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Eating Here, Then and Now

Back in the early 1980s, when I was working a series of jobs at Penn and doing my best to pretend I was still an undergraduate, my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Carole Bernstein, was a member of a poetry writing group that met every couple of weeks in the evening at Hardee's fast food restaurant, which was then housed in Houston Hall. After a few hours of intense critiquing amid the grill odors, they would repair to La Terrasse on Sansom Street for drinks to unwind. Carole always had blackberry brandy; someone else ordered Pernod -- it was like that. (Part of the sidewalk was being replaced one night when they were leaving the bar, and "Poetry at Hardee's 1981" can still be seen very faintly where it was etched into the wet cement a little way past the telephone pole toward 36th Street.)
Occasionally, I would join the group at LaTerrasse, though I affected a kind of populist disdain for the place. The Tavern at 44th and Spruce was more my speed; a bar where, rumor had it, an escaped convict had been picked up -- it was his first stop after breaking out. Still, despite myself, I was seduced by the elegance and sophistication of LaTerrasse: the classical music playing, the long dark wood bar and the bartenders behind it wearing white shirts with black ties, the well-dressed couples scattered among the students, the unisex bathrooms. Snagging one of the tiny tables along the wall was a major coup. You would settle in and smirk up at the others being jostled in the crowd around the bar, take another drag off your cigarette. It was a great place to smoke, which most of us did, still. Holding a lighted cigarette in front of you was also the one reliable way to clear a path to the door.
We drank at LT's, but we couldn't afford the food. I only ate there when the people from my work-study job took me to lunch for graduation. Carole's and my regular spot when we "went out" on campus was O'Hara's on Walnut between 39th and 40th, where I recall we liked the onion soup. For solitary dinners, I was partial to the hoagie shops Danny's and Ronny's, which were on opposite sides of 40th Street at Spruce. Lunch was most often a hot sausage or hot dog and a pretzel bought from "Gus," who had a cart at the corner of 36th and Walnut. Sunday breakfast: Fiesta Pizza on 38th Street.
I've been thinking about these places and others since reading Jon Caroulis's article in this issue, "Of Dirty Drugs and White Dogs." In it, he takes a look back at the student hangouts of the 1960s-1970s, many of them displaced by the University's rapid expansion in those decades, and what has happened for good and ill to the dining experience at the University in the years since. The article also examines the prospective role of a revitalized restaurant scene at Penn -- a harbinger of which may be the reopening this May of LaTerrasse, shuttered for the past decade -- in making the University City area a more inviting and exciting place to live, learn, work, and visit.
The article, which also features vintage photos of many of the restaurants mentioned, is a vivid reminder of how much of the college experience takes place outside the classroom and that the "virtual campus," should advancing technology ever bring it to pass, will be missing something vital unless it comes with fries, a pitcher, and voices hoarse from shouting over the jukebox. For older alumni, the piece should bring back some satisfying memories of good friends and stimulating conversation, if not culinary delights. For younger alumni and students, its rather glum take on the current situation may -- I hope, for their sakes -- seem way off the mark.
John Prendergast, C'80

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