Visitors to Philadelphia can spend a whole day exploring the historical attractions of the urban core between 6th Street and Penn’s landing — the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, etc. Today, the neighborhood these national historical treasures call home is a thriving commercial district and a hub of activity for Philadelphia’s arts, dining and nightlife. The Old City district is full of cultural opportunities (of the high culture variety). Below are some suggestions for whiling away a fall evening in Old City.
Beyond the local and national historical content of the neighborhood, the two most obvious reasons to visit Old City are the Ritz Cinema at the Bourse and First Fridays. Friday and Saturday nights, the Philly Shuttle drops off and picks students up here between 7:15 and 7:30, and every two hours after that until 1:30 a.m. The Ritz at the Bourse and the nearby Ritz East show major contemporary films that don’t make the 12-plex circuit: Ritz at the Bourse is currently showing “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” and Helena Bonham Carter’s new film “Toast,” among others, while its 2nd Street sister is hosting the 20th Philadelphia Film Festival through November 3rd.
Many cities and towns have adopted the First Preferred-Day-of-the-Week format to draw locals out into highlighted commercial districts once a month. On the first Friday of every month in Philadelphia, Old City galleries throw open their doors and occasionally put out crackers and seltzer water for the throngs of patrons and casual consumers who flood the neighborhood. Most of what’s in the galleries is out of a typical student’s price range, but the local pop artists who set up camp along the stoops and across the alleyways offer their eclectic work for a fraction of the price of anything being sold indoors. On a whole, the exhibits can be hit or miss, but the atmosphere and the experience are worth it. The festivities run until 9 p.m., after the regular closing time of most galleries. If you visit Old City on a Friday night, whether or not you intend to partake in the First Friday activities, make sure you have reservations if you want a nice sit-down meal.
Regular listeners to WXPN (88.5 FM) have likely heard of Tin Angel, the “acoustic café” associated with Serrano Restaurant (20 S. 2nd St., between Market and Chestnut). The Tin Angel hosts critically acclaimed musical acts throughout the year, offering one or two acts each night, Wednesday through Sunday. This is not a large venue, so don’t expect a rock concert, but the acts are nevertheless varied and of quality. Most tickets run between $10-$25; you can order dinner from Serrano, which will set you back $15-$25 per entrée, or order a large mezze platter to graze on with a group of friends for $28.
Old City has a surprising number of casual pizza and cheesesteak joints, an unsurprising number of dimly lit white-tablecloth establishments and something of a void in the middle of the spectrum. This is a trendy area; the rule of thumb with trendy restaurants is, unfailingly, “You don’t always get what you pay for.” That said, some of the city’s culinary standouts call Old City or adjacent Society Hill home: Catalan tapas restaurant Amada (217-219 Chestnut Street) is one of Iron Chef Jose Garces’ best local establishments. All those small plates can add up, however — book early and try this one for Restaurant Week in January to keep the bill under control. Michael Solomonov’s Israeli restaurant Zahav (237 Saint James Place), across from the Ritz East, serves Mediterranean cuisine from farther east at a more modest price point ($18-$30 for entrees). The fresh laffah bread and hummus that the open kitchen continually produces are not complimentary, but they are worth the expense. To find Zahav, walk south from Market Street on 2nd until you hit the Ritz East, cobblestones and a very old, angular intersection — you should have arrived at St. James Place. Focus on the second story of the east side of the road, and you should see Zahav’s glowing sign in the window and a staircase adjacent. For ADAaccessible directions, call the restaurant.
For a cheap meal before catching a show, SOHO Pizza (218 Market St.) and Gianfranco’s Pizza Rustica (6 N. 3rd St., between Market and Arch) are both reliable, inexpensive and quick. In keeping with the area standard, both offer prepared slices. Fork: etc. (308 Market St.), the small deli and grocery associated with Fork Restaurant, offers soups, sandwiches, salads and other assorted prepared foods made with local and artisanal ingredients for takeout or to eat in their casual, quiet dining area.
If you skipped dessert, or need a second one, there are two places in Old City you’ll want to consider: Tartes Bakery (212 Arch St.) and the Franklin Fountain (116 Market St.). Housed in a small, anomalously free-standing building just off of 2nd Street, Tartes is the area’s source for grain-based desserts: cookies, cakes, cupcakes, pies and, of course, tarts. You can’t go wrong, but the red velvet cupcakes are particularly noteworthy. Expect to eat outside, standing up: Tartes is nothing but a walk-up window filled with the delicacies prepared on the counters behind it. On a warm evening, the line out the door at old-school ice cream parlor the Franklin Fountain can easily be 30 minutes long, but the winter chill tends to dampen the resolve of most patrons. Share a giant sundae (around $10) with a couple of friends, or enjoy a College Ice ($6 for a generously portioned “small,” plus one topping, hot fudge recommended) all to yourself at the marble counter. Temperatures are dropping, but it’s never too cold for dessert à la mode.
For more information about train tickets, maps and directions, as well as more recommendations of places to eat, shop and explore, please visit In-Town, Off-campus on The Phoenix website at swarthmorephoenix.com.