R2L at Two Liberty, higher than we've ever been

Bar patrons enjoy R2Ls westward view of the city at dusk.
Bar patrons enjoy R2Ls westward view of the city at dusk. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: March 04, 2010

Much is made of the military utility of high ground. Less so - in these parts, at least - of the giddy tonic of dining in the clouds.

Or scoring a crow's-nest lounge seat on the occasion of the setting sun, the sky going tangerine, then dusky pink.

Perhaps it's because in Philadelphia, where a gentlemen's agreement long capped building heights below the brim of Billy Penn's hat atop City Hall, there's little experience with the concept, and no general reserve of civic memory.

This is a river town, more accustomed to its boots on the ground, genetically a world away from Gotham, its commercial heart soaring, hungry to claw at the sky.

So when first-timers step into chef Daniel Stern's new cocktail-themed R2L on the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place - the loftiest public eatery in town - it's Manhattan's imagery they reach for. "This is our Rainbow Room," they tell him: "Our Windows on the World."

It is a singular, if rather corporate, venue in this late-to-vertical city, its views stretching for miles to the west and south. (Except for the tower of City Hall itself visible below from a corner of one of its private-function rooms, the best views are afforded Two Liberty's resident condo owners whose fitness club, infinity pool, and pet spa occupy the other half of the floor, and face north and east toward the inky Delaware.)

Still, at twilight and after dark, with a house-special perfect Manhattan (Must everything pay homage to the Big Apple?) and a deconstructed venison cheesesteak (Not everything!), you can see forever and not be seen: Watch the petty pace of the headlights below, inching corpuscularly; red taillights, their other selves, retreating.

You are up in the air, coming in for a landing, yet never touching down, a different calculus of possibility spread across mundane rows of workaday brick.

There is nothing of the coziness of the street-level bistro here. Nor does the robotically named R2L (Stern says he'll share the story of it over a drink some day) have the classic styling and denser urban setting of Restaurant XIX, the domed dining room on the 19th floor of the Hyatt at the Bellevue.

There can be a happy-hour vibe, though, a social scene made more fluid by wraparound lounge seating, the open-plan dining room, and the ready supply of young lawyers, brokers, and bankers an elevator ride away.

Customers in the know - Monk's Cafe proprietor Tom Peters, for one - have decoded the secrets of the room, a low-slung, hotel-like space. (It was Cigna's mailroom; the insurer still occupies 20 of the tower's 57 floors.)

For optimal sunset viewing, Peters reported the other night, request Table 82. For a sweet vista, Table 95.

Other regulars (if you can be a regular after a month) have figured how to navigate R2L's derivative menu.

Stern, 39 (formerly top chef at Le Bec-Fin and owner of Queen Village's boutique-sized Gayle, and Rae, in the lobby of the Cira Centre, both of which he closed as he opened MidAtlantic near the Penn campus and R2L), has borrowed from his earlier canon.

So you'll see mini-cheesesteaks, $12, in a venison jus (from Rae), and an unwieldy lobster roll with lavender mayo, $18 (from Gayle), both of which are big on flavor. So was a generous veal three-way entree, $26, featuring tenderloin, "stew with meatloaf" and delicate sweetbreads, though at Gayle it was far more elegantly plated.

On the other hand, there were inexplicable disappointments, including the weary romaine in the Caesar salad, $6. Improbably, the house-made lobster and beef "surf and turf cocktail franks," $12, arrived shriveled and tasteless. And the Billy Jordan shrimp cocktail (with an off-flavor sauce), $12, and the crab cakes, $14, were at best ho-hum.

The restaurant is equally divided between general seating (100-plus seats) and event seating for drug-company dinners, bar mitzvahs, and rehearsal dinners (100-plus), and the split personality creates a tension: The menu veers between the birthday-party cocktail frank and the dinner-out veal dish.

Stern had been recruited to locate his other recent project, the Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired MidAtlantic in the Penn-area Science Center, not long before the condo-conversion developer at Two Liberty approached him.

Two Liberty is the companion building to One Liberty Place, which in 1987 was the first spire (at 945 feet) to breach 548 feet (the informal Penn's-hat height limit). Two of the highest-priced condos in the city sold there last year for upward of $7 million, one to Tom Knox, the millionaire businessman who flirted with a run for governor recently before dropping out.

Stern was solicited to install a showpiece restaurant, the contemporary R2L, to enhance the lifestyle landscape of what had been a strictly-business sort of office building.

Stern says his two restaurant openings were supposed to be spaced much further apart: "But life doesn't always follow the plan."

Still, having two babies at once, especially with a key chef leaving the team on the eve of R2L's debut, hasn't helped with the food's consistency.

The competence of the bartending crew is also variable. One hopes for rapid improvement under the sure-footed supervision of sommelier Ryan Davis, whose special-occasion wine list has won praise for its seriousness and attention to prestige champagnes. (He has also introduced a classy martini-and-champagne cart that will roam the room, dispensing classic cocktails mixed tableside.)

A challenge R2L is still working on? "We're trying to signal that we're here at ground level," says general manager David Sturno.

To that end, there's a truncated canopy on 16th Street, with R2L's logo subtly illuminated. And last week, modest stanchions appeared on the sidewalk, signifying, well, that something might be going on somewhere - maybe up in the air.


Two Liberty Place, 37th floor

50 S. 16th 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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