By Jim Ferri
Philadelphia is a food town right up there with the best of them.
I think it became a food destination both because of its longevity – it was the center of our fledgling nation back in the 1700s – and the waves of various immigrants that settled there in the ensuing centuries. Many of them, I would imagine, opened restaurants.
I’d eaten in a number of good Philadelphia restaurants but one time I decided to test the opposite ends of the city’s gastronomic spectrum, so to speak, by eating award-winning “early American” food and then sampling something a bit more modern – Philadelphia’s much heralded cheesesteak. As it turned out the ambiance of each restaurant appropriately matched the fare being served.
When you’re searching for “historical” American food you can’t beat Philadelphia’s City Tavern, which is both a historic site and an award-winning restaurant. In fact, the restaurant goes so far as to boast that “there is no other place in the world where you can experience authentic 18th-century American culinary history.” Believe it.
The original restaurant, constructed in 1772, was demolished after a fire in the mid-19th century. But due of its historical significance – Washington and other notables frequented the place, and it was the unofficial meeting place of the First Continental Congress – in 1948 Congress commissioned a historically accurate reconstruction of it.
Visit it today and with the waiters and waitresses in period dress you’ll feel that you’re dining in revolutionary times. Everything on the menu is derived from colonial recipes and they deliver on what they call the “customs and foods of 18th-century Colonial America.”
One thing both Marjorie and I really enjoyed was the tastings of the “revolutionary ales”: General Washington’s Tavern Porter (“brewed from a genuine recipe on file in the rare manuscripts room of the New York Public Library”), Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 Tavern Ale, Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce (based on a recipe from Benjamin Franklin, written while he was Ambassador to France) and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Ale.
It was a fun thing to try and both of us wound up liking Washington’s brew the best. (If you’re not a beer fan they also serve wine and there’s a full bar.) Whenever you’re in Philadelphia I recommend having lunch or dinner here, perhaps after you’re exhausted from wandering the historic district.
It was on a Saturday afternoon when we wandered down to South Street to Jim’s Steaks on the corner of 4th Street. Many Philadelphians have their favorite cheesesteak places and when I asked a contact of mine in Philadelphia for a recommendation she told me to go to Jim’s.
When we visited at lunchtime on Saturday we didn’t know what to expect. What we found was near pandemonium compared to the quiet, reserved ambiance of City Tavern.
It was a smallish store with a line circling twice around inside the store when we got there. Behind the counter several guys were pumping out cheesesteaks and other orders without saying a word. On a wall covered with photos and signatures of famous local customers, was the sign “cash only no credit cards.” Another said “Jim’s only serves U.S. Western top-of-the-round steer beef.”
Behind the counter, one guy who looked exhausted and half-asleep put his head on the counter. He picks it up after 30 seconds or so, as the line snakes out the door and the pace behind the counter picks up.
The menu on the wall said it all: steak sandwich $6.85…cheese steak with whiz $7.60…cheese steak with provolone $7.60…pepper steak with sweet peppers $7.45…we grabbed ours and headed up the rear staircase to a small room on the second floor. All the tables were taken, and while we waited a few minutes for one I watched as different people attacked their cheesesteaks and hoagies as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. Many just opened their mouths as wide as they could and took a huge bite as everything oozed out the sides.
Neither one of us cared for it all that much, although I didn’t think it was terribly bad. It’s probably just an age thing – if you weren’t brought up on it as a child, it’s more of an acquired taste.
If I was to do it all again I’d save all my money for another go at the menu and the ales at City Tavern. Then again, it’s obvious there are many who enjoy Philly’s various cheesesteak heavens that are scattered all over the city.
If you go:
City Tavern Restaurant
138 South 2nd Street at Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tel: (215) 413.1443
400 South Street
Philadelphia PA 19147
Tel: (215) 928-1911