Late in the evening on Saturday, Fountain restaurant pastry chef Jaclyn Alessandrini will apply the final flourish to a vanilla creme brulee or a souffle, and a waiter will walk it out to a patron, the lights from Logan Circle twinkling through the Four Seasons Hotel's dining room.
It will mark the last course of the Fountain's 11,473 dinner services, going back to the debut on July 31, 1983. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Phillies were on their way to the World Series, and chef Jean-Marie Lacroix was deep in the bosom of a white-walled kitchen shepherding a few French chefs and a band of crackerjack line cooks from blue-collar wards like Westmont and Upper Darby into what quickly became one of Philadelphia's most-decorated restaurants.
You can debate the impact and glory of the Fountain versus its longtime expense-account rival, Le Bec-Fin. Yet the fact is, the Fountain is the only five-star, five-diamond, four-bell restaurant. No other restaurant in Philadelphia over the years has scored 29 out of 30 points in all of the Zagat Survey's categories of food, decor, and service.
With the Four Seasons' closing coming June 6, pending a move to the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center when it opens in 2017, management chose a date two days after Christmas for the Fountain's dinner finale. Breakfast and lunch will still be offered there, but dinner will be relegated to the lounge next door. The new hotel that succeeds the Four Seasons at 1 Logan Square will have a steakhouse. It will not be the Fountain.
The Fountain is busy and, by all accounts, profitable - a simple truth that makes the closing all that harder to accept.
"World-class elegance" is how The Inquirer's Elaine Tait summed up her first review in October 1983, when dinner entrees were $15 to $19. Prices have risen, the dining rooms have been redecorated, the elegance remains.
The secret to the Fountain's appeal, in the words of current chef William DiStefano: "To satisfy the guest at all costs."
"We didn't think it was going to be busy," said Jean-Marie Lacroix, his accent a patois of British-clipped English and the rolling French of his boyhood in Franche-Comté.
Lacroix was working for the Four Seasons in Montreal when corporate asked him and pastry chef Eddie Hales to set up the kitchen at its new restaurant on Logan Circle in May 1983. The ownership, he said, had heard grumbling that Philadelphians would not embrace the Four Seasons, clad in Minnesota granite plopped into an old-money, brick-and-limestone town.
The naysayers were wrong. From the first day, Lacroix said, "there was a stampede."
So began a scramble to add staff, which now numbers 27, plus a full-time manager and supervisor.
Martin Hamann, currently chef at the Union League, was one of his first hires. The rest are a who's who: Jean-Francois Taquet, Francesco Martorella, Bruce Lim, Daniel Gottlieb, Tony Clark, David Jansen, William DiStefano.
"Papa" Lacroix, who as a silver-haired 74-year-old carries a regal air befitting an elder statesman, left in 1997 to open the restaurant at the Rittenhouse Hotel that still bears his name, even though he departed two years later. He now is chef for Brulee Catering - and is cooking on Logan Circle. Brulee caters events at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
"The best compliment I ever had was a gentleman who said, 'This is a restaurant with rooms on top,' " Lacroix said. "That's what I wanted to do: run the restaurant like an independent restaurant."
Lacroix credits a few things for the Fountain's success. "The timing was perfect. We had some luck and we worked hard . . . . We worked well together.
"When you do that and you enjoy your work, people will taste that."
"When Jean-Marie interviewed me for a job, I was terrified," said Tony Clark, now chef at the Valley Forge Casino. "He had such a strong accent, I couldn't even hear him, so I had to 'fake hear' him. But it didn't work, because he yelled at me."
One time, banquet chef Joe Drago and Clark were annoyed with Lacroix. "We hid a salmon filet behind his file cabinet," Clark said. "We couldn't wait for him to smell it. The chef would go crazy trying to find the smell. But it never smelled."
"When talking about the Fountain, most people would think that the most important thing would be the great setup of the restaurant, the china, the flatware, the stemware, the great wine list, or possibly the purveyors that we had to choose from around the world," said David Jansen, restaurant chef from 1989 to 2010. "But I think the most important thing that made the restaurant great was the people who worked there."
Townsend Wentz, a saucier from 1996 to 2003 who now owns Townsend, in South Philadelphia, said, "The guys I worked on the line with are still some of the best friends I have. Being trained how to be a line cook in a kitchen where you're constantly learning, being pushed, and pushing yourself created a tight bond amongst us."
The dining room
Lisa Carroll started a 10-year stint in 2000 as one of the few female waiters. She now co-owns Hickory Lane Bistro in Fairmount. "We always had amazing guests, and we tried to wow every one of them," she said. "Some of the funny engagement stories always stick out for me."
For one engagement, "the gentleman insisted what he wanted to say be printed on a special dessert menu. Dessert time came and his bride-to-be took the menu and, without looking, said for him to pick dessert. He froze, so I approached and said, 'I think you really want to order dessert. It's just for you.' She read it and cried, and he was deployed to Iraq the next day."
Stars at the stove
Bill DiStefano recalls: "Standing in the kitchen and finding Julia Child, the legend I have spent countless hours watching on PBS as a youth, who was here on a book tour, approaching a group of us in 1990, with an arm extended and a warm, gracious greeting and handshake for all."