In Philadelphia, finding intriguing museums, restaurants and bars that hide in plain sight


East Passyunk Avenue runs through the heart of South Philadelphia. (J. Fusco for GPTMC)
September 19, 2013

Even with the address in hand, I couldn’t be sure whether the steel gate on a nondescript building in Philadelphia’s Chinatown would really lead to one of the city’s hottest cocktail spots.

Once buzzed in to Hop Sing Laundromat, my partner and I got the once-over from the doorman — there’s no admittance if you’re wearing sneakers or are dressed too casually — and a rundown of the house rules: No photos or cellphones allowed, either. The doorman then led us into a candlelit space set with white-topped tables and a bar topped by thousands of nickels. We sipped potent drinks such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a mix of Jameson’s, rum and lemon, and met the mysterious “Mr. Lee,” who may or may not own the place.

If you go: Philadelphia

This speakeasy-style nightspot is just one of many places in Philly that are hiding in plain sight in some of the city’s most visited neighborhoods. As a longtime resident who’s seen the Liberty Bell enough times to give my own tour, I’m always on the lookout for what’s new, different or just off the beaten path. I’ve recently come up with some new favorites.

Like the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Founding father Franklin, who lived most of his life in Philadelphia, has his name all over the city, on everything from a bridge crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey to one of the city’s five original squares to his namesake Franklin Institute, now a major science museum.

But the museum that directly celebrates his legacy is tucked away in a courtyard on the site of his former home. As a kid, I went to the underground museum shortly after its bicentennial opening and loved its centerpiece exhibit — a series of rotary phones connecting you to famous figures of the Colonial era. By the time the museum closed for a major renovation several years ago, the phones had long since gone dead, and the other exhibits had grown tired.

Reopened in August, the museum now seeks to engage a new generation with touch-screen devices explaining Franklin’s many accomplishments. With my 8-year-old nephew in tow, we learned about Franklin’s role in starting the first fire company and lending library, his work as a newspaper publisher and printer, and his inventions, such as the lightning rod, bifocal glasses and the Franklin stove, while getting a sense of his impish humor. One display, for example, focuses on his 20 pen names, which included King of Prussia and Silence Dogood.

The exhibits’ interactive tools clicked with my screen-savvy nephew, who got a kick out of hearing “Huzzah!” every time he completed a learning task. He also enjoyed a signature old-school element that remains from the original. The courtyard outside the museum features a steel frame evoking the outline of Franklin’s house, which was razed in 1812. We got to peer through glass window wells to check out the remains of the privy and the foundation.

On another day, I strolled from the historic district over the bridge spanning Interstate 95 to Penn’s Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum. As one who’s not especially interested in ship models and the like, I was intrigued by two exhibitions that seek to expand the museum’s purview.

“Tides of Freedom,” curated by University of Pennsylvania professor and PBS “History Detectives” host Tukufu Zuberi, looks at the history of African Americans through the prism of the Delaware River, showing the role the waterway played in the lives of local blacks before and after slavery, during the Jim Crow era and following the civil rights movement.

The candymaking-history exhibition “Oh, Sugar!” also features a local celebrity connection — it was put together by the Berley Brothers, who operate the period-flavored Franklin Fountain ice cream shop in Old City as well as Shane Confectionery, a 150-year-old candy store.

The exhibition offers some serious information about sugar-refining techniques and sugar trade routes, as well as a display of the Berleys’ collection of candymaking machinery and molds. But the kid inside me wanted to don apron and cap in the faux candy kitchen that’s meant for actual children.

Back in Old City, I continued my sweet “research” at the fountain, which serves house-made ice cream and such traditional favorites as egg creams. Shane, which sells a limited number of items in the museum shop, is worth a stop for its old-time atmosphere alone.

Living just a few blocks from the city’s most famous cheesesteak stands — Passyunk Avenue rivals Pat’s and Geno’s — I often bump into hungry-looking tourists trying to find these temples of onions and grease.

My advice is to skip the overrated sandwich in favor of a classic roast beef or roast pork accessorized with long hot peppers, broccoli rabe and/or sharp provolone at Stogie Joe’s, a local tavern also on Passyunk. Or pop over to the nearby Italian Market, a colorful traditional stall market, to a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop called Paesano’s. My favorites there include the Paesano, a messy but delicious combination of beef brisket, horseradish mayo, roasted tomatoes, pepperoncino and sharp provolone, topped with a fried egg.

Across the street from Pat’s and Geno’s in the former Satellite Auto Body is a new beer-focused bar, Garage. It’s no-frills — the roll-up door from its former incarnation is still in place — but offers some 200 canned brews, as well as skeeball, pinball and a pool table. For entertainment on a quirkier scale, I might pop into the nearby Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar for its boisterous karaoke, cheap drinks and smoky atmosphere. (The bar has an exemption from the city’s smoking ban.)

The Avenue, as locals call it, is now a happening retail and restaurant district, with vintage and other boutiques and upscale restaurants complementing its traditional school-uniform shops, pizza joints and cheese shops. But one of my go-to BYOB spots usually looks shut down. Open only for dinner on weekends, the cash-only Mr. Martino’s Trattoria is like visiting someone’s antique-filled home, and the food is prepped with equal care. I always bring a bottle or two of red and plan to settle in for a leisurely evening of polenta and sausage, pasta fagiole, tiramisu and other home-style dishes.

On the way from my rowhouse to the Italian Market, I pass another quirky gem tucked inside a former church rectory. The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum pays homage to a local son and opera singer who was a crossover star decades before the Three Tenors and Josh Groban. Born in 1921, Lanza was touted as the next Enrico Caruso and became an unlikely MGM heartthrob before dying (operatically) at age 38. The free museum is carefully maintained by some remaining devotees, who celebrate his life via posters, photos, costumes and other memorabilia.

One of my regular destinations of late isn’t really hidden, but soon will disappear for good. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which organizes the city’s popular Flower Show each March, has created a pop-up beer garden on a vacant lot on Broad Street in Center City, across from the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

I can’t get enough of this playground for adults, which is stocked with mature trees, picnic tables, vintage lawn chairs and shipping pallets refashioned as lounges. The garden serves a limited selection of draft beers, margaritas and light fare, but there’s no purchase required to enjoy the space, which is slated to shut down in mid-October.

Next year, though, promises another pop-up at a different location — and more opportunities to explore Philadelphia’s hidden side.

DiGiacomo is the Philadelphia dining writer for Gayot.com and co-founder of TheCityTraveler.com.

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