Dining Out 2005: Revisiting the Classics

A critical take on 19 dining stalwarts: Are such hallowed spots as La Famiglia, Dmitri’s, the White Dog Cafe and Bar Lyonnais still great?

Restaurants that stay in business for a decade or more must be doing something right.

The best ones measure up to our memories while striving for excellence in the present. They age so gracefully that they seem not to age at all. The Fountain at Four Seasons is one such standard-bearer: It feels as fresh and vital as when it was new, in 1983, because it works very hard to stay relevant.

That’s not easy to do. To see how well other restaurants are wearing their years, I visited a range of places, plain and fancy, all at least 15 years old. The list is eclectic, spanning spots I hadn’t dined at in years; it doesn’t include the vintage restaurants we write about frequently, such as Susanna Foo, the Dilworthtown Inn and Le Bec-Fin (though we’ll revisit Le Bec soon, in an upcoming issue). I could say, as Yogi Berra did, that this nostalgic exercise was déjà vu all over again, except that Déjà-Vu, the soignée dining room at 1609 Pine Street, went out of business 14 years ago.

Enduring Elegance

Le Bar Lyonnais (1990).
Le Bec-Fin’s clubby downstairs bar has its own seductive à la carte menu and a democratic no-reservations policy, so come early to claim a table and be schmoozed expertly by Bernard Perrier, the younger, taller brother of chef Georges, in a room that’s as polished as its clientele. On a Saturday night, I saw former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh huddling with sports agent Jim Solano, while Rozanne Caronello, co-owner of La Bonne Auberge in New Hope, dined with her daughter. Three courses will cost about $60 per person without wine, well below the $135 dinner prix fixe in Le Bec’s main dining room, and a celebrity sighting is assured: Georges himself pops in throughout the evening. Try a glass of Movia Ribolla, a dry white wine from Slovenia, and start with silky fennel-and-parsnip soup, or dig into salade Lyonnaise, an abundance of feathery frisée tossed with diced potatoes, bacon, and sherry-walnut oil vinaigrette, topped with a poached egg. Bernard may suggest a pinot gris from Australia, or an Etude pinot noir from California, to accompany the roast chicken and potatoes pureed with hazelnut oil, or the braised rabbit leg on a bed of barley and crumbled chorizo. A cheese or dessert sampler plate is the best way to end the meal. Cigarette smoke can intrude if several puffers congregate at the bar (1523 Walnut Street, 215-567-1000; lebecfin.com).

La Bonne Auberge (1972).
This 250-year-old stone farmhouse reminds me of the lovely inns that dot the rural vineyard roads in Burgundy, even though it is surrounded by a nondescript condo development. The impeccably kept rustic-chic dining room feels like a delectable hideaway, with knotty cedar beams, peach table linens, fresh roses, and a cozy cellar bar with a blazing fire. Proceed with caution if garlic is a concern, because chef Gerard Caronello, a native of Lyon, dispenses it in exuberant amounts, particularly with the escargots and atop the seared scallops. Herb-crusted rack of lamb, carved into four formidable chops with perfect pink centers, and filet mignon, with cognac cream sauce, are each accompanied by an elegant trio of pureed vegetables: celery root, carrot and creamed spinach. Caronello’s wife, Rozanne, is a gracious hostess. An excessively chatty waiter was the only flaw. Dinner only, Thursday through Sunday (Village 2, 1 Rittenhouse Circle, New Hope, 215-862-2462; bonneauberge.com).

Deux Cheminées (1979).
Creamy crabe velouté, a rich soup delivered with an optional slug of Johnnie Walker Red scotch, epitomizes the old-school, special-occasion French cuisine that 63-year-old chef-owner Fritz Blank has made his life’s work. Time is suspended inside this splendid Frank ­Furness-designed structure, the former home of Philadelphia’s Princeton Club, where prix-fixe dinners of four courses ($85) or three pre-theater courses ($65) unfold at a languorous pace. On a quiet Thursday, the parade of pleasures included that delightfully retro crab soup; house-made duck liver pâté; veal sweetbreads with white wine sauce; and two impeccable salads. I actively disliked the chilled grapes steeped in cinnamon-scented burgundy and port that served as an intermezzo course. Seared venison and striped bass fillets didn’t wow us, but frozen Grand Marnier soufflé and a chocolate crepe wrapped around house-made espresso ice cream left a sweet impression, as did courtly service from start to finish (1221 Locust Street, 215-790-0200; deuxchem.com).

Frugal Favorites

Dmitri’s (1989).
We join the Saturday-night stampede into the tiny dining room the moment the door swings open, at 5:30 p.m. By 6:40, we are back out on the sidewalk, stuffed to the gills and dazed by our dinner’s breakneck pace. Turning tables and spurning credit cards keeps prices low at this iconic ­Mediterranean-style BYOB, where seafood is celebrated and portions are staggeringly generous. We sprint through a plateful of excellent hummus and warm grilled pita, then move on to a colorful Greek salad and grilled octopus — tender, but slightly dry — in a tangy pool of red wine vinaigrette. Well before we’re done, our server brings the entrées: thin-pounded grilled lamb with a scattering of grilled red peppers and a side of tzatziki, and mild bluefish fillets swimming in olive oil and white wine, covered with onions, tomatoes and red peppers gently caramelized under the broiler. Rice and escarole come with both entrées. We squeeze in a dish of creamy, cinnamon-dusted rice pudding and strong, Greek diner-style coffee before the next wave of frugal speed-eaters rolls in (795 South 3rd Street; 215-625-0556).

Saloon (1968).
The Hey-Big-Guy vibe that permeates the bar and downstairs dining room during dinner is absent at our weekday lunch, but the room stands ready for serious eating, neatly outfitted with white linens and hybrid tea roses. The menu — a little bit Italian, a little bit steakhouse — is as hearty as dinner, with lower prices. We’re pleased with the luxurious langoustine bisque, a grilled vegetable platter (asparagus, red bell pepper, eggplant, shiitake caps) with a pleasant smoky undertone, a huge veal chop with white beans and escarole, and bronzino embellished with pesto and fresh tomato sauce. The chocolate-chip cheesecake and coconut cream cake come from the restaurant’s own bakery at the Fitzwater Cafe. Our server looks like Adriana from The Sopranos; we hope she’s dating somebody nicer than Christopher. Bring cash or American Express; no other cards accepted (750 South 7th Street, 215-627-1811; saloonrestaurant.net).

Sang Kee Peking Duck House (1980).
Friendly waiters hover, entrées arrive five minutes after the appetizers, and tables turn even faster than at Dmitri’s, unless you specifically ask for a break between starters and second courses. A 1998 renovation expanded this dearly loved dive and added wall-mounted TVs that air sports and sitcoms during dinner, but the focus remains on inexpensive, crowd-pleasing Chinese food. Filled to capacity even on weeknights with a cross-section of ages and ethnicities, Sang Kee turns out fried dumplings with an eggy exterior almost like French toast, and even better sheer steamed dumplings bulging with peppery watercress, shrimp and pork. Standards such as eggplant with garlic sauce, crisp flounder fillets with honey and walnuts, and puffy, slightly spicy salt-baked squid are nicely rendered. Peking duck arrives in two stages: breast slices with crunchy skin attached for stuffing inside warm pancakes are followed by stir-fried vegetables with shredded duck meat. Nearly every entrée costs less than $10, the substantial appetizers are cheaper, and the frozen watermelon drink tastes even better with a shot of rum from the bar (238 North 9th Street, 215-925-7532; phillychinatown.com/sangkee).

Restaurant Renaissance Redux

Astral Plane (1973).
With stage and screen memorabilia tucked into every nook and cranny, and more patterned fabrics than Granny’s parlor, Astral Plane looks like a cross between a New Hope antiques shop and Joe Allen, the New York theater district restaurant. The restaurant’s chairs and table settings are as charmingly mismatched as its roster of celebrity customers, who have included Divine, Donny Osmond, Sandra Day O’Connor, George Clooney, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, Eric Lindros and Mick Jagger. Owner Reed Apaghian and executive chef Rodolfo Ramirez have retained many dishes from our dating days, including the spinach salad with blue cheese, apples, walnuts, red onion, golden raisins and Dijon vinaigrette, the best appetizer salad I’ve had this year. Extravagant entrées, such as a chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes in a chardonnay cream sauce, and an enormous pork chop stuffed with brioche, bacon, apples and pecans, are as deliciously over-the-top as an Ed Wood film. Desserts are accorded a shrine-like display in the center of the dining room, with good reason (1708 Lombard Street, 215-546-6230; astralplanemillenium.com).

Friday Saturday Sunday (1973).
A melancholy cut from Joni Mitchell’s Blue is playing when I take my seat in the upstairs dining room, near the Tank Bar, where colorful fish offer conversational relief if a date is going badly. It looks to me like Weaver Lilley hasn’t changed the decor since I was on that bad date 21 years ago, and I’m glad. The closely spaced tables foster a private-party feel; mirrors enlarge the cozy space while allowing discreet people-watching. Lilley has attracted new customers by selling all wines for $10 over retail, but I’ll happily return for the crisp-coated chicken with Dijon-cream sauce. The signature mushroom soup, a Perfect Storm of calories made with equal parts of cream and chicken stock — plus half-and-half, brandy and butter — will surely outlive us all (261 South 21st Street, 215-546-4232; frisatsun.com).

Roller’s (1982).
Paul Roller’s astonishingly consistent Chestnut Hill restaurant embodies the eclectic spirit of Frog and the Commissary, two of this city’s most fondly remembered restaurants, where Roller learned the ropes before striking out on his own. Fresh ingredients — local, whenever possible — are the underpinnings for glorious salads and creative entrées, with an occasional cameo appearance by uncommon vegetables such as fiddleheads. Turkey meatloaf and summer clambake dinners keep conservative diners coming back, while more adventurous types like myself love the tilapia with ruby grapefruit and pecans, and the shad roe. The lighting could be lower and the chairs more comfortable in this low-frills room where the focus is on the open kitchen, but there’s absolutely nothing to quibble about on the food side. No credit cards (Top of the Hill Plaza, 8705 Germantown Avenue, 215-242-1771; rollersrestaurants.com).

Bicentennial Souvenirs

DiNardo’s Famous Crabs (1976).
The hot-and-dirty steamed crabs that netted this restaurant six Best of Philly awards are just as you remember them: aromatic, but not stinging. DiNardo’s flies its hard-shells in from Louisiana year-round, which accounted for the market price of $5.95 each that I paid for the jumbo size. Soups were unimpressive, and the much-touted spicy fries, a three-time Best of Philly winner, were tame. A fried seafood combination — generous, but pricey at $26 — was quite underseasoned, though the sweetness of the sea scallops transcended their bland breading. Expect friendly service and fish-house-basic decor (312 Race Street, 215-925-5115; dinardos.com).

City Tavern (1976).
Although restaurateur Walter Staib has aggressively promoted this faithful re-creation of a tavern frequented by the Founding Fathers, built by the National Park Service, the food remains just passable. Overpriced entrées — including a $19.95 bratwurst platter — were served lukewarm, and an overbearing server kept touching my dining partner’s shoulder. If your cousins from Cleveland have a reservation, steer them to the simpler preparations, like cornmeal-crusted oysters with mild rémoulade, and sautéed chicken breast with Madeira sauce. The tattered restrooms need a spruce-up (138 South 2nd Street, 215-413-1443; citytavern.com).

La Famiglia (1976).
The number of waiters seems out of proportion to the compact dining room, which may account for the $18 sautéed porcini appetizer, served in a clumsy phyllo shell; the well-crafted, but overpriced, $24 plate of spinach-ricotta dumplings; the $27 chicken breast, unimaginatively covered with smoked cheese; and a highway-robbery $12 wedge of almond/pine nut tart from the dessert cart. Despite the menu note asking customers to silence cell phones, two patrons yakked away at top volume about the bathroom specs for a construction project, which wouldn’t make for great ambience if you were here to celebrate your wedding anniversary (8 South Front Street, 215-922-2803; lafamiglia.com).

Pioneering Proprietors

Judy’s Cafe (1974).
Long before TV dared to cast a queer eye, gays and straights were breaking bread together here, their common ground being sophisticated comfort food in a simple setting — think Joy of Cooking, with James Beard at the stove. Everyone has a good time, from the hungry activist wearing a LESBIANS AGAINST BUSH t-shirt to the conventional couples who know the menu by heart. Two of chef Anders Divack’s best platters cost a mere $15, including the signature veal and pork meatloaf, with its tasty core of spinach and provolone, and the juicy, cheddar-crusted chicken breast, accompanied by a lively horseradish/sour cream dipping sauce. Even the salads are indulgent: Pancetta, roasted mushrooms and a poached egg are piled on baby spinach leaves; mixed greens bear a bounty of sliced pears, Gorgonzola, grapes and spiced walnuts. Tough-cookie owner Eileen Plato makes the cheesecakes flavored with mocha, peanut butter or amaretto, and the dense chocolate cake buried under an avalanche of fresh whipped cream. Bartender Chris Rago has beefed up the beer list with Belgians and seasonal brews, and he makes a devilishly spicy Bloody Mary (627 South 3rd Street; 215-928-1968).

Margaret Kuo’s Peking (1974).
Madame Kuo has become a one-woman dynasty, with four restaurants (and one fast-food spot) in the western suburbs, but her first, in the Granite Run Mall, was a revelation for anyone who had grown up associating Chinese food with sticky-sweet sauces and red vinyl booths. Husband Warren Kuo supplied the furnishings from his Pearl of the East import business, while Margaret hired a chef skilled in northern Chinese cuisine. The original Peking, still handsome with its dark woodwork and upholstered banquettes, now has a wee sushi bar, a respectable wine list, feather-light Shanghai steamed pork and crabmeat buns, and attentive servers who deftly assembled our Peking duck pancakes at tableside. Desserts are frozen imports from the Italian supplier Bindi (Granite Run Mall, Media; 610-566-4110).

Jake’s (1987).
Bruce Cooper opened Jake’s before Manayunk took off as a dining destination; his restaurant is now one of the city’s most refined dining rooms. Excellent service is a given: No one will ever interrupt a conversation to ask, “Who had the filet?” Cooper’s New American cooking is artfully presented, yet never tricked-up. Sweet potato soup teases with achiote heat, then soothes with a goat-cheese dumpling that melts away in the center. Spring rolls filled with duck confit and vegetables defy gravity, standing tall with dots of orange, mustard and blackberry sauces at their base. Grilled calf’s liver over apple, potato and bacon hash may be the best $23 entrée in town, but the porcini-dusted seared venison, served rare over sauerkraut/Yukon gold potato hash, also left me slack-jawed with delight. The lump crabcakes would be fabulous even if they were unadorned, but Cooper dresses up the appetizer portion with sweet-savory spaghetti squash-apple-fennel compote, and the two-crabcake entrée with a heaping helping of highly complementary yam fries (4365 Main Street, Manayunk, 215-483-0444; jakesrestaurant.com).

Jack’s Firehouse (1989).
Jack McDavid was one of the first chefs to urge local farmers and chefs to work together for mutual benefit, using his Down Home Diner and then this upscale Fairmount restaurant in a former city firehouse to show how it could be done. The Firehouse can still produce spareribs with a resonant barbecue sauce, and an appealing salad with spicy fried-chicken nuggets and buttermilk dressing. But on a recent visit, the fried catfish rested on mushy, flavorless black-eyed peas, and the beefy sauce surrounding the dry filet mignon was downright cold. Even the bread pudding with chocolate sauce, straight from the refrigerator, was uninspired. Servers like to clear plates before everyone at the table is finished (2130 Fairmount Avenue, 215-232-9000; jacksfirehouse.com).

White Dog Cafe (1983).
As one of the city’s most visible female restaurateurs, Judy Wicks has used her charming dining rooms filled with doggie art to champion local purveyors as well as pet political causes. Living one flight above the restaurant, she’s able to keep an eye on day-to-day details. Longtime chef Kevin (formerly von) Klause has passed the kitchen torch to Michael O’Halloran, who weathered a recent slamming Saturday night admirably. His house-made pappardelle is thick, but brimming with chanterelle mushrooms in a buttery sauce. Every bite of a spinach salad yielded some tasty tidbit — a roasted shiitake cap, a bit of bacon, strands of red onion, or hard-cooked egg. The roast chicken with mashed potatoes is an eloquent argument for free-range birds, just as the kale sautéed with a lusty amount of garlic spotlights local greens. The vegetarian plate corrals nearly every hot and cold side dish produced by the kitchen, from cashew-scallion fried rice to melt-in-your-mouth steamed fennel (3420 Sansom Street, 215-386-9224; whitedog.com).

Venerable Suburbanites

Restaurant Taquet (1992).
Namesake Jean-François Taquet, now living in New Zealand, continues to collaborate via e-mail with executive chef Abde Dahrouch. On the day of my lunch, nearly a year after I last saw Paris, I arrive having worked myself into a steak frites frenzy. Nothing else will do. The waiter looks a little sad when I order; there are so many other good things to consider: sautéed halibut with eggplant caviar and tapenade; grilled pork tenderloin with green lentils; lamb stew with root vegetables; cinnamon-dusted duck breast with braised fennel. But I insist, and start with Hubbard squash soup, sunset-hued in the bowl, topped with a Gallic pinch of duck confit. The grilled rib eye is pounded thin and flavorful; the crisp, slender fries calm my craving. I linger at my table in the chic bar, which I prefer to the staid dining room, over a warm puff-pastry apple tart, as a scoop of caramel ice cream slowly disappears (Wayne Hotel, 139 East Lancaster Avenue, Wayne, 610-687-5005; taquet.com).

La Campagne (1990).
In the midst of our dinner, the ping of a kitchen bell resounds through the quiet dining room, and a voice calls, “Order up!” The workmanlike sounds are out of synch with the setting, a Cherry Hill farmhouse built in the mid-1800s that has adopted the mien of a French country inn, with the added advantage of a BYOB policy. Though the crisp sea bass with horseradish mashed potatoes was quite good, and our server was eager to please, other aspects of our dinner seemed off: no fire in the fireplace on a drafty night, lighting that was inadequate for reading the menu, high-end appetizers and entrées served with sloppy sauces, side-dish substitutions made without advance warning (312 Kresson Road, Cherry Hill, 856-429-7647; lacampagne.com)