In Praise Of Food Tourism
9:15 AM EDT on September 7, 2023
Good parents take their kids to the theater or a museum to get culture. I took mine to eat wings.
This just-ended summer break was the worst ever in the McKenna household when it came to doing summer-break things. We didn’t leave D.C. at all. Part of our inertia was unavoidable. Scholastic sports have become a year-round endeavor for kids, and being home and available even through summer can now be part of the game. The benefits have been worth those costs to my two kids, both teen boys, so I’m not complaining.
But I was surely bummed that I hadn’t come up with any imaginative ways to spend what spare days we did have, and now another school year was almost upon us. So on a Friday morning in August, overwhelmed by a sense that all the sand was running out of the hourglass, I told them to get in the minivan, because we’re going to lunch. In Philadelphia.
We were going to get wings at Moriarty’s.
Wings and Moriarty’s mean a lot to me and my boys. At some point around the time my eldest, now 17, became a tweener, he graduated from chicken nuggets to wings as his desert island dish. His little brother and I quickly followed. For years now, if we go out to eat, one or some or all of us are getting wings. (A family picnic at a Georgetown park last week ended tragically when during cleanup I got confused and accidentally stuffed a bag containing a whole uneaten salad bowl from Chopt into the trash can and brought home a bag full of gnawed bones from all the takeout wings from Wingo’s my boys had eaten.) We're not alone: The wing is now the most expensive part of the chicken thanks to wing nuts like us.
And we have a couple cherished wing spots. During the 2019 baseball season, for example, we had a weekly routine of going to Wing Wednesday at Nanny O’Brien’s, a really pleasant pub in D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, to watch Washington Nationals games and eat half-price wings. History shows that that wondrous season ended on a Wing Wednesday with a win over the Astros in Game 7 of the World Series, and us at Nanny’s watching it and going through plate after plate of wings. As parent/child bonding rituals go, watching sports is good; watching sports with wings is something more.
The best wings we’ve yet come across are, by consensus, those at Moriarty’s in Philadelphia. Colleague and man about town Dan McQuade recommended the pub in Center City to us for its wings back in 2018, when we were staying in the city on a family trip. We watched Villanova beat Texas Tech in the Elite Eight of that year’s NCAA Tournament and ate wings at the bar, and just had a fantastic day. The McKenna Bonding Theorem (sports + wings > sports) held true.
We’d made it back to Moriarty’s a few times in the years since and our love for the place and its featured cuisine has grown greater with every visit. I recently found an email I’d written to the bar’s manager in 2020 during the COVID shutdown, saying that the establishment had brought my family lots of pleasure and that my son had requested a trip to eat wings at Moriarty’s as his middle school graduation present, and as soon as it reopens were going to take it. We ended up not being able to make that visit until the summer of 2021, but it ended up being a memorable one: We’d left home intending to eat wings at the bar early and then head over to Citizens Bank Park to see the day game between the Nats and the Phillies. But we got so comfortable we ended up saying to heck with the ballpark and spending the whole afternoon at Moriarty’s, eating too many wings and watching the game on TV. Life can only be so good. Everything about the place—the patrons, the prices, and, sure, the poultry!—let us know we weren’t in D.C., which is exactly what you want out of a place not in D.C.
And on that recent Friday, I figured we could all really use another dose of that same difference. So into the minivan we piled.
My wife was out of town and couldn’t join us. She said she’d give my spur of the moment scheme her blessing so long as I’d show my eldest son, on the verge of entering his senior year of high school, some college campuses while we were on our Philly food tour. You got it, I said.
The drive up I-95 was horrendous. Idiots have always said D.C. and Philadelphia are two hours apart. That’s crap even with empty highways. And this was not only a summer Friday, but on a day when it seemed every dollar of our president’s Build Back Better plan was being spent on construction crews rehabbing I-95 north.
At the two-hour mark, we hadn’t even gotten out of Maryland.
The first leg of the trip ended up being over three hours of stop-and-go hell. The promised college campus showings had to be, well, abbreviated. A few minutes after hitting Philly we drove past a big building with the Temple University logo on it. I instructed the kids to take photos in case their mother wanted proof I’d honored our agreement.
None of us were in the best of moods when we parked downtown and got out of the car. But walking through the doors of the pub made everything right. This place is still boss. We asked for three servings of spicy wings as soon as our server came over, no menus needed. And about 10 minutes later, plates of full wings—Moriarty’s serves whole wings, not wings divided into drummies and flats like in most eateries—slathered in wondrous wing sauce showed up. The grub was as good as we remembered, and couldn’t have been housed quicker if we were Wing Bowl entrants. Our table had a pile of bones so big, it looked like the scene of a war crime.
We felt full, but our Philly food foray wasn't quite finished. Before heading out of town, we made NASCAR-quick pit stops at both Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, the most famous duo of cheesesteak dispensaries in the world’s cheesesteak epicenter. (Tourist spots for sure. But by god we are tourists!)
Traffic back was even worse than traffic up. By the time we hit city limits, the fuel light was on. I took an exit in Chester, Penn., and asked the kids to take photos of the Widener University campus that we passed near the gas station. When we got back on the interstate, I realized at least as much federal money was being spent rehabbing I-95 South. The kids fell asleep in the abysmal traffic, and amid all the slow miles I got to thinking about the summer trips I went on when I was a kid. My dad used to pack us all into a Volkswagen bus with no radio and no air conditioning and no padding on the seats for a couple weeks and make us see all of Maine and half of Canada at 55 mph. I dreaded those trips at the time. Now that I’m kind of wearing the shoes he wore then, I realized my dad’s mission was to make sure we knew the world was bigger than the Beltway. And that seems brilliant to me now. I wish there had been wings, though.
The trip home from Philly took three-and-a-half hours. That’s a combined six-and-a-half hours of driving, ostensibly for a meal. A big, special meal. Plus leftover cheesesteaks. But still. I asked the kids if it was worth it.
“Yeah, but next time we’re staying overnight,” my eldest said. His brother agreed.
Deal. I can’t wait.