South Street: Everyone’s Meeting Place
When you’re standing in Headhouse Square, you’re just a block north of the famous South Street, which is really a “neighborhood” of its own. Long the realm of partiers of all stripes and persuasions, there’s a “don’t care” attitude here that has always made it LGBT-friendly. Last year’s South Street Easter Promenade was coordinated by Fran Price, who runs Gay Pride: need we say more?
Bridget Foy’s restaurant/bar is emblematic of this openness. Bridget (her parents opened the spot) was hosting same-sex ceremonies before marriage was legal in Pennsylvania, and hosted two the week it became legal. It’s so much fun here that you forget how good the food is, and I savor my meal here, from the opening tomato/fennel soup to the amazingly sweet Crackerjack Sundae (yes, it tastes just like it sounds).
Two of my other favorite South Street restaurants are within steps of Bridget’s: Me n Mo, a nifty little meatball place that just opened. While you can enjoy traditional meatballs, they also have some fascinating takes on the idea, from “Buffalo Chicken” to a “Hong Kong” pork meatball (great fresh pastas made right on site too). There’s also Istanbul Restaurant, which I’ve loved since its original incarnation further up South Street. The cuisine ranges from mouth-watering kebabs to such Turkish delights as Imam Biyaldi, which makes even eggplant delicious.
Walk up South Street and you’ll see an area in transition, with all kinds of new spots among the familiar. Prime among the former is the Milennium Dance Complex, a new all-welcoming spot for dance classes and, soon, performances. Frequented by dance teams of the stars and people like you and me who want to learn, they’re so friendly and so devoted to diversity that I wish them great luck as the place, already a huge success, expands across its three floors. Further west, I stop in Totem, and while the first thing I notice is the chic clothing, my eyes are soon drawn to their amazing array of skin care products (my well-known weakness), from citrus bead oil to wormwood-absinthe cream and “Man Bar” soap.
Keep walking west. When you see the massive, stunning mosaics, you’re at Magic Gardens, one of the street’s prime attractions. The creations of local artist Isaiah Zagar, the mosaics adorn many a building in the area, and here you can tour his workshop, another popular backdrop for gay couples on their wedding day. (How could it not be?)
Coming back into the (relative) reality of South Street, you know where you are now, right? You’re at 10th Street, and if you take a right and walk three blocks or so, you’re back in the Gayborhood: funny how that happens, isn’t it? But I’m not going to let you go back yet, because we still have to explore a very hip new area that probably hasn’t yet made it onto the tourist radar but is about as happening a place as any in the city.
East Passyunk: Where South Philly Comes Alive
I’m speaking, of course, of East Passyunk, which many people are calling “the Gayborhood South.” Recent years have brought an overlay of chic to this neighborhood that was previously…well, kinda boring (I’m just sayin’). There’s even an LGBT group now called QOTA (Queers on the Avenue), with monthly social activities open to visitors as well. The “Passyunk Corridor” is aligned, as the name implies, along East Passyunk Street, a diagonal that runs from South Street at its northern end deep into the heart of South Philly. It’s about a ten-minute walk from South Street, twenty or so if you’re heading there straight from the Gayborhood.
Walking down Passyunk (that’s “pash-unk” to a local), I’m amazed at the changes that have occurred since I was last here. Fabulous restaurants, hip boutiques, cool little coffeehouses side by side with long-term and blessedly unhip South Philly establishments. I love the modish urban menswear in Metro Men, the local crafts in Nice Things Handmade, the gourmet groceries and natural skin care products in Volta Market, the cool vintage styles in Era Atomica. Overlooking it all: the famous (and gorgeous) fountain at Tasker Street.
And oh my god, the food! There are so many great places (many of them less than a couple of years old) that you could eat yourself into paradise without ever leaving this one single street. At Palladino’s on Passyunk, a casually stylish spot with plentiful outdoor seating, I have this amazing cheese-stuffed focaccia that whets my appetite for more of Luke Palladino’s brilliant cooking.
I love the warm welcome and lovely Northern European food at gay-owned Noord, the contemporary American cuisine at Fond (desserts like a dark chocolate tart with espresso mascarpone are reason enough to head there), and the titular offerings at Bing Bing Dim Sum, the newly-opened brainchild of the pair behind the Gayborhood’s Cheu Noodle Bar. Another favorite new opening: P’unk Burger, where the emphasis is on sustainability and organic products, though your main interest will be perfect burgers from traditional to ahi or veggie, and fab shakes from chocolate and vanilla to speculoos or Earl Grey/sriricha. If you need more energy for all this eating, pay a visit to B2, a hipster-y coffeehouse that has great sandwiches and also a wonderful variety of fresh juices.
Speaking of coffeehouses: if you take the subway (hell, even if you don’t), be sure to stop in Cinemug, at Broad and Tasker. If the name doesn’t clue you in, the movie posters on walls and ceiling, and shelves of videos, let you know this is a combination coffeehouse/movie rental. Wednesday movie screenings continue the theme, the desserts are homemade, and there’s a nice selection of local art for sale. It’s one of Philadelphia’s coolest new spots.
You know an area’s hip (and gayifying) when 12th Street Gym opens a branch here. This one is the 12Fit Spa and Gym at the Marine Club on Washington Street at the area’s northern reaches. Or when GayFest! chooses a theater just off Passyunk for this year’s festival: Theatre Exile, which is one of the most appealing edgy venues in town, often offering LGBT work in its mix of daring and original productions. In just a few years this neighborhood has made serious strides, and as I walk up East Passyunk, I have a thought that startles me a little: “I could actually LIVE here.” Who’d have thought?
Home at last
So our tour has come full circle, and you can now head back from the “new Gayborhood” to the original, just twenty minutes’ walk north—you DO know where you’re going from here, right? I told you it was easy: armed with a good map it’s nearly impossible to get lost. You know what, though? Maybe you want to get lost. There’s always something to find in this city so full of amazingly evocative architecture, with narrow cobblestone streets spoking off from major thoroughfares like a gift from another century. This is a city with so many pleasures, and such a variety of pleasures. It’s home to fascinating neighborhoods, and such a variety of fascinating neighborhoods, that you owe it to yourself to explore them all. However much the locals (myself included) like to gripe about it, Philadelphia’s really a pretty fabulous place to check out. I’m just sayin’.
Philadelphia’s Museum Row
While I wouldn’t exactly call it a “neighborhood,” the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is Philadelphia’s must-see Museum District. I’ll even let you take a taxi here, as it’s a bit of a hike. Walk down this broad, tree-lined avenue, and you’ll come to museum after museum. Start at the far end with the most famous: the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tel: 215-763-8100. www.philamuseum.org). Don’t miss the present exhibits on Impressionism and Scandinavian design, or what’s sure to be a blockbuster opening in September with major works of three greats: Titian, Rubens, and Michelangelo. They also have an annex, the Perelman Building (2525 Pennsylvania Ave. Tel: 215-763-8100. www.philamuseum.org/information/45-289-100.html) that houses exhibits of design from textiles and photographs to furniture. The Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tel: 215-278-7000. www.barnesfoundation.org) displays the eclectic collection of founder Albert Barnes (particularly strong in modern painting and vintage applied arts). The science lovers’ Franklin Institute (271 N. 21st St. Tel: 215-448-1200. www.fi.edu), is great for kids, who can walk through the giant heart or pilot their own plane. The Academy of Natural Sciences (1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tel: 215-299-1000. www.ansp.org) offers an appealingly offbeat take on science, as in its current exhibit, “Animal Grossology” (through August 15), which they promise is the “slimiest, stinkiest, and downright yuckiest exhibit”—how can you pass that up? Finally, I think you can guess which artist’s plaster casts are on offer at the Rodin Museum (2151 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tel: 215-763-8100. www.rodinmuseum.org). Do a day of museum-hopping, and then catch a cab back to Center City.