On the Side: French style for the square

Posted: July 24, 2008

Three days into its world premiere on Rittenhouse Square last week, Parc, the French bistro, was still four deep at the zinc bar, awash in first-wave beautiful people, at work on its sea legs.

"Table 406?" the waiter inquired of owner Stephen Starr, approaching his curbside table with bowls of what looked to be trout amandine.

"No," Starr said.

He'd been chatting with a guest, studiously ignoring a cutting board - already served - heaped with country pate, salami, prosciutto and mustard: "This is Table 407. Table 406 is behind me."

Behind him, stretching half a block north on 18th Street, and almost as far around the corner on Locust, the cafe tables under crenelated awnings lent a distinctively - persuasively - Parisian mood to the place.

If you'd missed that mood at first glance, it was hard to miss it inside the packed and raucous 200-seat sprawl.

Plateaus of iced shellfish were stacked so high some diners were obliged to stand up to access the highest tiers. Hunks of flaky - wonderful! - house-baked baguettes plunked next to dollops of chicken liver mousse. Blonde beers tottered on their trays.

The du jour soft-shells were surprisingly meaty and crisp, if salty. The Long Island Blue Points had real character, for a change, bearing out a manager's boast that they'd been farmed in beds devoted to restoring the oyster's essence.

As much as the food - maybe more than the food - the interior bespoke its classic French bistro origins. Suspended art deco lamps. The chunky, time-dulled zinc bar. Intricate tiling. Smoky mirrors. Curvy brass railings. Retro nudes (or, rather, black-and-white photographs thereof) reclining over chest-to-floor urinals.

All that, Starr pointed out, was once original equipment, yanked from bistros of yore. Parc's woodwork (and some seating) is the only new stuff, made to look distressed with torture tactics, including the administration of cigarette burns.

Shola Olunloyo, the tall, elegantly ebony fixture at boites about town, happened by and sat down for a cocktail. He'd already been through much of the menu: "This is my new favorite restaurant in the city," he pronounced.

Olunloyo's presence was not without a little history. He'd cooked at Starr's first, but now-shuttered, French bistro, Blue Angel, badly located at Seventh and Chestnut. Later, he'd held down the closet-sized kitchen right here at 18th and Locust, when Starr's erstwhile rival, Neil Stein, opened Bleu, which once occupied a sliver of the vast acreage now devoted to Parc.

Olunloyo said he'd tried to persuade Stein to swing for the bleachers: "I took him up to Pastis and Balthazar [the classic New York bistros]. But he didn't want to go for that."

What he did do - Stein, that is, before his fall from grace - was first open nearby Rouge, the first outdoor cafe on the dowdy square, giving it a whiff of the glamour so long absent on its flanks.

Starr would later pick up the torch. A few years ago he founded Barclay Prime, the chic steakhouse in the old Barclay Hotel, a skip and jump up 18th.

But that place is buttoned up, turned inward, its facade as tight-lipped as a tomb.

Not so with open-faced Parc: It flaps its wings all over the sidewalks, a happy chaos of 80 seats, puzzled waiters sluicing the channels.

Long lunches are being served here, also. In a few weeks, Starr promises a traditional, easygoing breakfast.

But it is in the summer twilight, the Square settling down to rest, that Parc offers its best side - a vision of a faux Paris, more cinematic, perhaps, than real; a gust of new life, sweeping a corner asleep too long.

Parc restaurant, bistro & cafe

227 S. 18th St.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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