Highlights from the Munch Hunts
“Dine and dash” is usually a bad thing: eating a meal and then ditching the restaurant without paying the check. But our food tour scavenger hunts put a much better spin on the phrase.
Full of surprising secrets and delectable snacks, Munch Hunts are available in New York’s Greenwich Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown, as well as in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and beyond. They’ll tempt you with some of the tastiest treats in town while you build up your appetite searching for answers to tricky questions about other neighborhood highlights. Here’s a sampling of the culinary and historical morsels you might discover on our countless scavenger hunts.
A Bar for the Magi and Madeline
Writers have long turned to “spirits” to help woo the Muses—or at least to deal with their fickleness. Short-story specialist O. Henry was no exception, and a favorite watering hole of his is known today as Pete’s Tavern. A series of saloons have operated in Pete’s 1829 building since at least 1864, and O. Henry knew the joint by the name Healy’s. The bar appears as a setting in two of his stories, and the idea for “The Gift of the Magi” supposedly occurred to him as he sat in booth No. 2—or so the plaque there will tell you.
Also, Ludwig Bemelmans said it was in this bar that he wrote the first lines of his children’s book about a cute Parisian girl named Madeline, although her official history won’t tell you that she was born in a pub. And Pete’s interior, seemingly unchanged in a century, has taken star turns in Ragtime, Endless Love, Law & Order, Sex and the City, and Seinfeld.
Spy Gets Order to Go
Perhaps Vitaly Yurchenko just didn’t like French food. In Washington, D.C., there was once a place called Au Pied du Cochon. In 1985 the highest-ranking official ever to defect from the KGB gave his CIA escort the slip and made a beeline for the Soviet Embassy. It’s possible it was all a KGB ploy. Meanwhile, Au Pied du Cochon has vanished and been replaced by a series of fast-food joints.
A Lot at Steak
Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, where these intrepid hunters stopped their snacking to snap this shot, used to be home to the legendary Rick’s Steaks. Its eponymous proprietor, who died in 2022, was the grandson of Pasquale “Pat” Olivieri, who with his brother Harry invented the cheesesteak in 1933. Harry’s grandson Frank inherited the original store, Pat’s. A family feud between Rick and Frank over trademarks wound up in court in 2006, and ultimately led to the closure of Rick’s Steaks.
Back in the day, you were best off ordering “a pepper whiz wit”—a cheesesteak with peppers and onions and Cheez Whiz, the cheese of choice for connoisseurs. Among those who goofed up: John Kerry, who in his 2004 presidential campaign visited South Philly and ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss. As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, “In Philadelphia, ordering Swiss on a cheesesteak is like rooting for Dallas at an Eagles game. It isn’t just politically incorrect; it could get you a poke in the nose.”
A couple miles south of Reading Terminal Market, the Olivieri name lives on at Pat’s King of Steaks.
Where the Would-Be King and the Toothpick Reigned
Several of our Boston scavenger hunts take you along the Freedom Trail, where standeth the legendary Union Oyster House. The place dates back to 1826, when it was called the Atwood & Bacon Oyster House.
The building itself, dating from the mid-18th century, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003. Diners here have included Daniel Webster, who stopped in for a daily tumbler of brandy and dozens of oysters, and John F. Kennedy, whose favorite booth is now marked with a plaque. A future king of France, Louis Phillippe, escaped to Boston in 1796 and lived on an upper floor with his neck intact before he returned to claim the throne. And no less an icon than the toothpick made its American debut at the Union Oyster House. It had been imported from South America by a local businessman, who then stimulated demand by hiring collegians to dine at the Oyster House and demand toothpicks.
Where Was the Beef?
Where did the world first feast on Cracker Jack, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Juicy Fruit gum, and Shredded Wheat? At the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair that opened in Chicago in 1893.
Memorabilia from the fair has made cameo appearances on our scavenger hunts at the Museum of Science and Industry. But you won’t find mention of hamburgers: While legend has it that this delicacy was sold at the Exposition, experts say burgers had to wait until the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to first attack American arteries.
Forget the Ranger, Boo Boo!
If you are a fan of the bizarre (as we are), you need to know about the bygone Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles. Opened in 1935, the place was like something off a backlot, inspired by founder Clifford Clinton’s vacations in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The L.A. blog Pleasure Palate described the interior: “Walk through the doors and what you’ll experience is a forest wonderland. To the right is a large canvas of life-size trees painted by renowned L.A. muralist Einar Petersen. Towering up to the second floor are artificial rock facades. Above one of those rock formations is a little chapel… To your left is a waterfall that starts at the second level and cascades into a gentle stream that eventually makes its way to the first level of the restaurant. Even steel columns…have a covering of bark to give a feeling of there being actual trees inside the main dining room. Of course, it wouldn’t be a forest without wildlife, so there [are] actual bear statues… Every time I walk in, I always feel like I should be wearing hiking boots, pitching a tent and keeping an eye out for Yogi Bear.”
Find More Fun
Hungry for adventure? Whet your appetite on our many in-person scavenger hunts and virtual games, including Munch Hunts in New York’s Greenwich Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown, as well as in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and beyond.
Image credits: Pete’s Tavern by Dmadeo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0; World’s Columbian Exposition by “Unidentified photographer,” Public Domain;