In the beginning (13 years ago), there was the Continental. Stephen Starr had left a 15-year career in the music industry to open his first restaurant, applying his entertainment acumen to the business of dining out to create a fun, flashy culinary hot spot. And he saw that it was good. So good, in fact, that the flurry of theatrical eateries he opened in the nine years to follow, from Buddakan to Barclay Prime, fueled the transformation of the city’s restaurant scene. But Starr’s ambitions went beyond Philadelphia, and over the past few years he’s turned his attention to other markets, exporting Buddakan and Morimoto to New York City and opening a second Continental, a third Buddakan, Teplitzky’s and Chelsea Prime in Atlantic City. In fact, until last summer, it appeared that 2004’s Barclay Prime marked the last bit of Starr’s expansion in his 10-restaurant Center City empire. But then, on Bastille Day, came a new place, Parc, and Stephen Starr’s ballyhooed return.
Parc is breathtaking, a sprawling bistro on the picturesque corner of 18th and Locust, right on Rittenhouse Square. A 90-seat sidewalk cafe, with rattan chairs and Parisian awnings framed by the restaurant’s panoramic windows, looks like a watercolor come alive. The interior weaves distressed finishes together with vintage finds from French flea markets, and it all looks like the set of a big-budget Hollywood film. It should — Starr dispatched his designer to Paris four times, and together, the pair left no detail untended: Tiles whose worn patina is so real you’d swear they saw action in World War II? Check. Wooden doors salvaged from actual French bistros? Check. Slender newspaper holders affixed to the walls, just like the ones in director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie? Check.
Such obsession with verisimilitude pays off: Parc truly transports its clientele from Philly to France. Diners enjoy dry French rosé and nibble slices of fresh-baked baguette under the sepia shadows cast by the well-designed lighting scheme. Candles flicker, Édith Piaf croons, and the cacophony of a hundred conversations reverberates as you melt into the scene. The crowd — a mélange of students in track suits, groups of Rittenhouse matriarchs, dressed-up couples and families with strollers — seems totally relaxed in spite of the fact that when the place is busy, the noise level crescendos to a conversation-ending din. But c’est la vie: Once the trout amandine arrives, talking gives way to eating anyway.
The delicate fish, studded with toasted almonds, is but one highlight on a menu stacked with French bistro classics at actual bistro prices (steak frites: $24). The short roster of classics may elicit yawns from the fooderati, but will produce sighs of contentment from everyone else. Here, it’s not food for thought (there’s nary an item that could be described as creative, trendy or experimental) — it’s just food. Familiar, homey, moderately priced food made from old-world recipes—the type that doesn’t demand to be the topic of the dinner table or dissected in a 500-word blog post.