The One Where The Answer to Every Question is Eagles
Oh hey there, in case you haven’t been following these blog posts, Paul and I have been on a grand nomadic adventure in search of a place to call home! Since July, we spent a month each in Portland, Denver, and Minneapolis, and it’s been a blast and a half (we’ve also gotten packing and unpacking our car down to a science).
It was a very appealing idea to us to go all the way from the west coast to the east coast. We had already managed to live in the Pacific, Mountain, and Central Timezones, and EST was calling our names. After researching several options that excited us, we landed on Philadelphia because of its excellent cost of living, diversity, walk/bikeability, and our shared love of the color kelly green.
Neither Paul nor I had spent much time in Philly, and that was part of the draw. Another draw was that Philadelphia is a pretty different city than any other on our itinerary so far. At almost 1.6 million people as of 2022, it’s by far the largest city on our list — more than twice as populous as Denver and Portland, and 3.7x the population of Minneapolis. We knew that living in the sixth largest city in the U.S. would come with a lot of pros and cons. But that by itself was interesting to us. By mixing a much larger, denser city into our list, we hoped that it would give us more to compare and contrast and thus deeper insights into what we really care about.
And indeed, Philly has turned out to be one of a kind. It is the first place on our itinerary that we are probably not going to seriously consider as a place to live longer-term. At the same time, reflecting on our four weeks there, I think it left a strong emotional mark on me. Love it or hate it, I don’t think it’s possible for someone to forget Philly. It is a deeply unique place, and I find myself still thinking about it often.
So even though the City of Brotherly Love might not ultimately make it onto our shortlist, I am so glad we got to spend time there. And Paul and I hope to capture our experiences in this blog post, which (similar to before) I wrote up based on a few questions we wrote, answered, and recorded live on our drive out of Pennsylvania:
- Describe Philly in 3 adjectives. Why those adjectives?
- If cheesesteak sandwiches didn’t exist, what should be Philly’s city dish?
- Favorite piece of American history that you learned in Philly?
- What was something that really delighted you about Philly that you didn’t expect?
- Philly was the 1st city on this adventure that we knew we probably wouldn’t want to live longer-term in. What has that taught us about what we want (or don’t want) in a place to live?
- Our five favorite restaurants in Philly!
Q1. Describe Philly in 3 adjectives. Why those adjectives?
Paul: All right, my three adjectives are underdog-ish, brash, and contrasting.
A huge part of Philly lore is that they constantly see themselves as underdogs. Starting from the very beginnings when they were a Quaker state. To the American Revolution, signing of the Declaration of Independence, going up against, you know, the biggest imperial power in the world at that time. To the garbage picking field goal kicking Philadelphia phenomenon that is Tony Danza. To the Invincible (2006) guy. To the actual Eagles (BTW you’ll notice there’s a lot of mention of the Eagles in this recording / blog post). It’s not the biggest city. It’s not the biggest city even within two hours. New York is really close by. It’s not the political center of the country anymore — that’s also two hours away. So it’s kind of this perpetual working class, underdog of a city, and that feels really palpable while you’re there.
That brings me to the the second adjective I chose, which is a brashness amongst a lot of the people that live in Philly. Like, Philly is a place that just does not care what other people, places, or things think about them. They even have a chant that exemplifies that: “No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care.” Their sports fans have famously thrown snowballs at Santa Claus. There was a robot that was trying to hitchhike across the country, and as soon as it got to Philadelphia, it was just immediately destroyed by the local population. Philly sports fans apparently have a compulsion for punching police horses. I think Philly drivers don’t particularly give a sh*t if pedestrians or bikers like them or not. All this can come across as uncaring sometimes, but I think it’s also about being full of confidence, and an energy that it’s them against the world.
Finally, my third adjective is contrasting. I think about this a few different ways. There’s the contrast to other big east coast cities. Philadelphia is not necessarily considered, you know, as sexy as New York or DC, even though it’s pretty close to both of those as we talked about. It’s a much cheaper and poorer city too. It’s also really different compared to just the rest of Pennsylvania. This was especially noticeable as we drove toward Philly from the west. I mentioned that Pennsylvania was originally a Quaker state, and the Mennonites and the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) continue to have strong communities there. We literally saw someone in a stage coach being pulled by a horse on some of the back country roads. Philly is just one big city in a really really big state. It’s not necessarily like the situation in New York, where the big city has enough population to control the entire state’s politics and such. Philly is a really blue city, but Pennsylvania is a super purple state, sometimes even red.
And then there’s another “contrast”: temporal. There’s these giant modern luxurious skyscrapers near downtown in Philly, but if you go out towards Old City like we did a couple times, there’s a street called Elfreth’s Alley with houses that have been continuously lived in since the early 1700s. There’s so much history in Philadelphia. It’s something I haven’t really experienced in a lot of the west coast cities. So you’ve got the super modern infrastructure next to these really historic churches and buildings. And they play with that — one of the logos for the Philadelphia 76ers team is a ripped Benjamin Franklin furiously dribbling a basketball. It’s a good logo.
So those are my adjectives. What about you?
Annie: Great adjectives! So I felt like there’s a lot of options to describe Philadelphia. It’s walkable, it’s diverse, it’s fairly affordable for a big city. It’s really historic as you said. But ultimately for this question, I decided to pick three adjectives that all hone in on what I perceive to be the personality of the city, that really sets it apart from any of the other cities we’ve been to on this trip and quite frankly maybe any city I’ve ever lived in.
So my three adjectives are: real, aggressive, and spirited.
So, real. I think about this in the sense of lacking in pretension. No filter. Like, if you think about a really rich, bougie, upscale shopping mall or something, Philly feels like the polar opposite of that. People say what they feel and feel what they say, and wear their personalities and emotions on their sleeves. We had multiple strangers on the street insert themselves into our conversations with their opinions. That can be jarring, but I think it also comes from a place of, “we’re in this community together.”
The second adjective I picked is aggressive. Here I want to take a step back and talk about how these next two adjectives — aggressive and spirited — really represent the journey that I went on in the four weeks we lived in Philly, in terms of the lens through which I saw the city. When we first got to Philly, coming from “Minnesota nice,” it was quite jarring. People in Minneapolis were really polite— and then immediately following that, we came to a place that was really loud, people were honking all the time, we saw so much yelling and arguing.
Paul: I don’t think I had ever seen so much loud arguing take place. Like I saw a long boarder and a motorist get into an absolute screaming match with each other in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the city.
Annie: Absolutely, and that’s just, like, something that happens constantly in Philly? We stayed on Broad Street which, granted, is a major street in the city, but every single day there were people blasting down the street way too loudly in their motorcycles, four wheelers, even unicycles! I don’t know how unicycles managed to be so loud, too. So it’s like what you said with “brash.” Philly sports fans are also the sportiest sports fans I have ever come across. I thought Denver and Minneapolis were big sports towns, but they don’t even come close to Philly. And sometimes that fanaticism can come out in the form of a bit of aggression too, like all the stories of Philly fans pouring beers on the heads of Dallas Cowboys fans, or just absolutely screaming at the TV during games.
So yea, when we first got to Philly, I think my number one impression of the city was like my gosh, everyone here is so angry all the time. But, as I’ve spent more time here, that lens has shifted from “aggressive” to, well, the city is really spirited. You can see how those two adjectives can have a lot of overlap. But I think the more I got to know the city, what I had previously seen as pure aggression started to take on actually a rather endearing layer for me. Like yea, people are loud and sometimes they seem really angry. But at the bottom of that is this incredible sense of local pride in being Philadelphians and that chip-on-the-shoulder, “us vs the world” mentality you talked about. They know that a lot of other people maybe don’t think kindly of the way they are, and they decided to lean harder into that identity. I read an article that said “somewhere along the way, it seems Philadelphians decided it was better to be infamous than forgotten,” and I think that’s so true. A really clear example is that every Sunday in this season, if you walk around, no joke like 50 percent or more of people you see on the street are wearing Eagles gear. It’s at a level I’ve not seen anywhere else. People are constantly chanting E-A-G-L-E-S and singing their fight song. It’s rowdy, it’s spirited, it’s based on so much pride.
Paul: Yea, we literally witnessed two distinct groups of kids running around and, without any prompting, start chanting E-A-G-L-E-S by themselves.
Annie: Yes, this is such a perfusive, multi-generational thing in the city. Also the kids in the city probably learn to spell really well really early. At least that one particular word.
Paul: Yea, we should look up how many Spelling Bee winners are from Philadelphia.
Annie: Definitely. Also how many Philly babies do you think say “Eagles” as their first word?
Q2. If cheesesteak sandwiches didn’t exist (gasp), what should be Philly’s city dish?
Annie: I’m gonna go with spicy dan dan noodles — which is a dish we actually ate in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. So it’s kind of a surprising answer, right? Because given how Italian the city is, maybe it made sense to pick an Italian dish of some kind. But as I alluded to earlier, Philly is an amazingly diverse city. It has a very heavy Black population. It has an extraordinarily strong Italian presence, as well as many other racial, ethnic groups, including Chinese. Philly’s Chinatown is so cool, so vibrant, quite large.
Paul: Yea, I think it’s one of my favorite Chinatowns I’ve ever been to!
Annie: Yea, definitely. There’s so much going on there, and of course a lot of really good, affordable, authentic Chinese food. So my choice of spicy dan dan noodles is in some ways a nod to Philly’s great Chinatown and the diversity of the city.
But also, the reason I picked a dish that has “spicy” in it, is because the city is not for everyone. As we’ve described, the city has a very strong personality, and I think it’s probably really off-putting for a lot of people, in a way that I think really spicy dishes can be, too, for some people.
Also, unless you go to a fancier fusion place or whatever, dan dan noodles is a pretty basic dish, you know? Like it’s noodles with some minced meats, spices, maybe peanuts. It’s like not super elaborate, and it’s usually not very expensive. I think that really reminds me of Philly’s lack of pretentiousness and its working-class-ness.
Paul: That’s great. I love that answer. For me, I’m gonna interpret the question a bit loosely. My answer, much like Philly, doesn’t care about the rules. It’s a drink, called the “City Wide.”
This is something you can get at almost all Philly bars. It’s basically a beer and a shot. It’s usually cheap, and great. The beer is usually a local Pennsylvania beer called Yuengling, which is so common in the state that often you can simply ask for a “lager” and bartenders will hand you this beer.
Annie: It’s probably the best cheap beer there is in the country.
Paul: Absolutely. Ok so, a City Wide has that, and also a shot of well alcohol, usually whisky or tequila. And it’s like four to six bucks for both of those. It’s such great value. During sports games they’re usually serving them at happy hour, and I think it’s fueling a lot of the, uh, aggressive and spirited behavior that you were describing.
I think the favorite City Wide that I had was when we went to an Irish bar called Murph’s in the Fishtown neighborhood. By the way Murph’s also serves the best Italian food I think we had. So there, you can order yourself a City Wide for four dollars. And we were actually at this bar when the Eagles played a really competitive game against their biggest divisional rival, the Cowboys. And so the bar was just so full of energy, so full of people drinking City Wides, absolutely having a spirited time. And I think that City Wides do a really good job of capturing, you know, the working-class nature of the city. It’s a really unpretentious, cheap way of getting some alcohol in you, that’s also quite tasty. Actually the very first time I saw it on a menu, I asked the bartender what a City Wide was and he laughed at me and said “You new here?” which I thought was pretty funny. Because then it turned out to be everywhere.
Q3. Philadelphia is such a historic city. What was your favorite piece of American history that you learned in Philly?
Annie: In the spirit of us not totally following our own questions, my answer is not something I technically learned for the first time in Philly, but coming to Philly reminded me of it. Which is that before we had the Constitution, we had the Articles of Confederation. It gets at a question I find really interesting: should power reside more on the federal level or the state / local level, and what’s the right balance between those two things?
Our guided tour of Independence Hall reminded me that the Constitution didn’t exist at the very beginning of the country, right? We had something else, called the Articles of Confederation, which actually gave way more power to states, presumably because at that time, the states were quite independent, with different values, different governance. And so it was more like a loose confederation, perhaps more like the EU. But that came with a lot of problems. The federal government was too weak and couldn’t enforce any of its own laws, there was a lot of tension between the states, and the federal government couldn’t raise a real military to protect the country. That finally led us to the creation of the U.S. Constitution, which of course has governed our country since.
And I think we’re now in another very divisive period of our country’s history where I can see some people potentially wondering, does it still make sense for us to pool so many of our resources and laws etc as a massive country of fifty sometimes very different states? Like California is a very very different place than Alabama. Is it time for the power to swing more toward state and local again? There’s so many pros and cons to these scenarios, and I think we’re continuing to grapple with it and I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know if there is a right answer. I find this to be a really interesting political and philosophical question.
Paul: Yea, that’s really fascinating! So for me, I didn’t know that Philadelphia had previously been the capital of the U.S. prior to Washington DC being built. I knew that the Declaration of Independence had been signed here, but Philly was actually the national capital too. I didn’t really realize DC was constructed, on a swamp, after the Revolutionary War, as a compromise because it’s a little more centrally located between the North and the South and the different values of the two. I find that fascinating. I also think that maybe contributes to the saltiness that Philadelphians feel, too, you know, like they used to be the country’s capital but then no longer.
Q4. What was something that really delighted you about Philly that you didn’t expect?
Paul: I had an absolutely delightful day with you when we biked along the Schuylkill River trail. It was the day of a big college rowing meet, so it was absolutely jam-packed of folks in the lower part of the river, but once we got further north, it was so beautiful. We ended up going into this cool nature preserve by the Wassahickon Valley Park, where we did this really gorgeous hike with wonderful fall foliage. It was extraordinarily accessible and close to the city center. I totally did not expect that in a big, urban city like Philadelphia, you can get to wilderness so easily.
Annie: That was indeed a very lovely day. I think Philly is a city where it’s kind of hard sometimes to find peace and quiet. I think that’s true for a lot of big American cities. It’s really cool to be able to get from the middle of the city to a completely different, nature forest area, so quickly. The nature area is Chilladelphia, if you will.
Paul: Yes exactly. And the rest of the city is Thrilladelphia.
Annie: Okay, so one unexpected thing that really delighted me about Philly, was its amazing food scene. Maybe similar to the underdog thing, I feel like Philadelphia’s food scene isn’t as famous as some other cities’. But man, we had such good food! And that ranges from really upscale, fancy tasting menus, to cheap items like sandwiches and pizza. Philly cheesesteak obviously being a prime example, it’s pretty affordable, pretty basic, delicious food.
Paul: So many sandwiches! As a sandwich lover, I was very happy and well-fed in the city.
Annie: Yea, so great food across an entire spectrum of fanciness. We also talked about how diverse the city is. So its culinary scene spans a lot of different cultures. It was honestly amazing. Something I also didn’t know, is that Philly seems regularly and disproportionately represented in a lot of food-related rewards. Like we looked up James Beard Award winners, and in 2023, their awards for Outstanding Restaurant, Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, and Outstanding Restaurateur all went to Philadelphia. And we ate somewhere that was named the best restaurant in the country in 2019.
I also want to give a special shout out to the Italian Market. Many people perhaps know it as one of the places that Rocky runs through as part of his training. It’s this amazing open-air market with a lot of produce and meat vendors, but also a lot of more permanent restaurants and shops with all kinds of food. It has been really a big part of the community, really vibrant for a long time. Just a lively, fun area to go visit. And really hard to not want to eat at every shop that we passed by.
Q5. Philly was the first city on this adventure that we knew we probably wouldn’t want to live longer-term in, even though we had a good time and it does check multiple of our boxes (affordability, walkability, diversity, culture, progressive values, some access to nature, etc). What has that taught us about what we want (or don’t want) in a place to live?
Paul: Yea, this is definitely an important question to think about. The first thing that I realized is that I’m definitely getting older. Philly is a really fun city like you mentioned — super walkable, lots of hustle and bustle. It’s something that I think in my 20s would be really invigorating. But now, it provides more challenges.
The second part of my answer is I’d like to be able to really get around a city in a nice way. One thing that made Philly kind of hard was if you wanted to go outside of your neighborhood, you could technically bike, take SEPTA, or drive. But biking wasn’t necessarily a pleasant experience — the infrastructure is actually pretty good, but drivers are really aggressive and often take up bike lanes, so it doesn’t work super well functionally. SEPTA was pretty good, except we experienced stations being unexpectedly closed or like trains unexpectedly not running a few times, so especially on nights and weekends, it wasn’t very reliable. We did have our car in Philly, but parking everywhere sucked. And when we returned back to our place, we didn’t have a dedicated spot, so we sometimes ended up circling around for a while. It made me realize how important it is to me to have viable, convenient, easy means to get between different neighborhoods.
I will say that in Philly, we were in a super walkable area, so we walked a lot within our neighborhood. Like we lived basically above another Aldi and Aldi is for sure one of the MVPs of this trip. It’s like the most affordable grocery store I think I’ve seen and it’s really solid. We cooked at home more as a result. There was also a really nice gym nearby, and a bar and pizza place around the corner with a great happy hour. Having all that be super close reinforced a lot of the things that we’ve believed, like what we talked about last time, which is that the neighborhood you’re in is super important, possibly even more so than what city you’re in. And also, it taught me that when you’re really close to an amenity, you end up using that amenity a lot more — it’s almost more inconvenient to not use it. So that was an interesting observation too, not specific to Philly but something I felt very viscerally in Philly.
Annie: Yeah, those are all really, really good points. Big plus one to being that close to a good, affordable grocery store. I think I didn’t realize how important that was to me until we had one right next to us, and I think I’m actually gonna add that to my list of criteria moving forward for choosing places to live because it absolutely made it so much easier and so much more pleasant to cook. And cooking more is cheaper and healthier.
I will say that there’s two other things about Philly that I loved, that I wish I could replicate in some of the other cities that we are talking about more seriously as a longer-term home.
One, the convenience of getting to other really interesting major cities, especially ones where we have friends. We took a bus to New York City one weekend, and it took just two hours, and we had a great time with our NYC friends Kristina, Luis, Anubhav, Carl, and Jenn. DC is also two hours away. It feels like such a luxury. I think that’s more a trait of the east coast, and gets harder as you go more west and everything’s more spread out.
Two, local sports fanaticism. I think every answer now has touched on the Eagles and that’s going to happen again here. We’ve talked about how insane the Philly sports scene is. I think for all the pros and cons that come with that, it nets out as more of a pro for me. The Eagles — or the 76ers, or Phillies, or Fliers — are so intertwined with the identity of the city, and it feels like something that cuts across all differences, whether race, ethnicity, class, etc. It really brings the whole city together. There’s something about that that I love.
Okay, now onto actually answering the question!
Paul: Oh that was all preamble?
Annie: Yea that was preamble. I think here’s the biggest thing I realized by us not short-listing Philly even though it checks a lot of our boxes. I could not relate more to your point earlier about getting old. I think it comes down to having peace of mind for me, or maybe how “easy” it feels to live life, maybe? Philly is not good when it comes to those two things.
Peace of mind to me is sort of like, can I walk around my neighborhood and feel okay maybe zoning out a little bit, thinking about life or thinking about nothing or thinking about whether the NFL will actually ban the Tush Push, and just like be lost in my own head a little. This is something I honestly like doing every once in a while. But it feels hard to do in Philly, or honestly any big city, where there’s nonstop honking and you need to constantly make sure you’re not getting run over by cars, right? In big cities, you feel like you have to always be on guard to some extent, you’re always overstimulated. To be clear, I really like that hustle and bustle. But I’d like to be able to opt into that. I’d like my home and immediate neighborhood to be a place where I can actually rest and be in my own head if I want to, but also have easy access to the hustle and bustle when I choose to go there. In a giant city like Philly, you don’t really have as much of a choice. Except for isolated areas like Chilladelphia that’s more the exception, you’re in the hustle and bustle 24/7 whether you want to or not.
And finally… our five favorite restaurants in Philly— jointly decided!
In no particular order:
- Zahav: Israeli place named as the best restaurant in America in 2019. From our experience, it totally deserves that recognition. Every. single. course. on the tasting menu was phenomenal. As we left the restaurant, a group of people passed by and a dude in the group asked us, in the most longing tone possible, “Did you have the lamb? Wasn’t it amazing?” We did, and it was, and we can now completely understand why the man would ask that question so lustfully.
- South: Southern cuisine plus jazz club. Seriously such amazing comfort food. Everyone said we had to try their cornbread, and we did, and let me tell you, you HAVE to try their cornbread. Beautiful interior decor as well.
- Murph’s Bar: Probably our favorite eating and drinking experience in Philly. Comes with the cheap drinks and spirited sports crowds you might expect from an Irish dive bar in Philly, but also, it has amazing (and affordable) Italian food, which is mind-boggling but also the best combination ever. Also so, so fun when the Eagles or presumably any local sports team is playing. Paul and I both bought a shirt from Murph’s because it was such a memorable experience all around.
- Angelo’s: This place is a “pizzeria” but I’m 80% sure the perpetual long line out the door is primarily there for their Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. We went to multiple cheesesteak spots in town and this was by far our favorite. Delicious, filling, comforting, and an iconic Philly eating experience by the Italian Market.
- Pod: Modern, clean Japanese place by the UPenn campus. A bit on the pricier side, but every dish we got was super tasty, from edamame to sushi to chicken karaage. Their dessert — ice cream mochi with different flavors — was a standout too.
- [Paul’s honorable mention] Saami Somi: Georgian food in the vibrant, iconic Reading Terminal Market (which is a must-go in and of itself). We’ve not really had Georgian cuisine before, and now we want to figure out where we can get our hands on more. We had one of their “cheese boats,” which is every bit as delicious as it sounds.
- [Annie’s honorable mention] Cafe La Maude: This place calls itself “Philadelphia’s best brunch,” but I would venture to say it is one of the very best brunches I’ve had anywhere. Philly doesn’t strike us as being particularly big on brunch (maybe too bougie for the city), but my gosh, this place was incredible. French and Lebanese influences. I had their Red Shakshuka and Paul had their Short-Ribs Benedict. I still dream about them.