I cut my teeth on the joys of public-market shopping with produce from the Lusignolos, chicken from the Baumans, lunchmeat from the Heurichs, and other staple foods from the merchants who operated stands in the Quonset hut that was Columbus’ “real” North Market.
So when searching for a quick bite to eat near my Philadelphia hotel, I looked no further than Reading Terminal Market, an enclosed public market at 12th and Arch Streets. Here, over 100 merchants offer a tantalizing array of fresh produce, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, ice cream, baked goods and more.
Open-air markets were big in Philadelphia until 1859, when the public became convinced they were unhygienic and city officials blew the whistle on them, replacing them with two indoor markets at 12th and Market Streets. In 1892, the Reading Railroad opened the Reading Terminal Market below the tracks of its new train shed. A state-of-the-art refrigerated storage area in the basement opened the following year, enabling merchants to stock seasonal products year-round. Hospitals leased out space there to store perishable medicine, while local breweries stored their hops there.
With nearly 800 spaces for vendors in the 78,000-square-foot space, the food market thrived at nearly full occupancy. As some vendors started offering a free market basket service, allowing suburban housewives to have their grocery orders delivered to their nearest train station, business continued to boom. Then, things changed. In 1984, trains stopped running to the station above the market and Philadelphia’s commuter rail system was re-routed to bypass the old Reading Terminal. The building was sold to the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, which continued to look out for this unique city landmark, even securing it as a filming location for several motion pictures, including National Treasure. Today, the market is home to nearly 80 independently owned small businesses serving more than 100,000 people every week.
Enter the ground floor of the former train shed, and you’re confronted by rows of market stalls, with a central open space filled with tables and chairs for patrons to use if they choose to enjoy their selection onsite. A sculpture of Philbert the pig, the market’s mascot, surveys the scene. Donations made to this oversized piggy bank support healthy eating programs in the community.
A handful of merchants tempt city dwellers with rural Pennsylvania Dutch favorites, such as dairy items and produce from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, hot pretzels made on site, and breakfasts and lunches served to never-ending lines of loyal patrons at the Dutch Eating Place. I developed a taste for Beilers’ hand-rolled Pennsylvania Dutch-style doughnuts, with flavors ranging from apple cider, Boston cream and cinnamon sugar to coconut custard, Key lime and my favorite, rhubarb cream.
Other merchants offer homemade fudge and nut brittles, fresh roasted peanuts, and Bassett’s ice cream, first scooped at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Quick-service restaurants serve Mexican, Cajun, Italian, Thai, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and other international specialties, as well as the perennial Philadelphia favorites, hoagies and cheesesteaks. Still more meet more unique tastes, like a raw oyster bar and a creperie.
At Wursthaus Schmitz, a German delicatessen, I surveyed the lineup of house-made Nürnberger and Münchner Bratwurst, Weisswurst and Currywurst; thick slices of fried bologna served with muenster cheese and horseradish sauce; Leberkäse and other meats served with side dishes like German potato salad, cucumber and red onion salad, red cabbage, sauerkraut, Bavarian cole slaw, potato pancakes and Spätzle.
As I waited for my Schnitzel sandwich topped with lettuce, tomato confit and herb mayonnaise, I browsed a large selection of German imported mustards, pickles, Mozart Kugeln and Katzensungen chocolates, fennel tea, plum jam, Breitsamer honey, and mixes for Bienenstich cake and Semmelknödel.