Last weekend I spent a month in Philadelphia.
First prize: one week in Philadelphia. Second prize: two weeks in Philadelphia.
On the whole I'd rather be in Philadelphia.
Legendary epitaph on tomb of native son, W.C. Fields.
There used to be a lot of jokes about this city. You couldn't get a drink on Sunday, they said, or a decent meal any day. The jokes die hard. But they are dying, as culinary renaissance proceeds with a vengeance in the City of Brotherly Love.
"Ten or 15 years ago there were only two places to eat in Philadelphia" says Steven Poses, one of the leaders of the restaurant explosion, "Bookbinders and Arthurs," a steak house.
A handful of restaurants has grown to hundreds in only a few years - not just in restored townhouses of what is called Center City and Society Hill, but in storefronts, warehouses and lofts on the fringes. And often the arrival of a restaurant in one of these downtrodden areas has signaled its revitalization.
There are two schools of restaurant cooking in Philadelphia: classical French and California flowerpot-store-front with limited menu. Sometimes the distinctions blur. The classical French cooking is represented by La Panetiere, Le Bec Fin and Deja Vu (more or less). The staffs are well trained. The flowerpot school grew out of the five-year-old Restaurant School and/or its founder Jay Guben. It includes Friday, Saturday, Sunday; Les Amis and Morgans. Some are more professional than others. In between or around the edges are the very successful semi-professional establishments like the Frog and the Commissary.
Not surprisingly the rapid appearance of so many restaurants has sparked a lot of rivalry, jealousy and differing opinions. Most observers, however, agree that Philadelphia's first "real French restaurant," La Panetiere, has given birth to at least nine others.
Elaine Tait, Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist and restaurant guide author, says the grandfather of all the city's French restaurants goes back even further to the Conventry Forge Inn, about an hour from the city in Chester County. "It started with [inn owner] Wally Callahan," Tait says "He trained Peter von Starck. Von Starck, a wealthy Philadelphian opened La Panetiere about 10 years ago.
The other line of descent from the Restaurant School - which claims to turn students into chefs in one year at a cost of $4,000 - is characterized by its fresh-faced eager help. And by the disputes it causes.
"Chef, " sneers the acknowledged king of the city's French chef-restaurateurs, Georges Perrier, once the chef at La Panetiere: "I think people who come out [of the school] are not the greatest chefs. They have a long way to cook. Maybe after 10 or 15 years, but not after one year." At the same time Perrier, who owns Le Bec Fin, says: "I think it's good for the city. Not everyone can afford my restaurant," where the prix fixe five course dinner is $44.
Julie Dannenbaum, a renowned cooking teacher who has made thousands of Philadelphians more knowledgable and demanding, doesn't think the Restaurant School has "that great a track record. They open and close, open and close. They are not getting enough training." But Dannenbaum, who directs cooking classes at the Gritti Palace in Venice in the summer and the Greenbrier in White Suplhur Springs, W. Va., in the winter, agrees that the "Restaurant School restaurants are having an impact on the city."
Poses, another La Panetiere graduate, who owns The Frog and The Commissary, is less critical: "The Restaurant School is very valuable. It is responsible for a number of exciting restaurants." Guben has been connected with a dozen or so restaurants in the city: Morgans, a Meditterranean bristo, Upstairs, Downstairs, Bogart's, Maxwell's Prime, a beef house, Les Amis.
Von Starck isn't proud of all La Panetiere's descendants, and doesn't think the city has that many "serious restaurants. Serious here means they pay their butchers from day to day.
"If a lot of activity constitutes a renaissance" von Starck agrees there is one. "But if you mean all those little places filled with plants that make unusual combinations and torture things, I don't think there is one."
"Filet mignon on a bed of crab meat," he says with rare disdain.
Von Starck classifies Le Bec Fin as a "serious food experience." Poses' Commissary he says has "good quality food and makes an important contribution." And he "takes pride in the bravado of Deja Vu to proclaim itself the finest in America." (Its owner, Sal Montezinos, also worked for von Starck.)
La Panetiere, no longer acknowledged as the leading French restaurant in the city, is still doing classical French cooking. Nouvelle cuisine is left to others, like Perrier, whom von Starck met when both were working at L'Ostau Baumaniere, a famous restaurant in Provence. The 36-year-old Perrier, who had just hired a chef from France, says he will be doing more and more nouvelle cuisine "We are changing all our recipes but we are not going to do the crazy cuisine minceur, " he says.
For the quality of his food, the service and the ambience, Perrier thinks he has "the cheapest restaurant in Philadelphia." It is without doubt, one of the most elegant, with white damask tablecloths, silver service places, Christophe flatware, Baccarat crystal and Ginori china. Hidden behind a restored townhouse, the interior is more like a Fragonard painting.
Of the more traditional restaurants, Deja Vu may be the most unusual. The walls and ceilings have been painted with flowers to match the specially woven rug, the tablecloths and chair back covers. The paintings, chandeliers and mirrors are antique. Baroque-Rococo is how the owner describes it. A less friendly critic called it Graustark to Belle Epoch. Deja Vu, which started off as a bistro seven years ago, is now a prix fixe restaurant which seats 30. There is a private dining room for 10 one level down. The five-course fixed menu is $30. In the wine cellar, which it took "two men, two weeks and lots of wine to dig out" four people can dine in complete privacy on a 10-course dinner for $100 a person plus the wine, none of which costs less than $60 a bottle.
Dutch-born Montezinos has a distinctive style of cooking, very light and deceptively simple. It is somewhere between classical French and nouvelle. It is "cuisine Montez" says the introduction to the menu which continues, "All of our ingredients are naturally grown. We never use white sugar, bleached flour or additives. The eggs are fertilized and farm fresh. Fruits and vegetables are flown in from San Diego. Deja Vu has installed a soft-treated purified water system, which enhances the purity and flavor of drinks & food."
"We can't afford organic meats," Montezinos says, "but our fruits and vegetables are organic."
In Washington, Deja Vu would be filled every night. Not in Philadelphia. "I've always been five years in advance," Montezinos says. "What I'm doing is good for them. It doesn't make them fat and it isn't too rich."
The Commissary, for which lunchers are lined up outside before the noon opening, has a classy cafeteria, a wine bar at the back, an omelette and pasta counter, a separate bar where lunch is also available and an upstairs where table service and a somewhat different menu is offered.
From the simplest brie fired in a bread crumb, mustard and parsley batter to the most unusual combination of salad ingredients. The Commissary seems to have something for everyone. Julie Dannenbaum, who thinks a lot of the cooking is contrived, calls it the "raisin-stuffed-with-nut" school. The carrot cake, described as the best in Philadelphia, has a cream cheese frosting and a German chocolate cake filling.
Poses began with the Frog in 1973.Articulate and candid, he says "The Frog opened at a time in this city when anyone with a little brains would do well.In today's world the Frog would not have made it. It was mediocre when it began. At this point it has as sophisticated menu as anywhere." It features Tai-French cooking and has one of the best wine lists in town.
Poses describes himself "as a child of the '60s," and he has used his restaurants' successes to push the liberal causes in which he believes.
Renaissance or just a lot of noise, the phenomenon says Poses, is the result of "more disposable income, two income families. Poses, who was once a city planner, says, "Cities are becoming more attractive places to live and Philadelphia is a very attractive city. It has a compact core."
Sal Montezinos' wife, Susan, says "Philadelphis is catching up. The younger generation didn't like the stodginess of the Main Line. Philadelphia was strait-laced and puritannical when I was growing up. Now everyone is coming back to the city."
Typical of the more successful storefront restaurants is Friday, Saturday Sunday. It has a limited menu, featured on a blackboard. It takes no reservations, offers a very good dinner for about $15. There is a lot of light colored wood, plants and candles. The restaurant is the hangout for the young literary set.
Another Coventry Forge graduate, Vicki Rensen, who opened Les Amis with Guben, now runs it herself. It is one of Dannenbaum's favorites.
The man whom many restaurant critics credit with the restaurant revival is Xavier Hussenet. He opened an ice cream parlor, the Black Banana, in one of the decaying areas of the city and brought it to life. Today the Black Banana, named for one of the ice cream concotions, serves French food.
The reasonably priced Garden serves in a handsome large town house and a romantic enclosed candlelit garden.
For those who would rather walk and eat, a trip to the Italian Market, where Rocky practiced broken field running among the boxes and produce refuse, offers cheeses, sweets and sandwiches in addition to a lot of very inexpensive produce.
What the city is still missing, according to Tait, is a better ethnic mix. "There are not enough Chinese, no cheap Greek and we need Japanese," says the author of the soon to be published "Best Restaurants of Philadelphia and Vicinity" (101 Productions, $3.95). "We are missing some little inexpensive restaurants. Everyone thinks they can charge Perrier's prices, but no one does what he does."
On the other hand Tait says when she used to write about restaurants "it would be 'where not to go in Philadelphia.' Now it's different. Not because I've mellowed," she said. "The restaurants got better." CAPTION: Picture, Cooking teacher Julie Dunnenbaum and Deja Vu owner Sal Montezinos, by Steven Goldblatt for the Washington Post