‘Cheesesteak Vegas’ at 9th and Passyunck
By Mark Voger, author
“Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture”
I was there before Rocky. And my dad was there at the very beginning.
One chilly, overcast Saturday morning in 1971 when I was 12, my dad told us he was taking us someplace special. Cholly was a South Philadelphian emigre who’d resettled in South Jersey. My sister, brother and I were South Jersey natives. Maybe Cholly wanted to “South Philly” us up a little bit.
We crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge. (I’ll never forget that Old Hickory sign about halfway across the bridge, with its blinking lights, white smoke, and caustically sweet odor.) Dad drove us to 9th and Passyunck in the heart of South Philly, where we arrived at our destination: Pat’s King of Steaks, established 1930.
Cholly had never mentioned the place before. All he said – as we jumped out of the car, mystified and a little excited by the smell of fried onions — was, “I used to go to this place.”
Cholly was born in 1916, so he was about 14 when Pat’s King of Steaks sold its first sandwich. He once told me he grew up on Hemburger Street, which is right around the corner from Pat’s. This was during the Great Depression, a time when food-stretching techniques proliferated. The “steak sandwich” itself – which Pat’s claims to have invented – seems like one such technique.
So we all got cheesesteaks, french fries and sodas, because, well, my dad was not exactly what you’d call a nutrition-savvy parent.
It was heaven.
But what stayed with me were the framed photos hanging on the stand – photos of celebrities posing at Pat’s, usually alongside Pat Olivieri, owner/operator of the establishment. (Olivieri died in 1970, a year before our visit.)
I was then in the early stages of a movie buff-dom that would only advance with age, so I was fascinated by these photos. I kind of remember that someone like Gary Cooper or Clark Gable was in one of the photos, which is not as unlikely as it sounds, since movie stars used to do “whistle stop” promotional tours in those days. That could have been a memory blip, but I recalled one celeb clearly: Benny Goodman.
(I’m not a jazz guy, but Goodman stuck in my lobes, maybe because the Benny Goodman Quartet was in a 1937 musical I admired, Busby Berkley‘s “Hollywood Hotel.” In that movie, Gene Krupa was a maniac on the drums.)
Meanwhile, in the present day …
When I returned to Pat’s for the first time since 1971 – this happened over Thanksgiving weekend – the “bones” of the place looked the same, albeit with some modernization, though the surrounding neighborhood was more closed-in than I remember.
I didn’t recall Geno’s — Pat’s arch-rival in the Best Philly Cheesesteak Wars — being across the street. Geno’s was established in 1966, so it must have been there, though perhaps not in so grand an iteration. In terms of signage and architectural accoutrements, Geno’s has an edge over Pat’s.
Framed photos were still hanging at Pat’s, many more than I’d remembered. But I never dreamed I’d see one from my childhood. Then I spotted a little area where the photos were so faded, you had to work to make them out. The frames were drastically weathered. The glass was filmy. These have been here a long, long time.
Then I spotted one of Jimmy Durante that I hadn’t remembered. And yet, once my eyes fell upon it, I recognized it immediately, right down to his expression. Memory is a weird thing, ain’t it?
And then, BOOM, there was Benny Goodman. Just like I remembered him. In a suit holding a clarinet. I would testify that this very frame and photo were hanging here when I was 12. (I’m now 61.) And certainly for decades before that.
Another thing: Pat’s King of Steaks hasn’t changed the graphics on its soda cups since that 1971 visit, at least. I know this sounds like a small thing, but it’s very significant to me.
Y’see, back when my dad took us to Pat’s, I had the distinct notion that he was doing something that was important to him – returning to an old haunt; eating a favorite delicacy you can’t get anywhere else; showing his kids a window to his past. When we got back home to South Jersey, I still had the Pat’s soda cup. As a souvenir, I cut out the Pat’s King of Steaks logo on the cup, flattened it, and affixed it to my bedroom bulletin board with thumbtacks. So that graphic, too, is burned in my memory. It’s exactly the same.
Over the ensuing decades, when the topic of Philly cheesesteaks would come up, someone would invariably ask, “Pat’s or Geno’s?” (In the Philly area, it’s a vital question on a par with “Beatles or Stones?”) My stock answer: “I ain’t been to Geno’s, but when I was a kid, my dad took us to Pat’s, so I’ll always be a Pat’s guy.”
Now, thanks to that recent sojourn, I’ve finally seen Pat’s again and, of course, we sampled Geno’s as well.
My review: Pat’s and Geno’s are both awesome … a little bit overpriced … a little bit tourist trap-y … Pat’s chops their steak, Geno’s slices it thinly … both establishments offer hot peppers (uncut ones, not “banana” style) as condiments … both have outdoor seating only … Pat’s is touchy about following “rules” when ordering … “wit” means “with onions” (but you knew that) … good luck finding a parking space … we saw people sampling both Pat’s and Geno’s, as we did …
So I dig Geno’s, but I am still, and always will be, a Pat’s guy.
(Geno’s thankfully took down its controversial “This is America, when ordering, speak English” sign. Geno’s, too, had framed celeb photos. One was of Chubby Checker, Jerry Blavat and Frankie Avalon. Throw in Sally Starr, and you’ve got a Philly Mount Rushmore.)
The colorful, bustling intersection at 9th and Passyunck is sometimes called “Cheesesteak Vegas.” It’s not up there with Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or the Cavern Club in Liverpool, but it’s definitely a pilgrimage. Go!
P.S.: As for my earlier Rocky reference: Sylvester Stallone and Joe Spinell filmed a scene for John G. Avildsen‘s “Rocky” (1976) at Pat’s. Above is the establishing shot, which is more or less exactly what we saw in 1971, only four years earlier. (The scene was filmed in 1975.)
It’s the scene in which Gazzo (Spinell) — a loan shark who used Rocky as muscle for collections — gives Rocky a good-luck gift of $500 to help him train for the upcoming fight. (You know which fight.)
VIDEO: Even Barack and Michele did Pat’s!