Eclectic dining and neighborhood traditions—East Passyunk Avenue Philadelphia
When we moved back to Philly from Chicago three years ago, I did not realize how much the city had changed. Yes it looked cleaner and more vibrant. There was a certain energy in Center City that had eluded the place when I left in 1997. I often tell people that I seemed to have left for the Midwest at the city’s nadir. In 1997 home prices were stagnant, Philadelphia was called “filth-adelphia” by many, and the restaurant renaissance was firmly embedded but located invariably west of Broad Street. Ten years later, there is still much to complain about, but having dirty streets in downtown is not one of them. Thanks to the Center City District, downtown is clean. Home prices have spiked but not much has lost value. The BYOB revolution has spawned many, many creative restaurants with gifted chefs who have located almost anywhere in the city.
As I got to know Philadelphia again, there were other discoveries to be had. A favorite old haunt was Marra’s on East Passyunk in South Philadelphia. A good family owned pizza and pasta place. My favorite things about Marra’s were the booths and the stuffed marlin on the wall. Little had changed at Marra’s in the ten years I was gone, and that was a good thing.
What had changed however, were the neighboring shops around the restaurant. New places had opened up. I learned about the East Passyunk BID and got to know Michelle Gambino who worked for the BID at the time. Much money was being invested in the avenue, by people who wanted change. A Mexican restaurant, a good local coffee shop, a sushi place were new additions. But they are still mixed in with the ladies undergarments store, a custom tailor, a high end fancy dress store, and the St. Paul religious goods shop. A new place, a Vespa dealer has expanded into a neighboring shop as his business grew. Granted, this section of South Philadelphia is a place in flux. The hipsters who could not afford Center City have flocked here in droves for the stable neighborhood feel. But the place still clings to local tradition.
The BID has created a well regarded farmers market, Second Saturdays, and promoted holiday events for children and adults alike. Renee Gilinger who now runs the BID has had excellent success in building on previous work, and recruiting new businesses to East Passyunk, as evidenced by this New York Times piece in their travel section this past spring. See also my blog post about another excellent article , this time in Metropolis. Philly Magazine has also touted the renaissance of the strip.
Marra’s too has undergone some upgrades in the last few years. New tiles and windows replaced old ones on the façade. The booths remain, but the marlin has moved. Still there are the same familiar faces behind the bar, the friendly wait staff, and families with children—lots of them– both upstairs and down. East Passyunk is worth exploring. Come down soon. And don’t forget the pub crawl with Santa on December 15 at 6. What’s not to love?