PHILADELPHIA — Fair warning: Don't call Philadelphia the "next New York" just because the saloon and restaurant scene here is suddenly smokin' hot. Locals cringe. In fact, for libation lovers, Philly may even be cooler than Gotham, but on a smaller scale.
At the Water Works, the city's first water pumping station, circa 1812, bar maestro Mariaelena Galie makes a mighty tasty Manhattan by infusing super-smooth Knob Creek bourbon with sour cherries for 38 hours before dropping in the sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters, $12.
Chris and Mary Anne Mullins, owners and barkeeps at McGillin's Olde Ale House, the city's oldest continuously operating bar (1860) pour a shockingly delicious Pumpkin Martini, a marriage of vanilla vodka and pumpkin schnapps for a mere $5. You'd pay twice that in most New York City saloons if you could find such splendor in a glass.
It's always a good sign when a husband and wife own a bar — and work it. Vintage (129 S. 13th St.; 215-922-3095: www.vintage.philadelphia.com) is a prime example. Jason and Delphine Evenchik bill Vintage as a wine bar. With exposed brick walls, a 23-stool zinc-topped bar, warm earth tones and yellows, it also pours a generous 70 wines by the glass. That's a seductive siren song for oenophiles who hang out here, but you don't have to be an obsessed lover of the grape who noses the crystal and mutter things like, "grassy, hint of tobacco, strong apricot," to enjoy it.
Still, Paris-born Delphine's papa was a wine connoisseur — she's a former actress turned certified sommelier. Jason waited tables in the Bastille and in Philly's tony Le Bec Fin restaurant. He's also a character — a mime, but "not your typical Marcel Marceu," he smiles. Nevertheless, Vintage is authentically Anglican, with 30 beers and a primo collection of fine liquors — all the stylish vodkas, gins, rums and tequilas. Something for every thirst and picky palate.
The place is a crowd-pleaser packed with everyone from pols to profs, bankers to barristers, hairdressers to tattoo artists. Former Wharton Business School Dean of Admissions Dr. James Johnston, now CEO of Sage Scholars Inc. in Philly, is a huge fan. Foot on the bar rail, two great Merlots on the zinc, he was recently trying to recruit Thiel College President Dr. Lance Masters to forgo academia and join his nationwide tuition-funding company for private universities.
"This is just a gorgeous gathering place with a great variety of drinks and fascinating people," adds the wry, witty Johnston. "At this bar, they talk about everything important — from the Philly Eagles to the Philadelphia Orchestra and the ballet."
Under 14-foot ceilings dominated by a quirky chandelier modeled after a 100-year-old wine bottle drying rack, the place is packed during a 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. "happy hour" on the weekdays. A half-dozen wines fetch $3 a glass instead of the usual $6. These are not jug vinos, either. The Evinchiks pour a cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for the three dollars.
Most of the varietals are French and Italian. This town loves its beer, so Yeungling Lager, brewed in Pottsdown, Pa., normally on tap for $4 a pint, is an amazing two bucks during happy hour.
No one likes to drink on an empty stomach, so Vintage has a kitchen, and chef Wesley Leiberher turns out bar treats like garlic drenched escargot, steak and pom frittes, cheese plates, French onion soup. For $11, the Angus beef cheeseburger with Applewood bacon is a protein rush.
The bartenders, though, are unabashed boosters of the City of Brotherly Love. "We hire only pros, no students," insists Jason. True enough. Not exactly a brother, Deafna Kong, is a delightful mixologist with a quick wit and quicker hands. Vintage, going strong at 12:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, really is a coliseum for social lions. "Everyone talks to everyone," says Jason. "There are no strangers here." Solo women travelers can drop by for a wine and feel comfortable.
Vintage isn't pretentious. It doesn't have a 10,000-bottle cellar or any snobbishness. The Auntsfield Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, with tastes of grapefruit, lemon and lime, is $10. A white wine from Portugal white called Vinto Verde is bottled young after just six months in the barrel. It's still fermenting, has some effervescence in the glass, but it's only $7. Plus, there are 58 other wines by the glass to try without having to crack a cork on a full bottle.
One novel twist: While cocktails are proffered, they're not that popular at Vintage. At least they are an option. You can't get an Old Fashioned or a shot of Old Crow at a California wine bar.
Delphine and Jason Evenchik must be doing something right. Around 11 p.m., chefs, servers, busboys, bartenders who work at other restaurants and hotels nearby drop in to decompress and gossip with each other over something cold and soothing. If they're hungry, the stoves in the Vintage kitchen are fired up till midnight. When the competition comes in to spend their money in your place, that's the supreme accolade, a five-star review from your peers.
Chris Barnett writes for Creators News Service on business travel strategies that save time, money, and hassles.
Chris Barnett writes on business travel strategies that save time, money and stress. Reach him at [email protected] To find out more about Chris Barnett and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.