Visiting Philadelphia: Restaurants and Rituals

My preferred driving route to Philadelphia from Boston has evolved over the last 30+ years.

My first route was simply an extension of departing from New Haven, CT in the mid-1980s, so I became used to taking I-95 south directly through New York City via the Cross Bronx Expressway; after crossing the George Washington (GW) Bridge, I would take the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 6—Pennsylvania Turnpike then from there to Route 1 south. After moving to Boston (OK, Somerville) in August 1989, I simply took I-95 all the way south from Boston, through Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York to the New Jersey Turnpike.

A few years later, a roommate convinced me it was faster to take the Massachusetts Turnpike (known locally as “The Pike”) west to I-84, take I-84 south/west to Hartford, CT, take I-91 south to New Haven…and so forth.

In the late 1990s, I got into the habit of leaving Somerville in the evening, allowing me to miss most of the insane New York City traffic that can clog the Cross Bronx Expressway for hours. In fact, I often drove from the Connecticut border to the GW Bridge in around 30 minutes (my record was 22 minutes).

When I returned to Boston (OK, Waltham) in September 2005, I continued to use this route, though now I was departing earlier in the day, meaning I could no longer avoid New York City traffic. But, even after my wife Nell tried to convince me to use the Tappan Zee Bridge route, I stubbornly clung to the Cross Bronx Expressway—until 3:47 pm on May 28, 2013:

IMG_0267

Sitting powerless on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I read this sign as “you really do not want to know how long it will take to drive the handful of miles to the GW Bridge.” If memory serves, it took well over two hours (closer to three?) to crawl from the Connecticut border to the GW Bridge.

Enough was enough, and I learned the Tappan Zee Bridge route. For me that still meant taking I-95 west from New Haven, but now I would take Exit 17, very nearly the halfway point of the roughly 340 mile journey, and have a late lunch at the Sherwood Diner.

From there, I would take Route 1 a mile or so east to Route 136 north, then another mile or so north to Route 15, also known as the Merritt Parkway. Follow that west into New York to I-287, over the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Garden State Parkway, then to the New Jersey Turnpike.

The fastest I ever drove from the Boston area to the Philadelphia area was in August 2005—leaving Cambridge, MA at around 9 pm, I drove non-stop for five hours and 15 minutes, arriving in King of Prussia, PA at around 2:15 am.

It pays to be a night owl at times.

At the other extreme, it has taken me more than 10 hours to make this drive; inevitably, traffic congestion and/or construction delays will occur at least once along this densely-populated urban corridor.

So, when I departed from our new apartment in Brookline, MA at 10:35 am on the morning of August 9, 2018, bound for the superb Hyatt House hotel in King of Prussia, I assumed I would not arrive until 6 pm, at the earliest. I was thus perfectly content to arrive at 6:30 pm, eight hours after I departed (including stopping at the Sherwood for nearly an hour).

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My reasons for going to Philadelphia have also evolved over time. For years, I was literally returning home to visit family. My mother may have changed addresses, but she was still there, along with her own mother, two first cousins and my severely-retarded older sister Mindy.

I also had a number of very close friends there, including the first and second people I ever cited here (a Yale friend I will call “SD” and a former work colleague I will call “JJ”).

The “family” reasons began to disappear, however, when my mother died in March 2004. Three years later, my grandmother died. Within the next 10 years, my first cousins moved to California and Florida, and my uncle finally sold the house in Bala Cynwyd where I lived for parts of 7th and 8th grades.

Excluding a newly-discovered second cousin, that leaves only my sister Mindy, whose legal guardian I am, and who remains at the Woodhaven campus of Merakey Education and Autism (formerly Northeastern Health Servivces [NHS]) more than four decades after she entered there in December 1974. Thus, a primary purpose for traveling to Philadelphia at least once a year is to visit my sister. What this actually entails is the following:

I arrive in King of Prussia Thursday evening. Upon awaking on Friday, I call the staff in Mindy’s unit to let her know I will arrive around 4 pm that day, and to please have her showered and dressed. As a rule, I then drive the 15 or so minutes to the excellent Minella’s Diner for breakfast; this trip, however, I chose to save money by stopping at the 24-hour Wegmans in King of Prussia late Thursday night to buy cereal, their superlative fresh-squeezed orange juice, non-fat milk and blueberries to eat for breakfast each morning (the Hyatt House actually supplies four sets of bowls, flatware, glasses and mugs in each room).

On the way to Woodhaven, I stop at the WAWA on Route 1, just north of the Philadelphia/Bucks County line, for four tuna salad sandwiches (JUST tuna salad), two bottles of water, a bag of hard pretzels, and a package of Tastykake chocolate cup cakes (because, you know, nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake). I also fill up my gas tank.

WAWA is a Philadelphia-area institution, so much so that Tina Fey references it in this brilliant pre-2018-Super-Bowl Saturday Night Live sketch. Almost as a rite of passage, I worked at this WAWA in the summer of 1985 (just after my freshman year at Yale); my only complaints about the gig were the revolting “deli wipes” (removing all of the meats from the deli counter in order to wash it), missing the Philadelphia half of Live Aid because I had to work that night, and cutting my hand on the deli slicer (it was my own fault, as I was not paying attention as I rushed to finish my 10-hour shift).

Visiting Mindy is pure ritual. I sign her out at the main office, she gets her evening medications (a process helped by being mixed into a chocolate Ensure), and we get into my car. This particular trip, she spit out about half of her Ensure, so she needed another clean shirt. In the process, she used the bathroom and required a new pair of pants. Watching this unfold, I really cannot thank the staff in her unit enough for all the work they do. In fact, with the switch to Merakey from NHS, every staff member seemed happier and friendlier; though I was briefly flummoxed by the new security regimen (this, despite the Woodhaven campus being only a few hundred feet from the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory).

Once we are buckled into my car, I turn on a carefully-selected playlist that always begins with the original 1964 cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof; this year, I followed that with a long selection of songs by Stevie Wonder, Chicago and Elton John. Throughout her life, the way to calm Mindy (especially prior to her current psychotropic regimen—talk about “Miracle of Miracles”) has been to drive her in the car while listening to the radio; my love of meandering drives with their own soundtrack likely stems from this.

Pulling out of the Woodhaven parking lot, I follow a pre-set course, one my mother and I worked out before she died; at some point in the drive, Mindy will ask for “sandwich” or “tuna fish,” which is my cue to extract a sandwich (and plenty of napkins) for Mindy to eat—and then another and perhaps another.

We begin by turning right onto Southampton Road, following that to Academy Road and turning left, following that to Knights Road and turning left, and following that to Street Road and turning right. This dead ends on State Road, which we follow north through Bristol—detouring briefly through this townhouse complex on the Delaware River my mother especially liked—to the end of Bordertown Road. Turn left onto New Ford Mill Road then meander over to Tyburn Road, where we turn right and cross Business Route 1 to Woolston Drive. Turn right, then left onto Makefield Road. This we follow until it dead ends at the Yardley-Morrisville Road. Turn left, drive through scenic Yardley; a number of road name changes later, the road dead ends on Route 32. Turn left and drive the few miles along the beautiful road into the charming borough of New Hope (where, I just learned from SD, one of my favorite singers lives).

Once in New Hope, we sometimes traverse this wicked cool bridge to Lambertville, NJ just because it is there. Either way, we then take the very short Route 179 to Route 202. More scenic driving south on Route 202 takes us to our one stop—Buckingham Pizza.

It is not that the food there is exceptional (though their pizza slices are certainly tasty), it is that they are incredibly patient with Mindy. We enter, use the bathroom (washing her hands afterward is…fun), then sit at a table. Bear in mind, Mindy is NOT patient. I order two cheese slices (cut down the middle for easier consumption) and a diet Coke with no ice for her; I usually get two slices, one pepperoni and one mushroom, while treating myself to a caffeinated soda—or maybe cream.

The slices arrive quickly, we eat, wash up and leave—the entire process takes maybe 20 minutes. And I avoid what happened one of the first times I took Mindy out myself, back in the summer of 2006. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant and ordered food. She had a few spoonfuls of Won-Ton soup, but they were too hot for her. Finally growing impatient at waiting for the rest of our meal, she tipped the table over, spilling soup everywhere…and I mean everywhere.

Ouch.

Lesson learned.

When we leave Buckingham Pizza, it is around 6:30, and I generally keep her out until 7:45, so we meander south on Route 202 to Route 263 south, and from there to Route 63 East. The latter brings us back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, less than a mile south of the Woodhaven campus. By 8 pm, Mindy is signed back in, she has gone to her room, and I have cleaned the detritus of our drive out of the car into a giant dumpster literally marked “VILE.”

And I climb back behind the wheel to have my “goodnight” call with our daughters, who, if it is summertime, are safely ensconced on Martha’s Vineyard.

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As I noted, I habitually drive to Philadelphia on Thursday; I usually stay four nights—I am very much a creature of (evolving) habit. However, because SD suggested we attend the Red Sox-Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, August 14, I stayed two additional nights.

I always drive to Philadelphia on Thursday because of another ritual. My friend SD (who grew up in New England, where I now live, and now lives with his family in Havertown, where I was raised—criss-cross, though minus the morbidity) and I visit The Westgate Pub, where we are very friendly with an excellent female bartender there. Indeed, even though she is just a few years younger than us, she always calls us “her boys.” The food is not bad either.

Alas, when SD and I entered the Westgate on the evening of Thursday, August 9, our friend was not working; I still do not know if she was on vacation or no longer works there. We quickly ate something then drove to the far livelier McShea’s Pub in nearby Narberth. If, in fact, our friend no longer works at the Westgate, this will almost certainly be our new my-first-evening-in-town hangout.

Once I drop SD safely home, I meander back to King of Prussia, usually driving by pre-college landmarks—my childhood home, other friends’ houses, and so forth—and stopping at a WAWA for bottles of water (pronounced “wootder,” yo) and other travel staples. On this last trip, I also stopped for dessert at Minella’s, where I sat at the spacious counter and ate barely half of the largest chocolate éclair I had ever seen, along with multiple cups of decaffeinated coffee (black). The same older gentleman who worked the cash register when I was a regular patron in the early 2000s was still there; he remembered me, though a bit vaguely,

And, yes, that was the fourth restaurant I visited that day.

There is one more ritual to describe before turning to what made this trip interesting—and ultimately frustrating.

Once I drop off Mindy and finish saying good night to my wife and daughters, I drive the 25 or so miles west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the hotel. I shower and change before getting back in the car again (there is a reason that I drove a total of 1,246.4 miles in six-and-a-half days this last trip).

I stay in King of Prussia in part because it is familiar, having lived there from February 2003 to September 2005, but also because it is located at the confluence of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Schuylkill Expressway (occasionally known locally as the “sure kill”) and Routes 23, 202 and 422. In sum, King of Prussia is a short drive from everywhere.

Following Route 23 west from King of Prussia takes you through magnificent Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the deer (if not the antelope) play. Driving though at night, a short distance before the intersection with Route 252, the line of trees to your right clears and across Route 422 you see the stunning St. Gabriel’s Hall lit up in the distance (this is the best I can do for a photograph—you will have to use your imagination). Honestly, that view is one of my favorite reasons for staying near Valley Forge—though it was not until I searched for a link on Google that I realized what powerful work they do there.

Driving along Route 23, I pass through Phoenixville until I reach the intersection with Route 113 North—where the terrific Vale-Rio Diner used to be. Turning north, I loop around some crazy curves into hip downtown Phoenixville. There, you have to turn left and drive over the Schuylkill River to stay on Route 113—and then you have to carefully track the turns through the densely-populated blue-collar residential streets to remain on Route 113. Eventually, the road becomes more rural—and I ultimately choose to take 2nd Avenue west into Royersford rather than follow Route 113 north into Collegeville. When 2nd Avenue dead ends onto Main Street, I turn right, following Main Street through Royersford over Route 422, where it becomes Township Line Road.

It is here that I first begin to look to my left to find the cooling towers of the Limerick (nuclear) Generating Station—because seeing those lit-up massive towers billowing steam at night from miles away is almost intolerably creepy.

Limerick cooling towers

About a mile after crossing Route 422—all the while straining to see the cooling towers without veering off the road—I turn left onto W. Ridge Pike. A pleasant mile or so later, past Waltz Golf Farm, I turn left into the spacious parking lot of the terrific Limerick Diner (owned by the same people as Minella’s, as well as the Llanerch Diner, made famous in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook).

If you ever eat there, keep an eye out for Rob—and tip him well if he is your waiter. He is a good man with a fascinating life story. And if the sticky buns are fresh, treat yourself to one (lightly grilled with butter)—you will not regret it.

Having a quiet meal at the Limerick Diner (despite the epically-awful karaoke singing that usually emanates from the pub section on Friday nights—though this time there was none, because the owner had neglected to renew their liquor license some months earlier), chatting with Rob, represents the end of the ritual leg of the journey (Sherwood, Westgate, Minella’s, Mindy)—and the start of the “come what may” leg.

Leaving the Limerick Diner, I take a slightly different route back to the Hyatt—following W. Ridge Pike past bucolic Ursinus College to Route 29. Turning right takes me to Route 422, which I follow to Route 23 and the Hyatt.

There I get into bed to prepare for the next leg.

To be continued…

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