It’s no secret, our ongoing love affair with Philadelphia. And for a city that constantly seems to have so much new happening, it’s also perpetually, gloriously impervious to all that hopeless contemporary trend-chasing.
It’s exactly that attitude that the Renaissance Philadelphia Downtown hotel – which just opened in what is arguably the most enviable position in all of town, smack in the center of the Old City, facing Independence Park – seems to have been imbued with. Eminently, it employs no cloyingly obvious “millennial” signifiers; but rather, is simply focused on good design and epicurean pleasure, those things which always top our list of hotel exigencies.
We also love that the check-in desk is hidden away in a corner – allowing guests to enter right into the buzz of the hotel’s lobby lounge, bar and restaurant…and thus keeping the buzz going.
Notably, the rather fabulous opening bash featured local hero OddKidOut – a Skrillex prodigy – on the decks, and whose Northern Liberties based Boom Room Studios we got to spend an afternoon in. But we were also taken with the provocative original artworks by Alloyius McIlwaine adorning the party space – palpable evidence of the hotel’s artistic soul.
During our visit, it’s no surprise we couldn’t resist a visit to Reading Terminal (the Philly food market that predated all those hyper-trendy food markets). But we mostly spent a few days specifically kicking around the Old City. Here’s what we loved.
Understatedly chic (Philly is not a show-off town), with low, moody lighting, clever artworks and absolutely glorious bathrooms. It goes without saying (but we’ll say it): request one with a view of the park.
The Center for Art in Wood
A genuinely ideological gallery, The Center for Art in Wood is, as it says, focuses on a very specific medium. But it explores it from a multitude of aesthetic and ideological viewpoints. Currently not to be missed is Connie Mississippi’s Circle of Time, on view through July 21 (N.B. the artworks are for sale).
Sonny’s Famous Steaks
Sometimes, a city’s storied signature food is a banal disappointment. But, just around the corner from the hotel on Market Street, you’d be remiss to not spend a lunchtime at Sonny’s, pulling up at a communal table and making new friends over sloppily decadent cheesesteaks. There have been some developments – you can now order one with applewood smoked bacon, and a gluten-free roll. Still, don’t come here with any Gwyneth-y pretensions.
Philadelphia is obviously the cradle of American civilization. And at a time when certain basic rights seem worryingly under attack here, it was fascinating to take an art and history tour of the Old City, via Mural Arts Philadelphia. We learned how the City of Brotherly Love was also a city of sisterly action: indeed, in 1852 Quaker women organized one of the country’s first women’s rights conventions. The tour also takes in many of the city’s awe-inspiring murals (each has a story), from historical to contemporary – including Steve Powers’ 2016 Old City masterpiece, simply titled Philadelphia.
Old City Shops
For all its history, what has always held for us the greatest allure is the Old City’s keen cultivation of independent shops and boutiques – where you could easily while away a couple of afternoons. Pop in to Never Too Spoiled or The Geisha House for fashions from boho-chic to trend-aware-elegant; the eccentric Sioux Zanne Messix for unique vintage finds; Art in the Age (brilliantly, the name is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s radical 1936 cultural studies text) for small batch spirits and artfully crafted bar supplies and books; Minima for bold, contemporary furnishings; the preeningly hipster Bloke’s Barbershop & Gentleman’s Emporium for an of-the-moment cut and shave; and Bonejour, for a special gift to bring home for Fluffy or Fido. Post-shopping, reward yourself with a Hot Waffle Sundae at Fezziwig’s Sweet Shop.
Jose Garces Joints
The city’s most exalted chef, two of his ten Philadelphia restaurants are located in the Old City. The still buzzy Amada was actually his first, and yet reigns for an evening of Espana-inspired decadence. Amidst the Euro-chic surrounds, order up plates of chorizo blanco, manchego pasamontes, piquillos rellenos and croquetas de jamon – chased with a couple of bottles of particularly dry cava – and share generously with your dining companions, for full effect. His newer Olde Bar is just a couple of blocks away, for continuing the evening over mezcal-based Smoke on the Water cocktails or the signature Fish House Punch.
Chez Ben & M. Brown’s Bar
The Renaissance Philadelphia Downtown’s stylish French restaurant Chez Ben is themed around – you guessed it – Ben Franklin, who, like Jefferson, was famously Francophilic. And the space, a cool approximation of a Left Bank bistro (brasserie lamps, counter seating), is actually also peppered with references to the exalted Founding Father. Chef Paras Shah is actually from New York, but is noted for stints doing Japanese (Momofuku) and Spanish (Philly’s Barcelona Wine Bar). Order up the full Parisian or a Philly omelette for breakfast; then dinner choices veritably bring apoplexy, from frisee aux lardon to mussels Breton to steak tartare and an excellent raw bar. No matter where else you’ve been, end the night at the hotel’s cool M. Brown’s Bar, with its seductive interiors and impressive selection of specialty ryes, bourbons and Japanese whiskeys.