The Philly Cheese Steak Ritual

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 14, 2011

"New York is the city that doesn't sleep; Philadelphia does, except at Pat's and Geno's. These two 24/7 businesses are the literal crossroads of America, and a window on it."
Carolyn Wyman

It has taken me nearly 15 years of being back in the greater Philadelphia area to finally visit one of the most famous places in all of America. No, I am not referring to the Constitution Center with the Liberty Bell or Constitution Hall, the literal birthplace of our country. Nor am I referring to the famous Rocky steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I am not even referring to the home of the Eagles or the Phillies or Fliers. 

But I am referring to an almost sacred place at 1237 East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, the home of Pat's King of Steaks. It was a visit I will never forget. 

I needed to meet my friend, Russ Eggert, and lunch seemed to be the best fit for both of our schedules. Earlier in the day he was in Delaware and I was in New Jersey so we decided to meet for lunch in Philadelphia. I arrived a little early and found a parking place right across the street on the corner of Wharton and South 9th. 

Over the next half hour or so I watched people of all ages and from all walks of life step up to the counter and order their favorite lunch from this legendary eatery. Some of them hopped back into their taxis while others sat on the red picnic tables, and still others just stood on the sidewalk taking bite after bite of their huge Philly cheesesteaks. 

If you have ever been to Pat's you know there is no parking lot. On every street, cars squeezed into any space they could find and no one seemed to care about legal or illegal parking. On the wall of a building in front of me were huge pictures of famous Philadelphians including Eddie Fisher, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Al Martino and others. 

Russ drove up and found a parking place on 9th street just across from Pat's. By the time we stepped up to place our order, the lunch rush was over and there was no line. With our cheesesteaks in hand, we sat down at a table and began eating this world-famous culinary delicacy. It was a very cool 51 degrees on a damp and windy day, but neither we nor the people around us seemed to notice. 

Pat's King of Steaks was founded by Pat Olivieri in 1930. As the story goes, Pat had a hot dog stand near the famous Italian Market in South Philadelphia. One day he decided to have something quite different for lunch, so he sent for some chopped meat from a local butcher shop. He cooked the meat on his hot dog grill, placed the meat on an Italian roll and dressed it with some onions. 

Just as he went to take a bite, a cab driver who ate a hot dog every day asked what he had there. Pat said it was his lunch. The cabbie insisted that Pat make him one. He took one bite and said to Pat, "Hey...forget 'bout those hot dogs, you should sell these." And the steak sandwich was born. 

In 1966 Joe Vento opened Geno's Steaks just across the street. People thought he would barely last six months. Today Pat's and Geno's has become one of the great dining rivalries in the whole country. Pictures on the walls of both places tell the stories of all kinds of famous people from movie stars to athletes and from politicians to food critics who have been drawn to this common place for a taste of uncommon food. 

Some people debate which is best...Pat's or Geno's. As of now I can only recommend Pat's. I will have to try out Geno's next time. At last I belong in Philadelphia. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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