10 Best-Kept Secrets of University City

The Restaurant School

Step into the Restaurant School's inner courtyard at 42nd and Walnut streets and you'll think you're in Europeóminus the high prices. Lunch at the school is a steal, and it's tasty, too. Above, sophomore Lia Davidson-Welling tends the pizza cart.

Photo credit: Mark Stehle

West Philadelphia can be a predictable sort of place. Everything you seek, you know where to find.

Looking to shop? Try the stores along 40th or Walnut Street.

Need a workout? Go to Pottruck.

Thirsty for a drink? Visit the bars of Sansom Street.

In the day-to-day, 9-to-5 grind, it’s all too easy to stick to the tried-and-true. The only problem with that approach, of course, is that you’re unlikely to discover anything new and exciting. And believe it or not, West Philadelphia has its share of hidden treasures—you just have to take the time to look.

We at the Current did just that.

What follows are the results of our search—a quick guide to the best-kept secrets of University City (and beyond).

Best excuse to visit 30th Street Station, even if you don’t take the train:

A bar in a train station? Must be dirty, right? Flunky bartenders? Forgettable food? Cheap beer on tap? Think again. Bridgewater’s Pub at 30th Street Station is more than a place to kill time waiting for your train. With an impressive selection of beers on tap—including gems from such local breweries as Flying Fish and Stoudt’s—and surprisingly inventive pub food, this cozy stopover is a legitimate destination of its own. An added bonus is Bridgewater’s attentive and friendly team of bartenders and servers, who chat up regulars and make newbies feel right at home, too.

Best reason to load up on bug spray:

If you’re game for a bit of night air (and bugs) with your movie, check out the Secret Cinema’s “Moonlit Movie Series,” which runs every Thursday night at 9 p.m. through the end of July, weather permitting, on the 40th Street Field, between Walnut and Locust streets. The series is free and the film selection is varied. On tap is Jane Russell’s first film, “The Outlaw” on June 9, the comedic film noir “RiffRaff” on June 16 and the horror flick “The Deadly Bees” on June 30 about—you guessed it—deadly bees. Bring chairs or a blanket, snacks—and plenty of bug spray.

Best way to do library research without actually going to the library:

The Penn Library’s LiveChat Reference Assistance is a remarkable research tool that lets users tap the expertise of Penn librarians without making the trip to Van Pelt. Simply log on, enter your name, wait for the system to give you the green light—then ask the resident chat librarian about any topic of your choosing. Not only will the librarians point you in the right direction, offer helpful research advice and even do some digging for you, they can even make relevant web sites pop up right on your computer. If you give them an email address, the librarians will investigate some more and send additional information direct to your inbox.

Best play to forget you're still in Philadelphia:

As day gives way to dusk, the lush green vistas of Morris Arboretum take on a softer aspect that’s fragrant, a little mysterious and so serene you’d swear you were far from the city limits, not smack in the middle of Chestnut Hill. Every other Thursday this summer the Penn-owned arboretum is hosting a Concert in the Garden from 6:30 to 8 p.m., where visitors can bask in the garden’s crepuscular glow while listening to sounds ranging from chamber music to jazz to Celtic rock. And entry to the arboretum is free (instead of the usual $10) for PennCard holders. www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum/.

Best place to stock up on out-of-print poems by Bruce Weigl:

The House of Our Own bookstore has been a Spruce Street fixture for more than 30 years, but because it’s surrounded by frat houses and set back from the street, it’s easy to walk right by—which is a shame. Behind the red brick Victorian facade of this used-and-new treasure trove you’ll find several lifetimes of reading pleasure. True to its counterculture roots, the store stocks plenty of volumes on McCarthyism and American radical history. Venture up to the second floor, though, and you’ll also find used cookbooks, Alice Munro short stories and a small kids’ section—at toddler height—beneath a bay window, where a comfy rattan chair and child-size rocker tempt visitors large and small to stay a while. 3920 Spruce St., 215-222-1576.

Best chance to perfect your rappelling technique:

During the summer months Pottruck pulls out all the stops, offering an array of classes to appeal to those tired of the treadmill. Some, like Aoinagi Karate (June 27-August 1), take place in the familiar spaces of the gym. Others—including a whitewater kayaking clinic that promises to teach you the Eskimo roll—take you off campus and out of your comfort zone. For budding rock climbers who’ve gotten to grips with the gym’s climbing wall but lack outdoor experience, Pottruck offers full days of climbing instruction at Ralph Stover State Park in Bucks County. Now’s your chance to finally master the intricacies of anchor building, top roping and rappelling—all under the watchful eye of an expert. www.upenn.edu/recreation/programs/outdoor.htm.

Best lots to park in if you drive to work but don't have a permit:

There’s no getting around it—parking in University City is pricey, and for Penn staffers without a parking permit, options are limited on days when driving to work is necessary. You can feed the meters, find free parking on the far outskirts of the campus area or buck up and pay the fare at one of the six Penn visitor lots. If you choose the last option, though, you should at least go for the cheapest: The lot at the northwest corner of 34th and Chestnut streets and The Palestra lot at 33rd Street between Spruce and Walnut are, at $10 per day, the least costly of the bunch.

Best lunch under $5 that's not food-truck fare:

When you want a sit-down lunch (away from your desk) but blanch at the thought of plunking down the better part of 10 dollars, we recommend a visit to the Restaurant School at 42nd and Walnut. Housed in an Italianate mansion, the school, which trains students in the culinary arts, has several restaurants open to the public. Lunchtime fare in the European Courtyard—a faux public square tricked out with “storefronts” and cobblestone paths—includes panini, mini pizzas, pasta of the day and salads. The prices reflect the students “in training” status, but there’s nothing amateur about the appetizing flavor combos and cheerful service.

Firehouse Jazz


Best live music that won't cost a cent:

Here’s another reason to venture beyond 40th Street—the free Firehouse Jazz Series (recent patrons pictured right), on the plaza outside the Firehouse Farmers Market at 50th and Baltimore streets. Held every Friday night during the summer, from 6 to 8 p.m., it’s a chance to meet neighbors, feast on barbecue and ice cream supplied by Firehouse vendors, and dance (or just bob your head) to jazz under the evening sky. On a recent Friday, Denise King and Friends played a medley of Coltrane and Miles Davis, with standards like “My Funny Valentine” thrown into the mix. Jazz lovers take note: Chairs and tables fill up quickly, so arrive early or plan to bring your own seating.

Best view of campus that requires a workout to see:

Stately old Franklin Field is a sporting landmark. It also offers a really nice view of University City—provided you’re up to the challenge of seeing it. Only those willing to climb the stadium’s old bleachers, all the way to the top of the upper deck, will be treated to the almost-but-not-quite-unobstructed view of Penn and its surroundings. Though you can’t see everything—the stadium itself blocks out some of the sightlines toward the center of campus—the vista is still impressive. And it might give you a new perspective on just how big Penn really is.

Originally published on June 9, 2005