Amtrak Stories: A Visit to Philly

Philly Cheesesteak

When I visited Philadelphia for a quick work trip earlier this year, I had just enough time to chomp on Honest Tom’s Tacos, but didn’t have a chance to taste the true essence of the largest city in Pennsylvania. On my next jaunt to Philly, I knew I wanted to shop at the flagship Anthropologie store and come home with a binder full of Benjamin Franklin quotes, but beyond that, I didn’t have much of a plan.

Lo and behold, I found inspiration in my framed 1942 copy of a Travel Guide of Negro Hotels and Guest Houses, a restaurant and lodging pamphlet printed once a year by the Afro-American, an east-coast independent weekly dedicated to “racial equality and economic advancement” for blacks.

Reading through a 70-year-old tourist guidebook felt like going back in time. The most intriguing listing I found was the Divine Lorraine Hotel, which was owned by controversial religious leader Father Divine. I’d go to the moon and back for a corner seat in the communal dining hall inside, where “wholesome meals were offered to the working class of North Philly for only 25 cents,” but sadly, the hotel is now defunct. Instead, I quenched my thirst for a slice of history with views of public art, sandwiched between sips and bites around the city.

Here’s a play-by-play of my culinary and cultural hop.


My husband and I jump off the Amtrak at 30th Street Station and make a quick decision about whether to use a ZipCar or walk and use public transportation. We decide on the latter.


We realize that Reading Terminal is a stone’s throw away, and we trek over for a cup of joe at Old City Coffee. Hands down, it’s the longest line in the building, but it’s worth the wait. Next, I browse The Cook Book Stall.


My boo is a history buff, and I surprise him with tickets to the Albert M. Greenfield African American Iconic Images Collection Tour. He’s most excited by the music-centric murals, including The Roots, Paul Robeson, Patti LaBelle and Grover Washington.


Move over cheesesteaks, water ice, and pretzels — I’m declaring chicken and donuts the nouveau iconic foods for the City of Brotherly Love. After figuring out Federal Donut’s ordering system, we gobble up chicken wings glazed with honey and ginger, and seasoned with za’tar, alongside an order of warm Indian cinnamon donuts.


We connect with long-lost family members for a little shopping at BK Flea Philly, located at The Piazza at Schmidt’s. I fall in love with the live DJ, good vibes, and Peg and Awl. I make a note of the chalk tablets — perfect gifts for our younger nieces and nephews.


Next we hit the Brown Betty Dessert Boutique, a delightful shop that I’ve been wanting to check out ever since I got The Brown Betty Cookbook. A blend of modern and heritage by Norrinda Brown Hayat and her mother Linda, it will surely secure their place in Philly’s culinary pantheon. In preparation for the train ride back to New York, I grab an Only for Eliza cupcake — sweet potato poundcake with spiced vanilla buttercream.


Lastly, I enjoy a signature tonic with ginseng at FARMiCia Food & Tonics. I hate to say goodbye, but the nice thing about short getaways is that they leave me hungry for more.

About the Author: Nicole A. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer and currently hosts Hot Grease, a food culture podcast.