Reading Terminal Market isn't your average food court

October 21, 2007|By John Henderson | John Henderson,The Denver Post

Philadelphia -- You know those food courts that dot the urban landscape? Well, they're not a great idea, so let's get rid of them.

Instead, come here to Philadelphia to see what a real food court looks like. Stay two weeks. You'll need that long to try all the 80-plus merchants at the Reading Terminal Market. You'll need two months to get to know all the interesting characters, stories and controversies intertwined in one of Philadelphia's greatest landmarks.

The Reading Terminal Market began in 1859 and will still be the perfect food court in 2059. It's a block long and looks like an old railroad terminal, which it was as part of the old Reading Railroad at the turn of the 19th century. Inside is a maze of restaurants, diners, food shops, groceries, dessert bars and crisscrossing cultures.

I've experienced interesting cultural exchanges in my day - teaching a Masai tribesman in Tanzania how to throw a Frisbee comes to mind - but watching a heavily tattooed Philly construction worker being served breakfast by an Amish woman in a white bonnet is right up there.

The Reading Market really isn't a food court. They dub it a farmers' market, manned heavily with Amish and Mennonites who travel the 80 miles or so from Lancaster County every morning. There's not a Subway or Taco Bell in sight.

The first thing I saw on a recent morning was a creperie where a woman was ladling batter on a round fryer just like I saw in Paris. Across the brick path was a bakery with six 8-foot-high shelves stacked with fresh, warm bread.

A few feet farther stood Bassetts Ice Cream, America's oldest ice cream company, established in 1861 and the oldest business in the market. It still has the original faded wooden signpost with the old-fashioned lettering.

In the corner was Beiler's Bakery, where Amish and Mennonites passed around pies, desserts and bread like hash-house waitresses, albeit without the miniskirts. The gritty urban Philly accent wafted throughout the market.

"It's my home away from home," said Harry Ochs, who has been working at the business started by his grandfather, Harry Ochs & Sons meat market, since 1947 when he was 12. "I spend more time here than I do my own home. What I like about it is the people. ... Many a friendship has been made just talking over the counter."

And they all have a story. Some happy. Some sad. All entertaining. Jack Morgan has operated Downtown Cheese for 10 years. He sells 1,057 types of cheeses from around the world and in his display case has 400 to 500, including a rare Tarentaise cheese named after the river in the Haute-Savoie region of France from where it came.

In 10 minutes talking to Morgan, I learned as much about cheese as I did living a year and a half in Italy. I also learned how difficult it can be maintaining a business here.

"My business right now is, like, going in the toilet because of the dollar," Morgan said. "I have French people who come here who say it's cheaper than it is in Paris right now."

The city's charter does not allow franchises in the market. One of the most local institutions in Philadelphia, however, is fighting for its life. Rick's Philly Steaks, just past Bassetts, is the third generation of the original Pat's Steaks family. Owner Rick Olivieri, however, became a thorn in the landlord's side during lease negotiations and is being told to leave.

"My grandfather invented the Philly steak sandwich," he said.

Along with the best Philly steak in the state, you can also buy a T-shirt reading "Save Rick's Steaks."

Giving in to the extrasensory palate invasion, I took a counter stool at the Dutch Eating Place, where a Mennonite served me magnificent French toast, with country whipped butter, for $3.25, and a glass of ice-cold farm-fresh milk.

As I walked out, smelling fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies right out of the Famous Fourth Street Cookie Co.'s oven, I wondered how long the line at a mall's Chick-fil-A would be that day.

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