Before the Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LI in early 2018, they first had to give a thrashing to the Arizona Cardinals in week 5. On this particular game day in early October, 2017, my dad and I arrived at Lincoln Financial Field much earlier than the 1:00 p.m. kickoff. On our walk around the stadium looking for food, my attention was caught by a small tent just passed the south gate. A worker opened it’s windows and placed a sign outside. It read “The Schmitter – $11.”
For current Eagles fans, there isn’t much to celebrate. The Super Bowl feels like a distant memory, and many wish they could replay that magical season. However, much like the food critic in Ratatouille, I am brought back to that Eagles game every time I take a bite of a Schmitter. Whether it was the first time or the most recent, there is something special about the way that McNally’s crafts their famous sandwich. Something that you just can’t find anywhere else.
McNally’s Tavern is located off of Germantown Avenue, right in the heart of Chestnut Hill and while it may be small, it’s influence is much larger. However, it still pales in comparison to some of the tourist destination restaurants that distract the public from the real Philadelphia. McNally’s lives at the heart of what the city lives for, but it continues to live in the background. Attention needs to be shifted back to the neighborhood restaurants that foster community in order to save Philly’s reputation of “brotherly love.”
Like many of the foods of Philadelphia, the Schmitter has a history. One night, a neighborhood tavern regular, Dennis Krenich had come to McNally’s for a good meal and some beer. His nickname was “Schmidter ” because he would only drink Scmidt’s, a local, Philadelphia brewed beer. This night in particular, Hugh James McNally crafted something special for one of the neighborhood’s most popular men.
The sandwich contained sliced beef, grilled salami, fried onions, tomato, extra cheese, and a homemade sauce, all placed on a kaiser roll. It was an instant hit, both with Scmidter, for whom it was named, and everyone else who wanted to try “The Schmitter.” It has grown immensely in popularity over the years, but it’s never lost its neighborhood pride. The official writeup of the Schmitter reads, “at heart it’s still just a local on a local roll right here in Chestnut Hill.”
Philadelphia is a sandwich city. As the home of the cheesesteak and countless restaurants that claim to do it best, there is no shortage of opinion as to where you can get “the best” Philly cheesesteak. With that being said, there are clearly two places that get the most attention, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks both located on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. They both have their own claims to fame, but to anyone not from Philadelphia they look like the gold standard of cheesesteaks.
On the other hand, we have a place like McNally’s. It’s small, tavern windows light up the surrounding streets each night, drawing more customers. With plenty of beers on tap and an entire menu of some of the best sandwiches in the city, it’s no surprise that many locals would call this “the best” restaurant.
Good luck trying to get a seat on a Friday or Saturday night, friends and families pile inside to enjoy a night out in the neighborhood’s most popular place. And on a Sunday during football season? Forget about sitting. Eagles fans share the space with each other, spilling beers in celebration and collectively cursing out Jalen Reagor. All of this camradaire is what makes Philadelphia the city of brotherly love, and at its core are these small, family owned restaurants that give the city that identity. Yet, they are completely neglected by anyone outside of Philly.
Tourists will come from all over, trying to see the cooking steaks that they see before home NFL games cut to commercials. They all need their own opinion on what steak is better, Pat’s or Geno’s, as if it isn’t the oldest trick in the marketing history book. Standing in long lines outside is all part of the appeal, bringing to life the hopes of seeing cashiers tear through crowds at record speeds.
These places are known and celebrated for being brash and unwelcoming to everyone. It’s almost like they act to fit into that stereotype that Philadelphians are all mean for no reason, just like those people who brutally murdered the HitchBOT (rest his soul). It’s so bad that the official tourism publication, Visit Philadelphia, created a translator for how to order, “saying “one whiz wit” to the person behind the counter means that one cheesesteak [denoted by the “one”] with Cheez Whiz [denoted by the “whiz”] and fried onions [denoted by the “wit”].”
At McNally’s, families can come to experience an authentic Philadelphia. One where they don’t have to fear a fake outburst if they don’t narrow their order down to three words. There is indoor seating, and as of 2020, outdoor seating while weather permits. The waiting staff is incredibly friendly and patient, even while they are getting people in and out as quickly as possible to make room for new faces.
They aren’t just throwing some meat on a bun and telling you to get the fuck out, they invite you into thier home and show you what makes them special. Newcomers and regulars alike are part of the family when dining at McNally’s, and that’s the exact core ideal that is at the heart of Philadelphia.
What makes this a real issue is that Pat’s and Geno’s get all of the public attention and they promote this false image of Philly. All cities have their own stereotypes, but they’re easy enough for the cities to work around and avoid. Philadelphia doesn’t though. John Gonzalez, a Queen’s Village resident and writer for Thrillist speculates that, “it can feel as though Philadelphians willingly indulge theirs just to get a little attention, just to stand apart. Better to be lampooned and loathed than overlooked.”
I believe this to be true, but how much is too much? Has it come to the point where we are damaging our own reputation at an irreparable rate? Philadelphians are known for being some of the realest people you’ll ever meet, and there are absolutely instances where that has gotten out of hand. Philly sports fans are brutal, that’s a fact, but it comes out of the immense passion that these people have for the teams. Again, it comes down to what is shown to the world and what isn’t.
Being a part of the community is something that can be easily done in Philadelphia. Popular restaurants like McNally’s are peppered across Philly, just waiting to introduce people into their own part of local culture. What needs to happen is that smaller places like Dalessandro’s Steaks, Jim’s Steaks, and Sister Muhammad’s Kitchen begin to get the recognition that places like Pat’s and Geno’s have. They clearly deserve it, and only then will visitors be able to see an authentic Philadelphia, not just the one gritty side of it’s persona.
Philly is a city like no other, and just like many other cities it’s defined by its people. To those who judge the city based on what they see from the outside, it’s a place with rowdy fans and angry residents. But to all of those who live here, it’s a place with the most passionate and dedicated people on the planet. It’s home.
*There is a massive jump in the searches for Pats and Genos following the publication of the Thrillist article, “Everything You Knew About the Pat’s-Geno’s Rivalry Is a Lie” by Dan McKay. This stoked the flames of the debate and helped it to carry into the Democratic Convention (held in Philadelphia in 2016) and Presidential Debates later that year, yielding even more search results.
*The highest point on this graph comes from February 3rd and 4th, 2018, otherwise known as the weekend of the Eagles Super Bowl.