez [music at link] –  inventive tacos and unbelievable fried yucca smothered in some sauce (this might not have been on my plate, exactly, but T was very generous with it…). Huge sandwiches and craft beers at the Corner Foodery… not to mention Matyson (have I mentioned Matyson?) Not a bad reason to make a weekend trip, in my book.


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