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Philadelphia's Restaurant Renaissance

The Book and the Cook

Question: Name the American city that is home to seven of the country's top 50 restaurants as ranked by the readers of Condé Nast's Traveler in a 1994 awards poll?

Answer: A big surprise! Philadelphia! The city that is known for scrapple, hoagies (submarine sandwiches), cheese steaks and soft pretzels is now a premier town for dining out. It seems to have happened overnight. The successful gentrification of the downtown in spiffy Colonial style and the scrapping of blue lawsó liquor can now be served on Sundaysóled to the opening of new restaurants in rapid succession.

To revamp its food image and to get the word out that Philadelphia is the place to eat, the city began hosting "The Book and the Cook" a decade ago. The top names in the food business gather here every March. Cookbook authors are paired with local restaurateurs to feature their best recipes in a series of about 60 lunches, brunches, dinners and teas. Prix fixe menus only are de rigueur during "The Book and the Cook." Food, service and prices are no different than what you might expect at other times. Special events include kitchen and market tours, seminars, galas, films, wine tastings, book signings and a fair.

Saturday lunch at Le Bec-Fin with visiting food authorities Pierre Franey or Craig Claiborne is a "Book and Cook" tradition. Other than Franey's or Claiborne's presence, it's business as usual for Chef-Owner Georges Perrier who placed first in the U.S. in Condé Nast's Traveler's poll. The decor is posh, the service is impeccable and the food is perfect. Mushroom ragout, smoked salmon terrine, light corn soup, sautéed salmon, filet mignon and Grand Marnier soufflé were served in '94.

Le Bec-Fin, 1523 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102. Tel. 215-567-1000. Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday with seatings at 6 and 9. The menu changes every six months. Expensive. www.lebecfin.com

Deux Cheminees, another one of the city's seven restaurants cited in the poll, draws praise for decor. One patron was heard to say, "I wish I lived here." The townhouse with regal period furniture, damask drapes, lace tablecloths, chandeliers, fireplaces and oil paintings is indeed the home of Chef-Owner Fritz Blank. The food is French (of course) and Blank's stack of favorable reviews is as thick as a dictionary. In the " '94 Book and Cook" he teamed up with Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet. At $75 for dinner, it is regularly $62 with optional supplements, there was nothing frugal about the meal, which was for the most part quite pleasing.

Deux Cheminees, 1221 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Tel. 215-790-5414. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Expensive.

For a detailed brochure about "The 1998 Book and Cook" (March 20 to 29) phone or write the Philadelphia Visitors' Center, 16th Street and Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19102. Tel. 800-537-7676, 215-636-1666 after January 1, 1998. www.thebookandthecook.com

Winter 1994-95