Philadelphia carries a reputation of being a fat, cheese steak guzzling East Coast City. Only now it has tons of hot restaurants and nightclubs. It's a great scene for discovering underrated golf, and Baltimore golf courses like Pete Dye's Bulle Rock are only a quick drive away.
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - It's 12:30 on a Wednesday night and the crowd spills over into the street. Women in skirts shorter than a toddler's attention span and guys with enough "I'm cool" attitude to star in a John Travolta movie jostle for spots at the bar.
"If you're not at least an eight, nobody even turns their head here," said 22-year-old Porsha King, wearing a top that doesn't force guys to use much imagination. "And I like to turn heads. This is one of the hottest spots in town."
This is Rouge, a bistro/bar/night spot in the heart of Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Come here one night and you'll lose any thought of Philly being a town full of big-bellied, cheese steak-chomping, fast-talking louts. Things are as slick at Rouge as in any London nightclub.
It's all part of an unexpected Philadelphia attitude that many visitors are only now discovering. Philadelphia has been promoting itself for its sophisticated restaurants, nightlife and hotels for about a year. And tourists are discovering what many East Coast residents hoped to keep to themselves: Philly is one of the cooler towns anywhere to hang out.
"It has everything you get in New York except maybe the Broadway shows, and it's not as expensive as New York," frequent visitor Ben Reitman said. "I've had better meals in Philly than I've had in Manhattan too. It's completely underrated."
It also has better public golf than New York City. In fact, it can be argued that Philadelphia stands out as the best option as an East Coast golf trip base. Its golf easily beats New York City's, and its restaurant/nightlife scene tops Baltimore's.
It's also about a 90-minute drive from both cities, giving a golfer who stays in Philadelphia pretty easy access to good Baltimore-area courses like Pete Dye's Bulle Rock.
When you're munching on surprisingly tasty delights at one of Philly's new hot BYOB restaurants, you'll be happy you chose Ben Franklin's town. That's right - BYOB. There are a limited number of liquor licenses allowed in Philadelphia by law and new ones can cost a restaurant $300,000. This has resulted in a run of places opening up as BYOBs, and they've turned into some of the highest-rated restaurants in the city.
It adds up to significant savings for the regular folks who don't have to pay restaurant booze prices. Just remember to stop at one of the state-controlled liquor stores before your meal.
Philadelphia is full of quirks like that. The cobblestone streets in Old City are hardly the only unclear paths. Consider that the town that made headlines for being the Fattest City in America at the turn of this century also has some of the East's most cutting edge dance clubs.
At Brasil's, it's all about the Latin beats and salsa that would make Patrick Swayze blush. And there are clubs with grinding bodies throughout this seemingly lunch bucket working town.
"It's just crazy dancing," Porsha King said. "Crazy ... you can really tease guys and leave them panting for more."
Thankfully, the scene isn't all a tease. The Walnut Street shopping corridor will banish any thoughts of mall sameness. (Just be prepared for the double parking. Philly is the capital of double parking and parking just about anywhere, including the middle of the street).
If you're a person who doesn't want to be wearing the same shirt that everyone else is wearing, Walnut is your spot. Philadelphia is also home to Mitchell & Ness, the small company that turned $300 throwback athletic jerseys into fashion statements beloved by rappers and hero worshippers alike.
Even if you're not going to drop three bills on a jersey, it's still neat to browse the shop on Chestnut Street.
As easy as it is to find something to feel right about in Philadelphia street browsing, it's just as easy to be led wrong in Philadelphia golf. GolfPhilly.com attracts a lot of visitors by touting six good value golf courses. The only problem is they happen to be city-owned muni courses that will convince you Philadelphia golf stinks.
The best of them - Cobb's Creek Olde Course - even has very patchy fairways and on this visit a roped off green on its signature third hole.
You'd be better off making the trip into the suburb of West Chester to play Rees Jones' Broad Run, a course that feels like it's in the countryside with its dramatic par 3s. Hartefeld National Golf Club is an even showier and tougher option if you can get on.
This Tom Fazio course that opened to raves went private, but it still allows golf outings for outside play and a good golf packager with connections can probably find you a spot on the tee sheet.
If you're not interested in jumping through hoops, head over a bridge, just into New Jersey to play Scotland Run Golf Club. Built on a rock quarry, Scotland Run features plenty of formidable clears over waste areas that can make you forget you are anywhere close to the East Coast traffic corridor.
Then, you get to return to Philadelphia and its nights of fun. For a $300 meal that's as much theater as food, go to Le Bec Fin for its tuxedo-clad waiters (it will seem like five people are waiting on you, because they are), its seemingly endless courses and its desert cart that's more like an SUV of pastries.
For a true Philly budget gourmet experience, don't forget to try out the water ice along with that cheese steak from either Pat's or Geno's.
You're in Philadelphia, after all. Even if it often doesn't seem anything like what you expected.
Certainly not back at Rouge, where the beautiful people continue to pour in when most of the city's asleep. "The night's only getting started," King said, accepting a drink from a guy in $500 designer jeans across the room. "You should be here on a Friday. This is nothing."
It's a whole new world. A whole new Philly.
September 17, 2007