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Unless you’ve just finished chaperoning a school trip, are a tourist deathly afraid of exploration or have a fetish for musty scents and stale beer, “Let’s have a drink at the museum!” is not commonly heard phrase, no matter where you are or what institution you’re referencing.
In Philly, that really ought to change — especially during the warmer months.
Because Cross Keys Cafe, the dining outlet at the brand new, years-in-the-making Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut in Old City, sports what might be the best sidewalk cafe in the city.
Since the ‘90s, when the owner of Rouge on Rittenhouse Square helped push through legislation to make outdoor seating a permitted amenity (instead of each instance requiring a special zoning ordinance), streetside seating has proliferated throughout Philadelphia. There’s now dozens if not hundreds of places to scrape a chair along the concrete as you sit down to order in the open air.
But about that concrete: It’s very rarely idyllic. Philly sidewalks are notoriously narrow (thanks, 350-year-old street grid!), so al fresco tables usually come with a healthy side of jostling. Pedestrians aren’t the worst offenders, though — not when you realize cars are flavoring your meal with exhaust as they wait in traffic, whizzing by in dangerous proximity, or lined up in parking spots that take over your view.
People do put up with all this, gladly, because it’s just so damn nice to sip and eat outdoors.
But now, you don’t have to.
Fronting the entire west facade of Cross Keys, which is accessible to the public with no admission required, is a dining area that’s basically the Philly sidewalk cafe ideal. The brick-laid sidewalk that surrounds the museum is raised slightly, and set off by a low wall — passersby couldn’t bump into you if they tried. And though there’s a third lane for it, parking is no longer allowed along that stretch of Third Street, so any car traffic that flows by is well removed.
Even better: Cross Keys’ food and drink menus go way beyond regular concession fare.
Brulee Catering runs the cafe for the museum, and although initial discussions included talk of a full-service restaurant, the orgs decided grab-and-go was the better option. But what fills the cooler shelves that line the sunlit, 70-seat, counter-service space is not your standard ham and swiss.
A petite jar of chicken liver mousse comes dressed with amarena cherries. The meat in the roast pork is sourced from Lancaster. The farro salad is spiked with house-pickled vegetables. Local elk and venison jerky are available for snacking, and the bags of bon-bons like chocolate and caramels are locally-made.
Plus, there’s beer — the whole Yards Ales of the Revolution series, PBC Walt Wit, Yuengling and more — along with a cider and a couple of wines. (Happy hour specials are coming later this summer.)
“A couple of guys who were here yesterday wanted to start a tab,” said supervisor Kate Bodine, laughing. “We don’t have that capability yet, you have to pay when you take your drinks from the counter, but we’re thinking about adding it.”
While the menu online lists all of the prepared food options, not all of them are available at any given time, she explained. But there will always be a handful of sandwiches, soups, sweets and snacks, including options for vegan or gluten-free customers.
Below are some best bets to look for when you stop by to take advantage of the patio.
Portabello sandwich and farro salad
There’s a decent selection of options for vegetarians, including a vegan farro salad in a jar and a roasted pepper and smoked portabello sandwich with fresh mozz and pesto.
It’s a classic, so it’s easy to get wrong, but this version does it justice. There’s slow-roasted pork from a Lancaster farm and provolone cheese, and the unexpected spark of spicy pepper jelly makes up for the fact that instead of broccoli rabe, the greens are broccolini.
Making a picnic version of chicken liver mousse is impressive, especially when the miniature plastic jar captures all the decadence you’d hope for. A sauce of rye whiskey with amarena cherries complements the smooth pate, and the mini baguette on the side does a good job of scooping it up.
Chicken pot pie
Another total surprise: Who knew you could do rich, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs chicken pot pie in a little paper cup? It works, with a layer of puff pastry that sinks slowly into the salty stew, soaking up all the flavor.
Tun Tavern bread pudding
The Marines were founded at Tun Tavern, and this recipe is a nod to a dish served at that bar. Chocolate chips, brioche bread, pecans, brown sugar and caramel make for a loaded sweet finish.
Franklin Fountain ice cream
Appropriately for a museum about American history, there’s ice cream from Old City’s historically-accurate parlor, all stacked up in its own special freezer case.
Coffee and espresso
Cross Keys also has a full-service coffee bar, with espresso, cappuccino and lattes, plus a selection of cold drinks like iced coffee, iced tea and citrus-cucumber water.