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Philadelphia’s culinary and cultural convention bounce

Patrons view the Democratic National Convention on a TV at the bar inside the Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia on July 26.
Patrons view the Democratic National Convention on a TV at the bar inside the Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia on July 26.Carolyn Bick

PHILADELPHIA — The week of the Democratic National Convention, Philly’s streets were lined with patriotic banners, decorated fiberglass donkeys for the Dems, and storefronts welcoming the influx of national clientele with signs and specials. Bars sold patriotic-themed cocktails, restaurants hosted VIP parties, and almost every hotel in Center City hosted smiling volunteers at information desks covered with convention pamphlets. And flowing down the streets, in every park and at every historical site, political tourists swarmed.

But on the other side of town, a different crowd flocked to Philadelphia. At FDR Park, dreadlocked dudes and tie-dye-adorned women set up camp next to the Wells Fargo Center. They didn’t have passes into the convention — that was far from the point. These far-flung visitors came to protest the Democratic National Convention, skipping the hotels set aside for the delegates and press to crash on couches, in Airbnbs, and in the park itself.

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Between the delegates, the press corps, and the protestors, Philly was booming in the last week of July. After grabbing an obligatory Philly cheesesteak and visiting the Liberty Bell, tourists used the convention to check out various Philadelphia destination restaurants, parks, and markets. The city’s booming restaurant scene lured out-of-towners into rustic pubs, fast-casual hummus joints, and pricy steakhouses all over town, with convention specials and patriotic flair.

Philadelphia’s three “Game of Thrones”-style restaurant “families” include the Vetri family, led by Food & Wine favorite Marc Vetri; the Garces Group, led by Iron Chef Jose Garces; and CookNSolo, led by James Beard winner Michael Solomonov and restaurateur Steve Cook. The jewels in these three crowns are critically acclaimed restaurants — Vetri, Amada, and Zahav, respectively — which many expected to attract the VIPs in town. All three benefited from locations near hotels hosting delegates, media, and speakers. Vetri, an Italian white tablecloth establishment centrally located near Broad Street, is close to Rittenhouse Square and the Doubletree (which hosted Pennsylvania delegates). Sophisticated tapas spot Amada is a quick jaunt away from Independence Hall and the Franklin Hotel, which hosted the Arkansas delegates. Zahav, Solomonov’s Israeli restaurant known for its exclusivity and exceptional reviews, is just a few steps from both Philadelphia’s jaw-dropping Spruce Street Harbor Park and the Sheraton, which hosted Massachusetts delegates.

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The Harbor Park, an expansive grown-up playground filled with beer stalls and colorful glowing lights, tended to attract millennials and families over political movers and shakers. In the wild evenings on the water, 20-somethings playing Pokemon Go populated the park’s hammocks. But hungry park visitors often noshed on Philly’s famous Solomonov chicken stand, Federal Donuts. This shop, which has locations all over the city, serves hot, fresh doughnuts and shockingly delicious fried chicken. Tom Henneman, co-owner of Federal Donuts, sent a “doughnut robot” and a handful of chefs down to XFINITY Live!, a sports bar complex within the convention campus.

“The biggest thing for us is the larger orders,” Henneman said, sitting outside his Center City location. “We sent a lot of orders down to XFINITY Live!, and plenty of buses and trucks are getting ready to send large orders into the convention.”

Henneman said the Rittenhouse and West Philly locations (where “The Daily Show” filmed its convention coverage) saw the most business — excluding the doughnut machine near the Wells Fargo Center.

Scott Steenrod, COO of the Garces Group, noticed a spike in business at restaurants throughout the Garces network of restaurants as well — despite the usual hiccups.

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“Typically, July is not a busy time in Philadelphia, so there was nowhere to go but up,” Steenrod said. “There’s been a high demand for private spaces . . . the demand has been driven by groups, large groups looking to congregate, eat, and drink good drinks.”

Garces spearheaded specials at many of their restaurants, including Distrito in University City. The taqueria offered a $20 Presidential special — a chicken enchilada, lime margarita, and guacamole, labeled “Bill Clinton’s favorite dinner.” Village Whiskey, a brown liquor bar in Rittenhouse Square, sold its Jefferson cocktail all week (Jefferson was famously a fan of whiskey).

Beyond the typical tourist crowd, the Garces Group spotted Bernie Sanders at its Penn’s Landing saloon, The Olde Bar.

Unfortunately, not all of the big shot restaurants saw a spike in business. Vetri’s Navy Yard outpost Lo Spiedo, less than a mile from the Wells Fargo Center, was virtually abandoned during the usual lunch rush. The massive fenced perimeter of the convention cut off the usual foot traffic to the restaurant, which is a shame: The restaurant makes its own ginger beer, a perfect refresher during the oppressive summer heat.

“For a lot of our restaurants, it’s bringing in a lot of faces we don’t normally see, a lot of people who are exploring the city,” Lo Spiedo manager Suzanne Rossini said. “The location of this restaurant is a little hard to access, but we’ve been doing OK.”

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But not all of Philadelphia’s convention tourists spent their evenings in buzzy restaurants. Bernie-or-Bust-ers visited conferences like The Socialist Convergence, which hosted a panel including Green Party candidate Jill Stein and progressive writer Chris Hedges at the Friend Center downtown. The Democratic Socialists of America held panels in the William Way Community Center near Broad Street, where Larry Sanders, a delegate for Democrats Abroad and brother of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, spent his Wednesday afternoon. Socialists who visited from around the country, like software developer Loren Anderson of the Washington area, often stayed with “fellow comrades” around Philadelphia, and ate most of their meals at home.

“There’s always an informal party after the DNC for the people who protest,” Anderson said of Philadelphia night life. “It’s in a different spot every night.”

Noah Detzer, a Vermont delegate, spent a morning before the convention at William Way. He spent half of his time protesting and half at the convention, but took time to visit the Liberty Bell. Sarah Thomas, an Arkansas delegate for Hillary Clinton, also visited the Liberty Bell, as well as culinary haven Reading Terminal Market. On the other side of the fence, Bernie Sanders protestors Nathan Land, Monica Kelley, and Emily Nuckolls of Richmond, Va., drove all night to catch the action, and planned to taste test both Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks before they headed south.

“We were looking at all this stuff on Facebook, phone banking [for Bernie Sanders] in Virginia, and we decided: We’ve got to be about this. So we drove up,” Kelley explained, standing near the entrance to FDR Park. “We’re leaving today, but we’re going to eat in the city before we go. We’ve got to get cheesesteaks.”

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Across the board, from the picket lines to the delegate parties, visitors mentioned visiting Independence Hall as the highlight of the trip. Tina Tinsley of Athens, Ga., for instance, came to protest the DNC, but she spent a little extra time to visit the birthplace of our government, brought to tears by its importance.

“To walk into the room where the [Declaration of Independence] was signed, when it was so dangerous for them, was so powerful,” she remembered.

The Democratic National Convention became much of the country’s excuse to visit the City of Brotherly Love, but Philly’s historical significance — and killer restaurant scene — will remain a worthy tourist destination well beyond this election cycle.


Brooke Jackson-Glidden can be reached at bjacksonglidden@gmail.com.