The Making of a Philly Restaurant 2008

What, you thought it would be easy opening a little French bistro?

IT TOOK DAYS to achieve exactly the right color for the walls. First painting, then sponging, from the overpriced new wood floor to the sound-absorbing pressed-tin ceilings, only to discover that this shade of yellow was just too yellow, not at all the mellow, tobacco-stained shade chef Peter Woolsey remembered from the bistros of France. So Peter, who would much rather be in his kitchen, got back up on the ladder and washed the walls in wood stain, mimicking the decades of cigarette smoke the restaurant will never see. “This is what a bistro looks like,” the Philadelphia-born chef declared, finally, just a week before the planned July opening of Bistrot La Minette.

[sidebar]Lipgloss-red banquettes line the room, drawing your eye to the open kitchen, still in disarray as construction workers finish running gas lines. Behind marble-topped tables, the restaurant’s 12-person staff takes notes on the opening-day menu. Peter, with his chunky black glasses and permanent five o’clock shadow, details each dish, noting the ingredients, the cooking techniques, the variations available to vegetarians, vegans, and people with picky palates. The 30-year-old chef holds his four-month-old son Jules on his lap, bouncing him to the rhythm of the French menu titles he pronounces fluidly: coquilles St. Jacques aux endives braisées, oeuf en meurette, quenelles natures à la sauce financière.

His wife, French-born photographer Peggy Baud, gently corrects him, making a sharper K sound: “Quenelles.” Peggy is here to teach French to the $4.25-an-hour waitstaff. Or at least enough French to continue the Parisian illusion conjured by the Ricard-stamped serving plates, the dainty dessert spoons above each place setting, and the sign by the door: Ici, les vins sont fins et la cuisine soignée. “Here, the wines are fine and the kitchen cared for.”

That doesn’t seem like a tall order, but the process of opening a restaurant in Philadelphia is inevitably long and costly, one that tries your patience and then, when you have no patience left, tries it again. The 21-month-long story of the opening of Bistrot La Minette is the story of each of the region’s 8,000 restaurants — and probably of most of the restaurants that have opened anywhere, ever. The details may differ, but the pileup of delays and discouragements, of compromises and surprises, those are the tale of every aspiring restaurateur.

But that’s no comfort to Peter. One week before La Minette’s opening night, there’s still no electricity.