Oh what a Philly day!
Published 10/02/2013 | 06:00
The first time I drove through Philadelphia, I was a fresh-faced J-1er under strict local counsel to lock all car doors and avoid eye contact. It seemed a little alarmist, but this was a city infamous for its yellow crime scene tape and neither Springsteen nor Jazzy Jeff had been doing much to boost its PR image.
A decade on from my Vanilla Ice comeback concert, I made a stopover in the Big PA to see if the City of Brotherly Love was indeed worth an encore.
In the leafy Rittenhouse district, Hotel Palomar was my base, a revamped 1920s art-deco landmark, the latest in a wave of design hotels with aspirations of becoming urban it-spots. Complimentary yoga mats were on hand, the hotel manager led morning jogging sessions and a goldfish room-service amenity was available for guests feeling a little lonely. Guppy Love. . . Hopefully, that was a Star-9 call I wouldn't be making.
Outside, a sprawling metropolis of over six million people beckoned. America's fifth city is remarkably chilled – and walkable: I ambled through the city's vibey LOVE Park, Old City, gay village and the Italian district within a morning.
Unlike tourist-swarmed NYC and arguably buzz-free Boston, edgier Philly offers an unspoilt, more authentic flavour of the great American city – but that's not its only USP.
The nation's original capital boasts tax-free shopping, an open-air arts scene (including 3,000 murals) and the red-bricked townhouses of Elfreth Alley, America's oldest (and prettiest) neighbourhood.
And don't miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Rocky Steps, where decades after Stallone's iconic air-punch, I still found it alive with fitness fanatics, dropping and giving 20.
Following a tip-off, for dinner I headed to Butcher & Singer, a luxury homage to the 1940s American dining experience. Although initially abashed by the $52 steak price-tag (and the 20pc gratuity dollar signs in my waiter's eyes), my 18oz Delmonica rib-eye, served with a mouth-watering side of green bean amandine was the most exquisite meal of all my days; the first mouthful rendering an audible sigh of ecstasy. I'd simply reckon with the Mastercard bill later.
Back at base that evening, I'd succumbed to curiosity. Gingerly approaching the receptionist, I leaned over his desk, and as if I were providing a password to an underground nightclub in 1980s Manhattan, I hesitantly mouthed the words: "Can I order a goldfish?". "Absolutely, Sir", was the nonchalant response, as if I'd just requested a late check-out.
My new companion would be in situ on my return. . .
I left Palomar to join the city's sports-crazed fraternity (and sorority) at Citizens Bank Park, to take in a baseball game with The Phillies – hoping my support would bring them out of their recent barren spell. And we beat the Washington Nationals "right out of the park".
My Philly swansong ended at Chris's Jazz Bar on Sansom Street; nightcapping with a Pennsylvanian corn whisky while enjoying the James Collins Band, a group of local uni-grads who were tinkling and tromboning to the city's next generation of jazz lovers. Moonshone and mellow, I retired to Palomar, gingerly unlocking my room door for what awaited.
And there he was. My PETA-approved, goldfish companion complete with bowl and blood-pressure lowering credentials. Quid pro quo, Nemo. I'd just enjoyed the perfect day in Philly but with New Jersey just across the river, there was always a risk I'd end up sleeping with the fishes.