by LEN LEAR
Lots of restaurants these days have more speed bumps than a church parking lot, but Parc is like a well made choral composition, with voices entering and leaving, mixing and matching in contrapuntal harmony. And even though the economy is so bad that some customers are haggling over prices in dollar stores, Parc, the French bistro that opened with a tsunami of publicity on Bastille Day of 2008 at 227 S. 18th St., across the street from Rittenhouse Square, continues to hum like a new car engine despite its hefty prices.
According to Carol Serena, one of the restaurant’s seven managers (they have more managers than many restaurants have servers), as well as 48 servers and 75 kitchen staffers, Parc has served as many as 2,000 meals in one day. That sounds like an exaggeration, but every time we have walked past the stylish appendage to Rittenhouse Square, the crowd inside has been an anthill of energy and humanity.
During our visit last Wednesday, it seemed that every table was occupied, and as soon as a table was vacated, it was quickly filled right after being reset. And in addition to the 200 seats inside, about 100 more can be seated “en plein air”; even several of those al fresco tables under distinctive reddish awnings were filled last week during the springlike temperatures.
One reason for Parc’s success is undoubtedly its tony Parisian ambience and unparalleled people watching. From our window seat we watched an unending stream of smartly dressed young women, bike-riding urbanites and people walking dogs that were as pretty as the female human pedestrians. (In some cases, though, the dogs appeared to be walking the people.) I swear that the first seven dogs we saw were all white, making me wonder if there was some kind of canine racial discrimination on Rittenhouse Square — but then we saw a German Shepherd, who might have just been some kind of Affirmative Action dog. Our hearts were warmed by the fact that five of the white dogs were Malteses, and the other two were Bichon Frises, two wonderful, sweet breeds. (We just happen to have one of each.)
But I’m pretty sure that most customers also go to Parc for the food, service and ambience as well as the nonpareil people-and-dog-watching. It was reported that the Stephen Starr empire spent $9 million to create Parc in a property that was formerly Neil Stein’s Bleu and the entire ground floor of a hotel at 18th and Locust Streets. Parc’s front room is dressed in hand-laid Parisian tiles in shades of ecru and green, red leather banquettes flanked by frosted glass, reclaimed bistro tables, vintage framed paintings and mahogany-paneled walls. A more formal dining room is somewhat more sophisticated, but the dining areas and the gorgeous imported zinc bar all maintain the aura of a brasserie merry-go-round, each element pirating energy from the others. (I love merry-go-rounds, but they do have their ups and downs.)
Every dinner begins with a basket of made-in-house baguettes and breads that are crusty, chewy, soft inside and addictive. (You might say that Parc subscribes to a policy of no-carb-left-behind.)
A cheese-welded crock of onion soup was a thoroughbred of a French classic ($11), as was the crusty macaroni and cheese, whose inhaled aroma and oozing warmth made this simple dish eloquent ($9). A tuna carpaccio appetizer, perfumed with the distilled essence of leek vinaigrette, was feather-light, exploding with magical flavor and as soft as a dove released from a box ($15.50).
A peppered New York strip steak, a substantial portion festooned with green herbs, was suffused with muscular flavor and a reduced sauce with the crucial scaffolding of abandon that characterizes the most adventurous cooking ($30). A special of the day, lobster Americaine, poached and accompanied by a reduced sauce and a wig of wide, malleable noodles ($30), was another home run, as was the service by a knowledgeable, personable young gentleman.
For us the only worm in the apple was the wines by the glass. (There is an encyclopedic list of wines by the bottle.) A Heinz Eifel Riesling ($9) and The Show Cabernet ($12) were underwhelming. The Show, in particular, lacked the full-bodied muscle and after-taste that should emanate from a Cabernet.
In many restaurants the noise is as distracting as a scratched CD, and many bloggers have mentioned the omnipresent din at Parc. It is definitely a noisy lasagne of a space, but that was overshadowed for us by the food, service and surroundings. And the noise obviously has not kept the seats from being filled every night.
Parc is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Valet parking is offered at the stratospheric price of $28 for a normal-sized car and $32 for an SUV. There are two parking garages one and a half blocks away between Walnut and Locust and between 16th and 17th Streets that are $11 and $12, respectively, on weeknights. More information at 215-545-2262 or www.parc-restaurant.com