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Ringing up the bells

Vetri, one of the five four-bell restaurants, according to critic Craig LaBan. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Vetri, one of the five four-bell restaurants, according to critic Craig LaBan. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)Read more

The linen cloths have been yanked out — literally and metaphorically — from under some of the most iconic restaurant tables in the city, especially on the formerly hallowed gastronomic ground of Walnut Street's Restaurant Row.

But even as the economy sagged and big names closed in recent years, Philadelphia's irrepressible restaurant scene has managed a most astounding trick: a fresh class of elite talents has emerged, redefining the character of ambitious local dining, and reflecting a changing of the guard for the city's top chefs.

Five restaurants have been awarded my highest rating of four-bells: Vetri, Zahav, Bibou, Talula's Table, and Fountain Restaurant. Each captures in its own unique flavor the diverse spirit, sophistication and vibrance of what dining magic means to Philadelphia in 2012.

From the timeless crystal elegance of the Fountain, to the exotically-spiced charcoal-grilled kebabs of Zahav, to Vetri's inspired pasta riffs, to the seasonal whimsies of Talula's Table, to the rustic soul of French bistro fare on a pedastal at Bibou, these restaurants cover it all.

Every one has managed to distinctly capture that elusive feeling of enchantment: a sense that dinner is more than just a meal of memorable flavors and gracious service, but a special moment in time at a table that could be nowhere else on earth.

Five years after my last comprehensive survey of the area's dining elite, when Walnut Street boasted three four-bell restaurants - Susanna Foo, Striped Bass, and Le Bec-Fin - the time for this overhaul was long in coming. (The first two have since closed.)

Thirteen promising contenders were considered when I began the process of return visits in the fall. After initial meals and some revisits, it was clear much had changed. The pride of Georges Perrier, Le Bec-Fin, which put Philadelphia on the map when it opened 42 years ago, was, sadly, a shell of its former self, earning only two of its previous four bells. Lacroix, another four-bell luxury standby, had also slipped one bell from its former precision. And at Barclay Prime, once the city's finest steak house, the kitchen struggled with cooking ... steak. Uh-oh.

But in each of the three first-time winners of the four bell rating, I saw the reflection of larger trends at their very best.

At exciting Zahav in Society Hill, Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov presents an intensely personal cultural fusion in the Philly tradition first pioneered by the original Susanna Foo (and then ¡Pasion!), but crafting a new repertoire of exotic flavors with a Mediterranean flair, updated with sharing plates, affordable prices, rustic wood tables and a casual vibe more in tune with a younger audience.

At Talula's Table, the crafty food market in Kennett Square, Aimee Olexy's nationally coveted one-seating-a-night tastings have distilled the fervor for farm-to-table seasonality to its ultimate elegance with the value of a BYOB and the pop-up intimacy of private dining.

Philly's singular BYO movement, meanwhile, finds another idol at charming Bibou, where chef Pierre Calmels elevates rustic French bistro cooking with the haute-cuisine polish he honed while chef at Le Bec-Fin.

That cozy and affordable Bibou should rise while formal Le Bec tumbles from its astoundingly long perch atop our Culinary Olympus is a sign of the times, with the increasing public resistance to formal and classic luxuries.

That said, the two other current four-bell restaurants - both veteran winners from previous years - are proof that extravagance is not yet completely out of fashion. Fountain Restaurant, despite rumors regarding its future, is the last survivor of the posh old guard, in part, because it remains true to the labor-intensive gastronomy and all-out hospitality that's always been its mission.

The alta cucina Italian jewel of Vetri, meanwhile, has taken yet another step towards greatness in owner Marc Vetri's typical iconic fashion – jettisoning a la carte choice in favor of elaborate free-form tastings, and becoming even more expensive. But the pay-off, as a performance of pure culinary art, is huge: if there is a more inspired all-out food-and-wine fine-dining adventure in Philadelphia, I haven't found it. It has stepped-up for consideration of that honor, in my opinion, on a national scale.

The four-bell rating is a tall standard, no doubt, and one that's never yet been achieved by a newly opened restaurant. These endeavors take the seasoning of time, passion and peristence before those restaurant personalities emerge. A four-bell restaurant never stops evolving, and demands a chef more interested in taking the craft to the next level, than to rapidly expanding into a brand.

Maintaining that level of perfomance, though, is a formidable task in itself. As I revisited the 13 - chosen from both existing four-bellers and three-bellers I felt had the most legitimate chance - it was obvious where some had fallen short. Too many personnel changes had dimmed Lacroix (from four to three bells.) Ditto for Barclay Prime, which seemed to have forgotten how to season and cook a $75 steak without scorching (and slipped from three to two bells). Le Bec's precipitous fall reflects the high-stakes and challenge of maintaining a legend – and how quickly bearings can be lost.

A lack of personal presence from the genius chefs behind Masaharu Morimoto's self-named sushi palace and Jose Garces' Amada and Tinto simply left the sense of a missing spark, a feeling these already great restaurants had little interest in continuing to grow.

And yet, they remain admirably excellent in their own right, as do Osteria and Talula's Garden, which may just not be ready yet for four-bell glory. And so, too, for that matter, are many of the 30 other restaurants I'll be recommending in this Thursday's food section as favorites in other categories – gastropubs, New American BYOBs, Updated International, among others - that truly paint the broad spectrum of why Philadelphia remains one of America's finest eating cities.

Not every meal needs to be an elaborate four-bell feast to be remarkable or satisfying. But it's rewarding to know we have such a stellar group of stars to answer that call when the time is right.