When Philadelphia hosted the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in July, it was the 13th time that the City of Brotherly Love opened its doors to a national political convention. From a site-selection point of view, it’s a no-brainer: Stage a pageant of American democracy in its star-spangled birthplace.
But that doesn’t mean Philadelphia takes its host duties for granted. Less than a week before the 2016 DNC came to town on July 25–28, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) hosted a press trip to highlight everything the destination was doing to set the stage for the big show — with an itinerary that included local venues, hotels, restaurants, event planners, and even the mayor.
Look for an article about the DNC next month. Meanwhile, here’s everything I saw — and tasted! — during a whistle-stop three-day visit.
UP IN THE AIR
When I got off the train at 30th Street Station in Center City Philadelphia, I knew immediately I was in the right place. Giant banners hung from the 95-foot-high coffered ceiling of the beautiful neoclassical building: “Welcome to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.” During a short cab ride to The Logan Hotel, I saw smaller banners garnishing light poles along the route.
The Logan sits right on famous Logan Square, anchored by the glorious Swann Memorial Fountain. After checking in to the hotel, I took a quick walk around the square, which is actually a circle, and home to a carousel of handsome attractions, including the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. And just a few blocks down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway are the Barnes Foundation, the Rodin Museum, and the “Rocky”-stepped Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Properly oriented within the cultural heart of the city, I was ready for the official itinerary to get underway. Our first stop was just a block from the Logan: SkyGarten, a new beer garden in Top of the Tower, an event space on the 50th and 51st floors of one of Philadelphia’s tallest buildings. There was a lot to enjoy up there — the warm, breezy summer afternoon, premium local beers (I had Double Nickel Brewing Company’s crisp, golden-orange pilsner), and a view that starts in Center City and sweeps over the Delaware River to southern New Jersey.
But we would go higher still. Another short walk took us to One Liberty Place, the city’s most iconic skyscraper, and up to the 57th floor, to the One Liberty Observation Deck. It’s a new space offering stunning 360-degree views of pretty much everything available for groups, and interactive exhibits that tell the story of Philadelphia.
When we finally returned to Earth, it was for a very good reason: dinner. We walked over to Rittenhouse Square, historically one of the city’s most well-to-do neighborhoods, and today home to some of its hottest shops, boutiques, and restaurants. That includes Parc, a classic French brasserie from Stephen Starr, among Philadelphia’s best-known restaurateurs, where we were joined by not just PHLCVB President and CEO Julie Coker Graham but Mayor Jim Kenney. Over a lovely meal (I had the roasted duck breast, prepared with spring onions, cherries, and chanterelles), we chatted about preparing for the DNC, which Kenney saw as a way to showcase Philly. “You’re bringing 50,000 people who are movers and shakers, writers, thinkers,” he said. “It’s great publicity for the city.”
AND WE’RE WALKING…
The next morning, we continued where we’d begun: at our host hotel. Occupying the property of the former Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, the Logan opened last December after a complete renovation. During a fun and fast-moving “progressive breakfast,” we learned all about the stylish property, which offers 391 guest rooms, 12,700 square feet of meeting space, and 6,300 square feet of outdoor event space, including a 4,000-square-foot oasis of a courtyard.
And then, it was time to get serious about the DNC. We drove down to the National Constitution Center (NCC) on Independence Mall for a press conference where NCC President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen unveiled a new exhibit called “Powers of the President,” timed to coincide with the DNC and featuring historical documents from the National Archives and several presidential libraries. Rosen was followed by Edward Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia, former governor of Pennsylvania, and chair of the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee, who announced PoliticalFest — a nonpartisan festival “celebrating political history, government, and the road to the White House” that would be staged at seven locations throughout Philadelphia during the DNC.
After a quick walk through “Powers of the President” and the NCC’s Kirby Auditorium, which would serve as PoliticalFest’s main stage, Rendell led reporters on a bus tour of the festival’s other sites. We stayed on for two of them: the Pennsylvania Convention Center (PCC), whose 125,000-square-foot Hall F was being rigged with six different presidential-themed exhibits, including a full-scale replica of Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office and part of the fuselage of Air Force One as it was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; and the Union League of Philadelphia’s Heritage Center, which debuted an exhibit called “Sweep the Country: Political Conventions in Philadelphia.”
From the Union League, we split off from the tour to walk back to the convention center, which — with more than 1 million square feet of event space — would be hosting not just PoliticalFest but also a variety of Democratic Party caucus and council meetings throughout the DNC. We sat for a roundtable interview with John McNichol, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority; Lorenz Hassenstein, the PCC’s general manager; Stephanie Boyd, director of sales and marketing; and Mary Anne Torres, CMP, director of events — all of whom were surprisingly calm in the face of such a huge, high-profile event. “I do love a challenge,” Torres said. “That’s part of why I love what I do. And this will put me to the test, I’m sure.”
More walking, but more important, more food — at McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia. Opened in 1860, McGillin’s is dark and low-ceilinged, and jammed with decorative bric-a-brac. During the DNC, it would offer themed drinks and menu items, and host a variety of special events, plus MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which broadcast live from the bar. Best of all, at least for me, McGillin’s grills a mean burger, fat and perfectly medium-rare, served with local favorite Herr’s potato chips.
Back on the campaign trail, we walked over to PHLCVB’s offices on Market Street, right across from One Liberty Place. Graham was waiting for us, and sat for an interview about the DNC. Like the team at the PCC, she was ready. “The DNC and the RNC have more media coverage than you have at the Olympics,” Graham said, “so this is an opportunity to have Philadelphia front and center.”
From PHLCVB, we drove down to South Philly to see the Wells Fargo Center, the 21,000-seat sports arena where most of the DNC would take place. Move-in and setup were in full, chaotic swing, so we couldn’t get inside, but Toria Boldware, hall management associate for the Democratic National Convention Committee, walked us around outside, where three huge, glass-walled tents were set up in the parking lot to accommodate 15,000 to 20,000 members of the media.
After a few hours of downtime back at the Logan, we had our final event of the day: dinner in a private room at Garces Trading Co., a “European-style café and bar” from Philadelphia’s other big-time restaurateur, Jose Garces. Located in the historic Western Union building — a Beaux Arts charmer built in 1923 — Garces Trading would be bought out by Twitter and remade as the Twitter Tavern during the DNC. But for our dinner, it was business as usual, which for me meant a note-perfect trout almondine paired with an excellent pinot grigio.
Our final morning in Philadelphia began on a deeply local note. We walked to Reading Terminal Market, across the street from the PCC — whose 35,000-square-foot Grand Hall occupies the Reading Terminal’s former train shed. The oldest continuously operating farmers market in the United States, the market is home to more than 100 food vendors and other merchants, including Spataro’s Cheesesteaks. It was breakfast time, but Spataro’s was serving its full menu and this was the only chance I’d get to have Philly’s signature culinary wonder, so I took it (with provolone and fried onions, FYI). It was the right decision.
Back in the world of meetings and events, we toured two venues that would be hosting programs for the DNC, both offering catering from Garces Events: 801 Market Street, formerly the first floor of the Strawbridge & Clothier department store’s flagship Center City location, now a quirky blank canvas that can accommodate up to 2,400 guests; and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a soaring complex of theaters, atriums, lounges, and other gorgeous spaces right on the Avenue of the Arts (aka Broad Street). We rounded that off with a quick stroll up Broad Street to the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia, in the 30-story Girard Trust Company building, across the street from magnificent Philadelphia City Hall. The elegantly stolid Ritz-Carlton — which completed a $25-million renovation in preparation for the DNC — offers 299 rooms and suites (85 percent of them committed to the DNC), 18 meeting rooms, and 26,000 square feet of event space.
Wait, what about food? Don’t worry, the final order of the trip was lunch at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, newly relocated to the first floor of the Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square. In a private dining room, we enjoyed one last delicious meal. Having beefed out for breakfast, I opted for the lobster bisque and a Caesar salad with grilled chicken, both of which were immensely satisfying. And so was Philadelphia.