Although I’ve lived up and down the mid-Atlantic my entire life, I’ve only visited the city of Philadelphia on a few fleeting occasions. So, with Philly’s rep sky high and my hankering for good cheesesteaks at a fever pitch, I jumped on Amtrak, put my feet up, and girded myself for battle with the town’s culinary and cocktail scene. Just a week after their Super Bowl victory, I half-expected to step off the train and find some sort of picked-over hellscape, but the city was in good form. Steeped in history both American and alcoholic, Philly is a great drinking scene, with colorful blue-collar haunts slinging beers and boilermakers and a grounded and feisty cocktail scene. Despite its hard-bitten rep, I found Philly welcoming, with thirsty locals happy to chat over cocktails. And I say that as a Giants fan.
The first stop on our cocktail tour was The Franklin Bar aka the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company. In my book, any trip to Philly is incomplete until you check into this gaslit cocktail haunt – in 2015, as a budding cocktail aficionado, I had one of the better nights of my drinking life at the small downstairs bar. I can still taste that peanut butter and bourbon drink! So I felt at home as I entered the romantic space. In the low-light, we tried several drinks including the “Fast Beeting Heart” with genever, gin, pistachio orgeat, lime, Grand Marnier, and beet syrup. Despite using the accursed beet as an ingredient (sorry, I hate them) this drink had the right kind of vegetal verve, reinforced with orgeat richness and body. I then had the “Lost Dutchman” with bourbon, honey, and lemon (and a few other ingredients I missed). This was a little thin and stringent for my tastes, and the bourbon never quite came across with that sweet power.
It was a quick stroll down 18th Street to our next spot, the scenic The Love, a bar/restaurant with a relaxed art deco theme. We stood/sat at the dim bar feasting on the carb-laden Parker roles, a perfect foundation for a night out on the town. For our cocktail, I ordered the tall and shapely “Sunset Boulevard” with champagne, aperol, and lemon syrup. I liked this subversive drink, which presented as a throwaway bubbler but actually brings a bitter kick, leavened by the thick sweetness of the lemon syrup. I enjoyed sipping this one as we mixed with Philly sophisticates grabbing a quick bite or drink before dinner.
Proximity is the spree drinkers friend, so we crossed the street for A. Bar, a cozy scene bar with some hard-working bartenders slinging attractive drinks. I went with the “Lucy I’m Home” with Beefeater gin, aperol, St. Germain, ginger, lemon, and orange blossom water. This drink had a lot going for it but went a little heavy on the ginger – that’s no crime to a ginger fiend like me, but this was too much, and washed out the drink. Still, a fun Friday night scene there at A. Bar and I wish I’d had more time to walk down their formidable cocktail list.
To cap off our first night in Philly and to actually, you know, eat dinner, we ventured into the heart of legendary South Philly. Off South Street there’s a low-profile eatery named Serpico that you should really try – jarringly classy, we had the luck and thrill of scoring seats overlooking the bustling open kitchen. I don’t dare to explain it, but watching your food being cooked makes it taste a tad better – you sense that effort, you know? To sip while spectating, I ordered the “Sparkling” with sparkling wine, plum, honey, and Peychaud’s. Easy to taste with that simmering, organic sweetness off the plum and softness of the honey, this was the perfect accompaniment to the barrage of fine food we indulged in. Helluva night!
On our second night, after a fabulous dinner at Bibou (you must go) we stopped by the Library Bar in the Rittenhouse Hotel. The main sitting area is stunning, with just the right level of mystery and a backdrop of hundreds of books. I mean, that’s just heaven. The back bar is classic Chicago, dark and dignified with a backlight. My drink was the “Smoke and Mirrors” a stunner of a cocktail served in a smokey tea pot with Hedrick’s gin, grapefruit, Rooibos tea, and vanilla. This easy combo of the vegetal and sweet citrus was a perfect way to conclude a night out – with the vanilla/tea tinge at the end, electrified with gin, I felt like I was having a cuppa before bed. Except a lot more fun.
Rise and shine tourist! I’m not a huge brunch drinker – sure, a little day drinking never hurt anyone, but I try to stay focused on carbs. However, the lengthy brunch cocktail list at Talula’s Garden caught my eye, so I weighed in, ordering the “Quick Study,” a winter daiquiri with rum, lime, and mysterious winter spaces. This was marvelous, and I say that as a committed daiquiri aficionado – a divine conglomerate of the citrus and the fall, I loved this soft and complicated little drink. Worth the brunch trip alone. Next up was the “Doctor” with gin, lime, and grapefruit. I’m a sucker for a nice gimlet, and this was fine, although I thought the grapefruit was a bit stringent and threw the overall taste.
Accompanied by some locals just dripping in food and drink knowledge, I knew our last night in Philly would be special. We started in Center City, at 1 Tippling Space, a roomy, eccentric space with tons of seating and a tchotchke-laden ascentic that swerved wildly between Ole Philly and the Wild West. Sitting at a high table behind the bar, I ordered up two drinks, the first the “El Presidente” with white rum, blanc vermouth, Grand Marnier, and house made grenadine. A straight-forward and even showcase for the vermouth, this was a good winter evening cocktail, with a nice sugary after taste. Next was the seasonal “Red Tail” with whiskey, Sly Fox IPA, cheery heering, apple jack, lemon, and peach bitters. This robust, full-bodied drink looked beautiful and came to play, with nice yeasty herbal overtones and a conspiratorial undercurrent of citrus.
Stepping out into the chilly night air, we made a quick jaunt over to a wondrous bar, the covert and sinful Ranstead Room. This spot evokes a New York opium den (the good parts) and is well-hidden, tucked into an alley – our attempt to step in the previous evening failed because the bar was so packed. Undeterred, we pressed on the next night, and were lucky enough to score a red leather booth. I just loved this bar! Adorned in garish red light and tasteful 1970s erotica, this lounge is a gem. This vibe may have overwhelmed my senses, because I neglected to record what I actually drank! But the drinks were quite good, and I can’t wait to visit the Room again.
The conclusion of our Philly jaunt was Friday Saturday Sunday, a well-thought of fine dining restaurant in Center City. The bar was hopping on a Sunday night, which was a bit of a shame because I didn’t get to meet my Instagram buddy Paul MacDonald, who was fully engaged in dishing out cocktails to a pack of local drinkers. Next time. Dining upstairs, I ordered the cake-ish “Blurred Line” with nicaraguan rum, lime, grapefruit, cinnamon, allspice, and egg white. Just the right amount of savor and richness, this winter spice-laden cocktail went well with some red meat.
We left FSS and strolled back through Rittenhouse Square, illuminated by winter lights, for one last twilight walk through the city. But no trip to Philly would be complete, of course, without an early morning breakfast stop at Wawa the next day – egg and cheese croissant FTW. And with that, I said farewell to the city of brotherly love, til next time!