This story came back to me when I made a rare foray into Philadelphia on Friday. For someone who lives relatively close to the city, I am almost never there. What can I say? I’m a man of the suburbs. I like my parking lots, sparse crowds, things of that nature. Really though, I’m just a creature of habit. I am accustomed to going certain places, I am familiar with particular areas and so that is where I prefer to be. When someone suggests something different I am hesitant. I dig in my heels. I’m stubborn. I’m very rarely guilted into anything. While some might try to come up with a creative excuse for not traveling into Philly, my excuses are generally something like, “yeah, I’m not going.” It’s almost become a routine with some of my friends. They know I don’t like to go, we have a back and forth. It’s real entertaining for all involved. Of course, I do buckle on occasion. Brave the city streets. And, I almost always, to my chagrin, have a good time. The following story is no exception. Just another classic quick trip into Philly.
A couple of years back two of my friends went on a little European excursion. I’m not sure what countries they went to in total. I believe there was an impromptu plane trip to Estonia? But, I know for sure they went to and loved Poland. Now, from where I’m sitting, Poland wouldn’t necessarily be my first guess if you told me you’d found the place you wanted to live for the rest of your life, but these two guys hearted Poland. They liked the women, the friendly Polish people, the beer, the vodka, I’m sure I’m leaving some things out. It was a long list of positives. When they got back to the states they were all about Poland. They wanted to bring everyone into the experience.
I was fine listening to the classic European tales, peeping the odd picture, and moving on, but as it turns out there is a little establishment somewhere in Philly called the Warsaw cafe. If you aren’t following, Warsaw is a city in Poland. This apparently is the one authentic place for Polish cuisine in all of Philadelphia. I looked it up again this evening to find it is still in business. This is one of the most shocking developments of my adult life. But, that aside somehow I found myself heading down with the boys to try out this Warsaw cafe. We even took the trouble of making a reservation.
I’m pretty sure I spent the entire ride in making jokes about how it wasn’t going to be good, and generally being my disagreeable self. You really have to see this act in person for it register how endearing it is. I try to deliver my pessimism with a touch of humor. My trepidation was not eased by the fact that we were wandering around a part of the city I wasn’t familiar with. Not that I am familiar with any part, but sometimes I am down there and recognize a landmark or two. I’ve been to the occasional nice restaurant down there. I wasn’t seeing any of those. It looked like we were walking down a residential street. Finally we arrived at the Warsaw Cafe. Or did we?
The place doesn’t really go for a grand entrance. It looks like you are headed into someone’s duplex and they cleared some furniture out for bingo night or something. Apparently the Poles like quaint? I guess they also like deserted. There wasn’t a soul in the place. Not a patron. Not a host. Not a waitress. It was completely empty. It was clear that we were standing in a restaurant (or what had once been a restaurant), but it seemed a bit odd that there was no one there at this hour on a weekend. We started to make a little noise. I felt a moment of intense connection to the cat burglars of the world. I really felt like someone was going to come into the room and scream bloody murder when they saw us.
After a minute of shuffling around and clearing our throats, laughing, one of my friends even used the bathroom…a woman finally emerged. She said something to the effect of, “You must be my reservation.” Note the singularity there. Not you must be my 7:30, or do you have a reservation? We were the reservation. I’m not familiar with the reservation process of fine restaurants, but…
So, this hostess/owner/sous chef really ended up stealing the show. She just had classic line after classic line. I guess I should sidebar here for one quick moment to remind you how excited my traveling friends were to be there, to brag about having visited Poland, and to try to find some Polish camaraderie in the heart of Philly. Our gracious hostess would prove to be slightly less engaging than the folks my buddies met abroad. Before I get to that, though, I have to address the drink situation. Someone asked about beer, which led to something along the lines of….
“I’ve got 3 Pilsner Urquells, a Miller Lite, 2 Stellas, a 6-pack of Amstel and maybe one Zywiec but I don’t think it’s cold.”
I wish I was making that up, but that is really what she said. It was terrific. So, we actually had to negotiate what we were going to drink and keep a running tab on the totals. Was that the last Stella? Hard to say. The food was all in stock. Now my tastes run to neo-Outback, but I managed to find something on the menu that tasted like flank steak. It was priced like a rib eye, but hey, I didn’t get sick. I think reviews ranged from lukewarm to “not that authentic” for the remaining schnitzel and sauerbraten. Time may have soured my memory at this point.
What this is all leading up to though, is the exchange between our Polish(?) host and my friends who took me down there. I think they thought they were going to have this amazing connection with the people there like they were right back in Poland. Riotous good time, back slapping, etc. So, during a free moment with the host/waitress/owner they launch into the tale of their European adventure. We were just in Poland, blah, blah, blah. The chick looked at them for a second, paused a half-beat, and was like, “that’s great.” Then she went back to the kitchen.
I can’t tell you how funny this was for the non-traveling members of our party. So, really, I just wanted to share this in case anyone out there was thinking of trying to relive a vacation in their homeland. Sometimes it doesn’t translate. Take the Warsaw Cafe. Good from Far, Far from Poland. And, there it is.