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Girlfriends Weekend in Philly

As a womantraveler now working from the West Coast, I'm always in search of a convenient East Coast rendezvous to catch up with longtime friends. Surprisingly, Philadelphia has moved far up the list of choices since I lived there 25 years ago. In two recent visits, I was reminded of the tremendous food options in Center City. What I hadn't expected, though, was stunning hotel adventure, the neoclassical architectural gem that is now the Ritz-Carlton.

IMG00047-20120226-1004Happily Center City is much classier than when I reported from there in the 1980s, when the entertainment core consisted of pubs, cheesesteaks and the Independence Square tourist gaggles led by invisible guides with tall umbrellas. Broad Street is now the Avenue of the Arts, with expansive concert halls, and the regal Mellon Bank, just south of City Hall, transformed in 2000 to the Ritz. The once sooty City Hall has been cleaned up (at least on the outside) and, in the last 18 months or so in particular, is said to have resumed its Ritz-level expectations, so I'm told. The welcoming flute of Prosecco at check-in next to the very uptown lobby was especially welcome.

There's nothing like a night off -- and especially a night at the Ritz -- IMG00052-20120226-1007after a long week of business travel. As a "road warrior" over the past couple years, I've been in the habit of flying out to work, then immediately flying home to unwind on familiar terra firma. But one of the pleasures of business travel is that it takes you places you may not otherwise experience. So a pause to refresh before heading back to the home office is my new habit whenever possible.

My Washington, DC-based girlfriend and I met halfway in Philly and splurged not only for the Ritz but for the club floor. For only about $50 more a night per room, the club floor's amenities more than pay for themselves -- five or six food presentations (actually mini-meals), from breakfast to light lunch to desserts after 8, attentive and extremely IMG00043-20120225-0853pleasant concierge service and kaleidoscopic views of the cityscape from 30 floors up. The personal care is top flight; the concierge even worked with the spa to call in an extra masseuse to fit my schedule even though they were fully booked.

The hotel began as The Rotunda Building, designed by the renowned architects McKim, Mead, & White between 1904 and 1908 at a cost of over $1.5 million. The dome was the largest dome in the western hemisphere when Girard Trust opened in 1908. Its oculus is 142 feet from the floor, the same as Rome's Pantheon, after which it is modeled. There was no skimping on quality, as seen in the more than 9000 tons of polished Georgia marble columns.

We didn't drift far from the Ritz cocoon, but the location is prime for some of the city's best restaurants and shopping. I had already discovered SA VA, the Philly-based designer boutique with very contemporary yet affordable style. Organic, fair trade and a studio right on Sansom Street. It's a place you need to go in, try on and plan to stay for awhile to get a feel for your own personal SA VA style. And last summer, the parade of leggy, thongy women in short skirts, tight capris or shorts -- sporting their precious dogs in oversized pocket books -- offered Center City's best people watching as I spent a warm evening at at a sidewalk table at Parc, the French brasserie on Rittenhouse Square.

This time we opted for Stephen Starr's Butcher and Singer, the upscale steakhouse replacement for the longtime favorite, Striped Bass, on Walnut Street. We were well taken care of and the food absolutely matched its classy reputation. Starr, a music promoter and restaurateur, is an icon of Philly's entertainment industry that a few decades back began offering alternatives to the stuffy Main Line culture by catering to the Baby Boom generation, and now post-Boomer tastes. Another of my Starr faves is the neuvo Latino Alma de Cuba also on Walnut Street. Over on Rittenhouse Square, Parc Brasserie is a traditional French-style bistro - very animated and delicious with a variety of fare and a wonderful wine selection. And when the weather is nice, you can sit outside and people watch. There is plenty of entertainment from the sleek automobiles dropping off people curbside to residents in the swanky neighborhood strolling with their dogs (and assorted friends) in the seen-and-be-seen parading style Aux Champs-Elysees in Paris.