When Brasserie Perrier, Chris Scarduzio’s debut restaurant, opened in 1997, Philadelphia ate it up. It was the era of Carrie Bradshaw, dot-com millionaires and lobster mashed potatoes. Brasserie, with its approachable French menu and power happy hour, attracted diners as smiley and carefree as the cast of Friends.
Table 31, Scarduzio’s newest restaurant, grasps for that giddy vibe. Even the name is a reference to Brasserie’s glory days, when its table number 31, favored for its conspicuous central location, was requested by visiting celebs like Billy Joel and Bruce Willis. But today’s diners, a new generation with more sophisticated palates and increasing anxieties about the economy, have changed.
Our standout restaurants of recent years have delivered sharply focused, coherent dining experiences. At Osteria, Jeff Michaud re-creates dishes he learned in Italy from his Lombardian grandmother-in-law. At Zahav, Michael Solomonov gives diners a taste of Israel, where he trained and traveled with his staff to ensure authenticity. When you walk through the doors of these well-orchestrated eateries, there’s zero ambiguity.
Table 31, on the other hand, bills itself as a “steakhouse-bistro.” But the bill of fare, which also includes Italian and Asian fusion dishes, is even more of a hodgepodge than that vague label suggests. This generalist’s approach often results when a well-known chef is approached by a developer who owns real estate ideal for a blockbuster restaurant. Scarduzio says he had no plans for another eatery when John Gattuso, a Comcast Center developer and Brasserie Perrier regular, begged him and partner Georges Perrier to open something in the new tower. Restaurants that spring to life this way typically produce menus based on a safe but out-of-touch notion of what the public wants.
Scarduzio decided people want steak. So at Table 31, there are 12 cuts of beef, two cattle breeds and nine portion sizes to choose from. But he decided diners, especially those Brasserie fans, also love bistro-style dishes like roasted whole fish. And the something-for-everyone approach doesn’t end there: There’s Peking duck, bass with bok choy and kaffir lime, and, just so no one feels left out, crab with spaghetti, and cavatelli with guanciale, tomato and basil.
You might expect Italian specialties from a chef named Scarduzio, but not inside a menu stamped “steakhouse-bistro.” A decade ago, this muddled menu wouldn’t have rankled, especially because some of the dishes are deliciously rendered. But today, focus is the difference between a smash-hit restaurant and just another acceptable place to burn through an expense account.
The kitchen’s lack of consistency compounds the problem. For each dish worthy of adoration, there’s one so poorly executed that it’s hard to believe it emerged from the same kitchen.