It’s Saturday afternoon on the corner of Center City's 12th and Arch streets and, as usual, it’s utter pandemonium at Philadelphia’s historic Reading Terminal Market.
Hot apple dumplings fly from the counter at the Dutch Eating Place. Aged cheddar and blue-veined Roquefort spring from cases at Salumeria. Fresh greens pack shopping baskets at Iovine Brothers Produce. Just-filled cannoli slip into boxes by the dozen at Termini Brothers Bakery. The line for roast-pork sandwiches at DiNic’s is deep, winding well past OK Produce. Hundreds of patrons hungry for foodstuffs pack aisles; dozens of vendors deftly hawk, prep and sell fare and wares; and first-timers grow light-headed trying to absorb the spectacle. But passers-through should take comfort knowing it’s a controlled chaos, a scene that’s played out daily in a similar fashion for more than a century.
Established in 1892 by the Reading Railroad as part of its downtown passenger terminal, the market has survived wars, depressions, recessions and trends, and remains one of the largest indoor bazaars in the country, thriving in this century as a mecca for gastronomic essentials and indulgences. These days, more than 100,000 visitors and locals pass through the market every week. The key to voracious travelers surviving—and better yet, conquering—the market in the modern era is diving into the melee head first, fortified with a few strategic tips.
Tip #1: Come hungry, but not starving. If you enter at the doors nearest 12th and Arch streets, the sweet scent of sticky cinnamon buns from Beiler’s Bakery could easily entice you to stop right there, devour four buns and never venture more than 10 feet into the market. You’d leave happy, but ignorant of the infinite delicacies beyond the front door.
Tip #2: Bring cash. A growing number of vendors do take plastic, but many remain cash-only operations. The market’s aisles are dotted with ATM machines, but it’s best to arrive prepared.
Tip #3: Send a scout. Clusters of tables in each of the three main open-seating areas fill and empty quickly, so smart diners leave a sharp-eyed member of the party to lie in wait for a table.
Tip #4: Try something new. In an almost two-acre space devoted to food and food-related goods, chances are you’ll come across an unfamiliar edible. One regional specialty to taste test is scrapple, a crisp-fried pork and cornmeal mush devised by the Pennsylvania Dutch and on menus at Down Home Diner and the Dutch Eating Place. The spicy dish is best as a breakfast side, in place of the habitual bacon or sausage.
Tip #5: Wait for it. The market is always jammed, so shuffling behind crowds is inevitable. Take advantage of the slow pace to take in the sights. (Red snapper is really red! Brussels sprouts grow on a stalk!). Furthermore, if there is a line at a food stall, it’s generally for a good reason. The queue at DiNic’s can be incredibly long, but it moves quickly (the staff is used to handling volume) and the roast-pork sandwich with sharp cheese and greens, named “best sandwich in America” by the Travel Channel’s Adam Richman, is undeniably delicious.
Tip #6: Honor the history, but welcome the future. The past is remarkably present at the market, and most visible in the longevity of its vendors: Bassetts Ice Cream launched in 1861, Godshall's Poultry opened in 1916 and L. Halteman Family in 1918, just to name a few of the old-school businesses still flourishing today. Pay your respects to these institutions, but look out for a new wave of merchants who are reinvigorating the market with contemporary concepts. The fall of 2012 saw the opening of olive-oil boutique the Tubby Olive, nuts-and-spices emporium the Head Nut and chef-driven German delicatessen Wursthaus Schmitz. On the horizon are the introductions of small-batch cheesemaker Valley Shepherd Creamery, Keven Parker’s Soul Food Cafe and Border Springs Farm butcher.
So embrace the constant ebb and flow of folks and food at Reading Terminal Market. Whether you’re craving culinary culture or serious sandwiches, you certainly won’t go hungry.
Open Mon-Sat, 8 am-6 pm; Sun, 9 am-5 pm. 12th and Arch streets (Center City, near the City Hall and the convention center), Philadelphia, Pa., 215.922.2317