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Trio of critics talk

Avance, ticketed dining

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:

Craig LaBan: We've got triple the opinion power today because I'm joined on the host panel this afternoon by restaurant critics Trey Popp of Philly Mag and Adam Erace of City Paper (and the Courier-Post and NJ Monthly). Welcome, guys!

C.L.: This whole critic summit was instigated by a rare e-mail between Trey and myself following our reviews of Avance, so, we should definitely start the discussion there. Obviously, that was a disappointing debut for Le Bec's successor - but what does it all mean, both for that space and for Philly's restaurant scene at large?

Trey Popp: I went into Avance hoping to write a review that wouldn't mention Le Bec at all. I also went in hoping for another great addition to the city's ever-more-interesting dining culture. But I left exasperated . . . . My first thought was, "They should just turn this place into a Louis Vuitton and be done with it!" I don't know if it's the rent, or some ghosts haunting the upstairs wine cellar, but this address seems to be weighted down by something it can't shake.

Adam Erace: Fairly or unfairly, it's hard not to place significance on Avance, because of its predecessor. Turning that iconic space around was a huge undertaking for Bogle & Co., and unlike the first Le Bec reboot, Avance felt to me like it had excised a lot of the gilded demons. I liked a lot of what I had there; the awkward desserts and car salesman-y service were the big detractions for me at one visit. And of course, I loved the bar when I visited downstairs.

C.L.: No doubt, that address has deep resonance with Philadelphians who may always associate the emergence of Walnut Street's Restaurant Row as a moment when the town ascended to some kind of serious dining status. But times have changed. The most innovative dining is elsewhere. Walnut Street may actually be history, except for steak chains and the remaining Starr venues. Then again - had Avance executed its mission to reinvent fine-dining better, it would have been a bigger hit with me. I'm not sure how much $ these investors are willing to keep throwing at the project and try to get it right.

Reader: Thoughts on Volvér and ticketed dining in general?

A.E.: I am all for ticketed dining. I like how it protects restaurants from no-shows, an industry plague. But it does take a lot of faith in a chef for a guest to commit to that. The question is whether Philly has that faith in Garces, who hasn't done much cooking lately.

T.P.: I think the rise of ticketed dining is a step backward from the empowerment of diners that started with the rise of à la carte ordering (instead of just whatever a restaurant owner cooked that day). It returns more power to the chefs and restaurateurs, at the cost of diners.

C.L.: I've not decided yet. I didn't find it very difficult to do - the seating availability is so transparent. But I know an entire segment of the population (older diners) are NOT going to go for it.

T.P.: I thought I wouldn't be bothered by ticketed dining, but the first time I clicked a reservation - and saw the money ring up - all I could think was, "What if my kid gets sick? What if my father-in-law has surgery?"

C.L.: The real issue is the amount of $ people are putting up ahead of time - something like $600-plus for a dinner for two - before even knowing what's on the menu, let alone if Garces is going to have a night off. Adam makes a good point about Jose, who's spent a lot of time empire-building these past few years, and less working the line.

Reader: Where would you take an out-of-town guest on short notice?

T.P: A place that doesn't take reservations? Cheu Noodle Bar? That's fun, lively, and adventurous.

C.L.: John's Roast Pork for lunch. Zahav for dinner. Two spots serving food you can't get anywhere else in the world. Or the Oyster House, for a taste of Philly-style lunch of snapper soup, fried oysters, and chicken salad.

A.E.: Vernick. Another restaurant that keeps getting better. It's great for any kind of out-of-town guest because the food is interesting but still approachable. Great cocktails from Vince Stipo, too.

T.P.: But whatever I do, I'll hit Beiler's in the Terminal for doughnuts!

Reader: Best restaurants for $25.00 a couple?

A.E.: Sky Cafe. Hearty, soul-satisfying Indonesian for a few bucks.

T.P.: All this talk about Indonesian food needs a mention of Hardena. Love that cheap feed.

C.L.: Head to Chinatown! Xi'an Sizzling Woks! Simply Shabu, the new hot pot place I just reviewed, can be pretty close to that total. And a fun evening.