If ever there was a city that could be said to dwell in the shadow of another, it would be Philadelphia. Mention Philly’s dynamic restaurant scene and some foodie is sure to note that superior options exist a short train ride away in Tribeca. Point to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a culture snob will direct your attention to the MOMA. Speak of the funky Northern Liberties neighbourhood and be prepared to hear all about the rehabilitation of the Lower East Side.
But I would argue that there is one time when New York cannot hope to dominate its southern neighbour, and that is when the day draws to a close and drinks are in order. Of course, New York has many fine watering holes. But the City of Brotherly Love truly loves its bars, and crams a greater number of remarkable imbibing experiences into a more compact and walkable area than the Big Apple could ever hope to claim.
Key to Philly’s treasure trove of taverns is that, rather than seeking to escape its industrial past, the city wears its blue-collar heritage like a medal of honour. So whether you’re out for a burger or looking to impress, bars convey a near-uniform hominess.
Cheap and cheerful
The city’s best bars are reassuringly honest, down-to-earth joints, welcoming to visitors but built for locals. A perfect example: the Standard Tap, a bare bones, wobbly-tables-and-creaky-floorboards kind of place in the aforementioned Northern Liberties, a short walk or taxi ride from the historic Old City.
Equal parts low key and high comfort, the Tap is a maze of nooks and crannies scattered over two floors, including a patio on the second. Emphasis here is on all things local, from the two dozen draught beers, carefully curated from within a 145-kilometre radius of the bar, to the chalkboard menu highlighting items such as house-made pâtés and specials of whole roasted fish and wild game. While the selection of both food and drink varies daily, a pint of almost anything by Victory Brewing is a reliably delicious way to go. 901 N. 2nd St., 215-238-0630; standardtap.com
Slightly more urbane is Tria, named not for its three locations, but its featured trio of fermentation: wine, beer and cheese. The original Rittenhouse Square location remains the best, with its long and narrow, yet bright and airy confines accented by polished wood and granite. Business crowds gather at lunch for sandwiches and salads, and after work for a glass or a pint. This means the ideal time to visit is midafternoon or later in the evening, when the staff can guide you through the selection of 36 or more wines by the glass, always accented by something newly discovered and exciting. 123 S. 18th St., 215-972-8742; triacafe.com
Going upscale here is a short and easy climb, peaking at downtown cocktail oasis the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company. Named for a Prohibition-era bootlegging ring, the bar makes the now-almost obligatory atmospheric homage to the speakeasies of old, but does so absent the pretension, keeping things mercifully free of hipster-isms.
The drinks, though complex of flavour, similarly eschew the laundry list of ingredients some bartenders believe necessary. Skeptics are invited to experience the nuanced Hanky Panky, composed of gin, vermouth and Fernet Branca and discover that, as with Philly itself, simplicity and sophistication can walk happily hand-in-hand. 112 S. 18th St., 267-467-3277; thefranklinbar.com