The Millennial Rise of East Passyunk Avenue Restaurant Corridor
Passyunk is a Delaware Indian word and its meaning is known to some as “a place of sleep,” “a level place” or “a place below the hills” (archives.org). When William Penn arrived in 1682 he established a treaty with Delaware Indians also known as the Lenni Lenape and renamed Weccacoe as Southwark. Southwark was then split into two township Passyunk and Moyamensing, a Lenape name meaning “pigeon droppings”. This district remained its own region separate from Philadelphia until 1854.
This region was attractive to immigrants due to its proximity to the Delaware River, whom arrived by boat and settled in nearby districts. Passyunk was predominantly made of Italians immigrants and their influence is still apparent and has helped shaped the area to what it is known today. Furthermore, the Delaware Valley is ranked today as the second largest Italian American Community in the nation (italianamericanherald.com).
East Passyunk Avenue was the commercial hub for the Italian American community. One fun fact I would like to point out about the Italian influence in South Philadelphia is, according to Conn, 2006, the famous sandwich named “hoagie” came from “Italians who worked at the Hog Island yard brought sandwiches built on long rolls, which were stuff with vegetables and deli meats”.
Historically, aside from Italians, South Philadelphia attracted a variety of racial and religious groups, marking Philadelphia as the hub for immigration, drawn to the area by the opportunity to become working-class people (Conn, 2006). Immigrants became the basis of South Philadelphia’s unique and vibrant culture that developed over the next several decades.
East Passyunk Today
Unlike many of the streets in Philadelphia that were built on Billy Penn’s grid, East Passyunk Avenue is a diagonal drag of a mile and a half that slashes through the grid and is bordered by Ninth Street, Snyder Avenue, South Broad Street, and Federal Street. “The Avenue”, as locals call it, predates modern planning and was originally a Native American trails. Today, it is one of the longest-standing commercial strips in Philadelphia. According to (Beleznay, 1987), East Passyunk Avenue is the spine of South Philadelphia. In 1987, fifty percent of the stores in East Passyunk were owned by the shopkeepers who resided above their business. According to the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, today, the area is home to over one hundred fifty independently own businesses.
How East Passyunk Became the “it” spot for nightlife and the most visited corridor for food lover in Philadelphia.
There are many factors that attributed to the revival of East Passyunk Avenue. The efforts to revitalize this neighborhood were pushed by the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District whose mission is dedicated to he revitalization of the corridor and to oversee the “facade improvement projects, marketing and promotions, special events, business recruitment and retention, and clean and green initiatives” and the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC). Furthermore, this neighborhood has been attractive to Millenials because of of the urban and cultural activities it offers.
According to Philly.com, Chef Lynn Rinaldi, was the first restaurateur forerunner to put her stamp on The Avenue by opening restaurant Paradiso in 2004. At the time, it was seen by most as a risky move. The neighborhood was still primarily populated by Italian Americans. Over a decade later, there has been an abundance of young diverse professionals attracted to the neighborhood. The stretch of shops and restaurants of The Avenue is an attraction to millennials because of the diverse price points restaurants and bars on this stretch provide. Additionally, it is accessible by public transportation and is very workable. Italian roots are still apparent in the Avenue, however most recently, they’re supplemented by bold new multicultural eateries.
In 2013, Food and Wine Magazine nominated East Passyunk as one of the 10 best foodie streets in America. As a resident of Philadelphia for the past two years, what I enjoyed the most is going to a restaurant and eating at its bar. In doing this, it has allowed me the opportunities to meet a number of people that I would not have met if I wasn’t alone. Most of the diners I have come across have this sense of “Joie de vivre”. At Townsend, a French restaurant located at 1623 East Passyunk Ave, offers a menu that follows the seasons, in the summer, you will find dishes such as foie gras mousse, escargot, a couple of fish options, and Rabbit Pot Au Feu with an emphasis on wine pairing. The Philadelphia Magazine has ranked this restaurant as one of the top five restaurants in Philadelphia for the past few years. It is decorated tastefully and offers a cozy, elegant, friendly ambiance with an average cost of $26 for a main course.
I interviewed Chef Ansill the evening of August 4th, who has lived in South Philadelphia for the past 20 years. I asked him what he enjoyed most about this area, and his response was “You can always find your own corner in this restaurant world”.
I once sat next to someone at Townsend and enjoyed a nice long conversation while enjoying our meals. Hours into our conversation, l discovered that he was a Penn colleague, with whom I infrequently collaborated with by email. This to me is a great example of how welcoming and friendly most of the people I have met in my south Philadelphia have generally been. A Yelper, by the name of the name of Josh P, with over seventy reviews under his belt, described his experience at Townsend as “…amongst the greatest I have had in years.” He adds how the service at this establishment has always been “…consistent and excellent throughout meals”. This sentiment is also shared on Yelp by John R who describes Townsend as “the French foodie’s dream with flawless execution, comfortable yet upscale vibe”. One interesting fact I recently learned and experienced in this restaurant, which was surprising to me, was the fact that the after hour crowd was made up mostly of individuals in the restaurant/bar industries. A little before midnight, this establishment slowly empties out date night couples and turns into a drinking bar for servers and bartenders from neighboring restaurants.
One establishment that falls in the same caliber as Townsend, is La Virtu owned by Chef Francis Cretarola and his wife Cathy Lee. It offers traditional flavors from Central Italy. According to Philly.com, “this East Passyunk dining room has been as heartfelt and as painstakingly authentic as a restaurant homage gets.” Their dedication to handmade pasta and stuffed olives is what attracts diners to this establishment. Situated on 927 East Passyunk Avenue, Le Virtu offers authentic dishes such as their “affettati misti” an antipasto board with a variety of items like cure meats, cheese, sausage accompanied by delicious condiments. According to their website Their levirtu.com, the menu is inspired by “experiences at the tables of family, friends and farm restaurants all over Abruzzo. Every dish we prepare is rooted in or inspired by Abruzzese culinary tradition, ingredients or philosophy. We serve the cuisine of the shepherds, farmers and fishermen of Italy’s wildest and most unspoiled region.” Le Virtu brings to the Avenue a “bold, honest and unpretentious dinning experience”. The Virtu is also known by locals for its large mural depicting a wedding dance in Central Italy on the building bordering its outdoor dining patio. Reviewers describes this South Philly staple as “romantic”, “authentic” and “flavorful”.
In talking about East Passyunk, one most take a walk over the Singing Fountain centrally located on East Passyunk, which underwent a $60,000 renovation in 2011, funded in part by the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation. The funding was used to refurbished the fountain, installing chess tables, new benches even went as far as hiring a security team to save the fountain from potential intoxicated bar crawlers prone to commit vandalism and mischievousness. The Singing Fountain is where public events are typically held in addition to weekly farmer’s market. No matter the time of day, you will find around the Singing Fountain, families, dogs, lovers listening to music while eating Gelato from Capogiro, making wishes, or playing chess. This neighborhood gem brings the community together and is great place to people watch.
During my most recent visit at the fountain, I asked a woman named Elizabeth who was enjoying her gelato what she loved most about the fountain, and her response was: “This spot represents everything that is South Philly to me. I often come here after work during the summer to relax or meet my neighbors.” A yelper, named Jeff, posted the following review, which sums up my experience at the fountain: “Always an awesome time seating at the fountain! A great place to catch up with neighbors and their dogs! You should stop by for a spell if you are ever on the Avenue!”
I truly believe that having a functioning fountain in a neighborhood is an indicative of a thigh knit community that values its people. Furthermore, I believe that it gives a sense of safety, it shows that the area is welcoming and symbolizes togetherness.
Not too far from the Singing Fountain, you will find a bar called The Pub on Passyunk East also known as POPE. This hot hipsters spot is located on 1501 E Passyunk Avenue and offers simple savory pub fares in a cozy atmosphere. POPE is a local favorite because of its friendly staff, it offers an abundance variety of beers and a roll and roll jukebox. It is described by a yelper as “a combo of gastro pub slash dive bar, with amazing craft beer selections. They always have some rare drafts pouring, from strong Belgians, to stouts, to sours. The beer is the best.” I particularly enjoy meeting friends at this establishment because it is full of locals, it is laid back, you can always find a corner and enjoy a beer while nodding to the Jukebox music.
A recent addition to The Avenue is Bing Bing Dim Sum, located on 1648 E Passyunk Avenue. The owners Shawn Darragh and chef Ben Puchowit whom I must mentioned are white describe the menu as an Asian fusion dim sum that’s not quite authentic but more so informed by Asian traditions but never defined by it. Bin Dim Sum has a modern Asian fun design decorated by custom graffiti walls and paper lanterns. The entertaining bathroom wall paper is a detail that does not go unnoticed. They are known for their soup dumplings and their excellent happy hour prices.
Just across the street from Bing Bing Ding Sum, is Los Caballiotos, a hip Mexican Restaurants. It is a part restaurant, part bar, Cantina that attracts diverse and eclectic patrons. The building is of bright orange color, that brings sunshine and happiness to the block. Their specialties are empanadas, burritos, guacamole and chips. This restaurant offers a huge vibrant courtyard with twinkling lights and the bar is frequented by happy hour goers in search of a good buzz. It was named by the Philly Magazine as one of the best happy hour spot in South Philadelphia. Flights of tequila are available, pitchers of magueritas made with fresh-squeezed fruits like guava and blood orange.
It’s not surprising why Cantina Los Caballitos is labeled a favorite hangout among the locals.
In addition to the restaurant scene, there are several events that bring people into this community, one of the most popular one is known as the East Passyunk Restaurant Week, which offers a 3-course prix-fixe menu during lunch and dinner. Restaurant week affords patrons an opportunity to tryout new and exciting restaurants they would normally not go to and pay reasonable prices. I once heard a local resident say that he avoids dinning out over restaurant week because most dinners that participate in this week long menu specials, often come to save a buck and do not always share the pride and loyalty of the locals.
Furthermore, East Passyunk has many events throughout the year such as the Flavors of the Avenue, an annual springtime taste of Passyunk’s restaurant row which highlights the area eating establishments. It is typically held under a large tent between Tasker and Morris streets and visitors and locals gets to chance to sample dishes from well-known chefs. Attendees can enjoy live music and watch fashion shows offered by local boutiques.
Passyunk Passeggiata is another event that draws crowds to East Passyunk Avenue. According to Visitphilly.com, “a passeggiata, is an evening walk throughout town, is a common evening event for people throughout Italy.”
This event is held to pay homage to South Philly Italian roots and to celebrate the start of summer with a special evening of shopping and dining. Participating restaurants offer extended happy hours prices, dinning specials, and discounted merchandises from the Avenue shops.
Whether you are in search for a close knit community to purchase a home or just an awesome district to visit, Passyunk has a “corner for everyone” as quoted by Chef David Ansill.