Down Alleys and Up Stairs of Philadelphia
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Let me start by saying this: Philadelphia is a magical city. When John Adams came to Philadelphia from Boston back in the fall of 1774, he wrote to his wife Abigail that, "the Regularity and Elegance of this City are very striking. It is situated upon a Neck of Land, about two Miles wide between the River Delaware and the River Schuilkill. The Streets are all exactly straight and parrallell to the River. Front Street is near the River, then 2 street, 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th. The cross Streets which intersect these are all equally wide, straight and parallell to each other, and are named from forrest and fruit Trees, Pear Street, Apple Street, Walnut street, Chestnut Street, &c."
If John Adams thinks that the Philadelphia street grid is elegant and striking, then you know it has to be true.
Nevertheless, some of Philly's most astounding magic happens off the grid. Every so often a weirdo alley will jut out midblock from an otherwise respectable street. Once in a while wacky zoning will allow a commercial space to loom over you as you stand on the sidewalk. Sometimes when you look down an alley or up a staircase in Philadelphia, you will find the most remarkable places. Here are some you should visit the next time you come for your cheesesteak fix.
The quintessential upstairs gem
Really, there is no way this list could exist without Fiume on it. While it is certainly not a secret, Fiume feels sort of like a speakeasy - if you don't know what you are looking for, it is unlikely that you will find it. The little bar with the big beer list is located above an unassuming Ethiopian restaurant up an unmarked flight of stairs. The stairs don't even lead directly to Fiume. They take you to a landing and you still have to push through what looks like an apartment door. Once you make it inside, though, you will immediately feel like you walked into something special. Completely devoid of pretention, completely full of heart, Fiume always feels right. Especially if you find yourself there on Bluegrass night. Cash only, though. Watch out.
Weird side street, awesome coffee
Full disclosure - I go to Elixr pretty much everyday. And every time I turn off of big, beautiful Walnut Street onto weird, dumpster-dotted Sydenham Street, I start to feel the Elixr thrill. I believe that there is no better coffee in the world than what the baristas brew at Elixr, but that's not even the best part. The best part, the part that hooked me forevermore, is their pastries. Elixr sells the best croissants and pain au chocolat of anywhere in the city. Mark my words. Maybe that is the second best part, actually. The very best part is the baristas themselves. Everyone working at Elixr is a fantastic person. One of them, Ben, even plays Ani DiFranco for me when I arrive during his shift. Do you know who else plays Ani DiFranco in their shop? No one! No one does. No one but Ben at Elixr down this crazy little alley. Elixr also regularly features local artists' murals on their walls and local punsters' wit on their sandwich board. Not to be missed.
3.) Stratus Lounge: 433 Chestnut Street Technically up an elevator. Swanky rooftop happy hour.
The Hotel Monaco is hiding a rooftop sanctuary with a killer happy hour. The Stratus Lounge itself is not really a secret, but the fact that you can go there after work and enjoy $5 drinks above Independence Mall before the club music turns on is a little less well known. Maurie and I once had the perfect summer evening here when there were maybe six other people on the roof. We just hung out for hours on those strange brown seats shown above and just soaked in the feeling of being higher than the pions below us. I actually really love all the seating options, which I realize is a weird thing to like in a rooftop lounge, but come on - there are at least 5 types of chairs in that photo above. Don't judge a book by its cover, but do judge a lounge by its furniture.
Oldest gay bar in Philly and the piano keeps playing.
Tavern on Camac, the oldest gay bar in Philadelphia (since the 1930s!) and the greatest piano bar in the world, is literally the reason that I moved to Philadelphia. I mean... Tavern on Camac and Rachel. But it wasn't until Rachel took me to Tavern that I knew Philadelphia was for me. To reach Tavern, you venture down a tiny street called Camac. Fun fact: parts of Camac Street farther north are paved with wood blocks from back when we didn't know that paving a street with wood blocks was silly. When you enter the building, you will see regulars nursing glasses at the bar, you will hear the sweet sound of the piano player singing musical theatre classics and fabulous diva anthems, and you will feel like you just walked into the living room of the family you always wanted. Anyone can go up to the piano and request a song to sing, and Tavern cultivates a very supportive audience. The bartenders are heavy handed with the liquor, so after a few rounds, go up and sing something from Evita. You know you want to.
A restaurant that reaches new heights of creative cuisine (that was a stairs pun)
Climbing the stairs to reach Aldine, you really start to feel like you are entering a special and intimate space. The restaurant's name comes from the luxurious Hotel Aldine that used to be across the street. The hotel was demolished in the 1920s, but Aldine the restaurant is a perfect echo of the elegance that once graced the 1900 block of Chestnut Street. The food is creative, the flavors are bright, and the service is warm. The restaurant opened in late 2014, and, probably due to being hidden at the top of a staircase, flew under the radar for a long time. Aldine made the 2015 list of Philadelphia's top 50 restaurants, though, thanks to Chef George Sabatino’s "modern-yet-comforting style," so many more people might be heading up those stairs soon.
You have to knock on the door for this prix-fixe feast
Do you have an Uncle from Morocco? You know - one that comes to the door to greet you in traditional Moroccan clothing and leads you to a dark, cozy room with tapestries lining the wall and pillows to sit on? If you answered, "No, but I wish I did," then you need to venture down this alley off of South Street and knock on the door of Marrakesh. All of your dreams will come true. Once seated, your hands are cleansed with warm rosewater in preparation for a feast of spiced vegetables, sweet meat pastry, spicy chicken, berbere beef, couscous, Moroccan pastries and fruit. Liters of table wine are at your disposal at a damn good price. During the meal a belly dancer often appears to entertain diners. The food is the same every time which makes Marrakesh feel even more like your uncle's house. Perhaps it's because you have to knock on the door to get in, perhaps it's because the place feels so welcoming and cozy, or perhaps it is because after the meal you find yourself food-drunk in a dark alley, but there is no place more delightfully disorienting than Marrakesh.
The speakeasy that is as dark on the inside as it is on the outside.
The first time I went to the Ranstead Room I nearly turned around because I was sure I was on the wrong dark, damp alley. The second time I went through the kitchen of El Rey, the Mexican restaurant connected to the Ranstead Room, and felt pretty awkward as all the cooks in the kitchen stopped what they were doing to give me suspicious looks as I passed through. It was a hokey act and it worked so well. It takes your eyes several minutes to adjust to the darkness in this speakeasy bar, but once they do you are confronted with strange 1970 nude paintings on the walls and a drink menu that contains my perennial favorite: bartender's choice. I love this place, and I love that woman in the photo above who is clearly saying, "Don't touch me," to her manfriend. This place is perfect.
Not technically an alley, but you will walk right past this havre de paix.
Wedged right in the middle of the shops and businesses on bustling Chestnut Street is this tiny park - only the width of a vacant rowhome parcel - is the perfect place to enjoy a nice day in Philly as the rest of the busy world passes you by unaware. The Center City District website says this about it: "Inside [a wrought iron gateway sculpted with whimsical animal life,] you’re transported to a dreamlike garden defined by miniature fountains, blossoming flowers and cozy stone benches." Sounds about right to me. You can also rent it out for small receptions and weddings! Whether you are eating lunch here, reading a book, or just taking a break from shopping, you really feel like you are in a secret garden when you walk through the gates.
9.) Gojjo and Dahlak patios: 4540 and 4708 Baltimore Ave
Hidden Ethiopian oasises of West Philadelphia
Ok, Gojjo and Dahlak's patios are also not on alleys. Dahlak's patio is basically in a parking lot, though, so i feel like that counts, and Gojjo's patio has stairs that lead to a lovely deck space, so... there we go. Like Fiume, these two patio spaces are connected to Ethiopian restaurants, but unlike Fiume, they are actually part of the restaurants. In both cases, when you enter the front of the establishments, you have no idea that there could possibly be an adorable oasis out back beckoning you to linger all night long. In the case of Dahlak, you don't even have to go through the restaurant to acces the patio. You can just stroll in from the municipal parking lot next door. At Gojjo, you pass through a bar area, a dining area, past the kitchen, up a set of steps, and the patio unfolds before you. Both patios are the perfect place to grab a beer on a summer night and talk with neighborhood denizens about all your lost loves.
10.) Graffiti bar: 124 S 13th St
Hidden bar tucked behind a celebrated restaurant
More full disclosure: I have never been to Graffiti Bar. Which just proves how secret it is!
Bypass Beau Monde and head up the steps to this sultry cabaret stage.
I cannot get behind the prices for crepes at Beau Monde, the restaurant below l'Etage. Paying $11 for a crepe suzette just seems wrong. That said, if you skip the restaurant and take the stairs up to the bar and cabaret on the second floor (which is what l'Etage means in French), you might be in for a treat. The space regulalry hosts comedy nights, jazz concerts, poetry readings, the fantastic First Person Arts Story Slams, and Philadelphia's famous Martha Graham Cracker Caberet. It is warm and sexy up here, and it makes up for the overpriced pancakes below.
RIP Sisters. Your dingy alley is once again home to this bar, restaurant, and cabaret.
Down dingy Chancellor street is a building that once housed horses, cars, a steakhouse called Franky Bradley's, and legendary lesbian bar Sisters. Sisters, the last dyke bar in Philly, closed in 2014, and the new tenant turned this old garage building hidden on a side street... back into Franky Bradley's. Instead of a steakhouse, the new iteration is a restaurant, bar, and cabaret. The owner saved some of Sister's amazingly awful art, and many of the cabaret acts are decidedly queer, which warms the heart of this little queermo. It is sad to see the dyke bars disappear, but I do have to admit... the food at the new Franky Bradley's is good, and the kitchen is open until 2AM. My late nights at the office often end with a jaunt down this dingy alley.
Not on an alley, but a Forbidden Drive is pretty cool, too.
Forbidden Drive is certainly not an alley, but you might not know the Cedars House is tucked away on this wooded path if you weren't looking for it. Taking a walk in the Wissahickon is definitely something you should do - the historic structures, gorgeous nature, and hidden art works are reason enough - but getting a bite to eat in the Cedars House is icing on the cake. The building also hosts yoga classes, Wicca lessons, and art openings. Head here and you will completely forget you are still in one of the largest cities in the country.
Second story reading room and an impressive collection
If you are a member of the Athenaeum of Philadlephia, one of the oldest subscription libraries in the country, and one that houses architectural archives of 180,000 drawings, over 350,000 photographs of American archtecture, and manuscript holdings of about 1,000 American architects, then you have the great privledge of walking up those stairs to a glorious reading room on the second floor. For the rest of us, we can still appreciate the Athenaeum's collection and archituecture since it is open to the public for free tours during the week and research can be done by appointment. It is a truely remarkable building to see when you are in Philadelphia.
15.) Washington Avenue Pier: S Christopher Columbus Blvd & Washington Ave
The oasis behind the Sheet Metal Workers Training Center, natch.
For our last hidden Philadelphia gem, we find ourself following an alley and winding up a staircase. Awesome how we brought that together, right? The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is in the process of building a trail along the Delaware River and connecting it new pier parks along the way. The Washington Avenue Pier park is a remarkable place to take in the river. It was once the pier that ships brought immigrants settling in Philadelphia, and the installation "Land Buoy" by artist Jody Pinto, a large spiral staircase, reflects the excitement that newcomers felt when they first laid eyes on this city. A 4.5’ deep aquatic cut into the pier surface allows water to filter up through the lower wood deck and reveal the tidal activity of the Delaware River and its effects on vegetation, fish and wildlife population. There is a lawn, and picnic area, and seating to relax. All of this is hidden behind the Sheet Metal Workers Training Center, waiting for you to find it.