Philly: Move Over, Cheesesteak

New restaurants are luring food lovers to the City of Brotherly Love

Food in Philadelphia: The words are likely to conjure visions of cheesesteaks or even cream cheese. But Philadelphia's culinary credentials are far loftier these days, as delegates headed for the Republican National Convention in July will discover--if they can get reservations. Only nine of the more than 1,130 restaurants rated in Zagat's 2000 Survey: America's Top Restaurants won a rating of "29"--a point short of a never-achieved perfect score--and three of the nine were in Philly.

Indeed, Philadelphia is undergoing two culinary renaissances. The Old City, just blocks from Independence Hall, is emerging as a mini-Soho, led by chic eateries such as Tangerine (table). But national food critics are still reserving their stars for the chefs of Walnut Street in Center City.

Georges Perrier, who led Walnut Street's culinary rebirth, is the face behind two of Philadelphia's "29" restaurants: the crystal-chandeliered Le Bec-Fin and its intimate downstairs bistro, Le Bar Lyonnais. (The third "29" is held by Fountain, the Four Seasons Hotel's French restaurant favored by power lunchers.) Perrier, 55, credits his success to innovation. Gone are the beurre blanc sauces of the 1970s in favor of "simplicity, flavor, and lightness of sauce," he says. For us, that meant Chilean sea bass in a balsamic lime-tabasco sauce and salmon with a subtle hazelnut flavor. Le Bec-Fin's six-course, $118 prix fixe meal requires choreographing 22 servers for 65 diners, with sommelier-like attention even to the triple-decker dessert cart.

Across Walnut Street, the atmosphere is more relaxed for Susanna Foo French-Asian cuisine. Foo, who was born in Inner Mongolia, was helping at her in-laws' modest Philadelphia restaurant in 1979 when her sauces caught the eye and palate of a retired president of the Culinary Institute of America. His mentoring and her subsequent training in classic French cuisine led to the opening of Susanna Foo in 1988. It produced the fusion style she follows with such signature dishes as filet mignon braised in brandy and topped with a Sichuan pepper sauce.

Up the block and around the corner, Guillermo Pernot presides over Walnut Street's hot new restaurant from behind the horseshoe-shaped food bar of Pasion! Pernot dazzles diners with dozens of variations on ceviche--including Peruvian clams in mango and black ink sauce. Philadelphia Magazine picked Pasion! as its "brave new restaurant of 1999," and Pernot was crowned "Chef of the Year" by Esquire.

With success has come long waits for a table. At Le Bec-Fin, you need to book four months in advance to get a prized weekend reservation. That may get worse, with five new hotels adding 3,000 rooms downtown this year. If you don't plan ahead, you might have to settle for cheesesteaks at Pat's. That's classic Philly eats, but hardly the best the city can now offer.

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