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Jan 29, 2012 09:05 AM

Philadelphia's 4 Bell Restaurants

I read a teaser that Craig LaBan will reveal his latest list of 4 Bell restaurants next Sunday (2/5). Apparently, he started with 13 contenders and finished up with five 4 Bell restaurants.

Lets try to figure out might be on the list. For the final 5, I would go with these 4 to begin with:



The Fountain

Le Bec-Fin (although, on my one visit there, I didn't feel as if it stacked up to the first three on this list).

The last one has me wondering. Will he go with Talula's Garden, since he was itching to give it 4 bells on his original review? Or maybe another Starr place like Morimoto or Barclay Prime? Other possibilities could be Zahav or Amada. Or, will any suburban restaurants make the cut?

What others would you include in the Final 5 or list of 13?

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  1. Do you think any BYO could get four bells? Bibou perhaps? I think Talula's has changed chef's so many times that it seems unlikely that it would. In the burbs maybe one of Chip Roman's restaurants, and I would think it would be more likely to be Mica.

    1. My money's on Vetri keeping four bells, one of the others going down to three bells, and Zahav and Bibou moving up to four bells. I can't think of a suburban place that deserves four, certainly not Blackfish or Mica. If it's Talula's Garden that will be a laugh.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Buckethead

        Vetri will certainly remain at 4 bells. Was just there last month and it was better than ever.

        4 Bells - "rare: sets fine dining standards"

        Do you really think that describes Zahav? Be honest. Zahav is good, but they don't have the ambition to be a 4-bell type of place.

        1. re: deprofundis

          I think that's one of the problems with Laban's 4-bell rating, and I'm hoping he's going to surprise us by updating his criteria a bit. To get that fourth bell, a place has to have aspirations to be a fine dining restaurant like the Fountain or Vetri. If you're comfortable there in jeans and a polo shirt, it probably doesn't qualify. But how many places like that have opened in the last five years? Not a lot, because our dining scene has been trending away from that type of thing towards more casual places. I think that's one reason there hasn't been a new 4-bell place in years. Wasn't the Fountain the most recent one?

          Zahav (or Bibou) doesn't have those aspirations and is trying to be more casual. Should that preclude them from getting 4 bells? I'd say no.

          As far as I know (which isn't that far) Django is the only exception.

          1. re: Buckethead

            The Fountain has definitely been around longer than Vetri, and as far back as I can remember has been considered one of the top places in the city. I don't know when they were actually awarded 4 bells, but I suspect the mid-90's at the latest. When did Lacroix open? The newest is probably either Lacroix or Vetri.

            I haven't been to Bibou - would love to go though, so I'll probably get there soon. Knowing what I know about Bibou, I'd dress up a little more. I think they have a better shot at 4 bells than Zahav.

            I really think Barclay Prime is going to get 4 bells. If you read his original review, it is a 4-bell review with a few nit-picks. But on a personal level, I philosophically disagree with a steakhouse getting 4-bell status.

            I'm also betting on Le Bec-Fin and The Fountain getting demoted to 3 bells.

            1. re: deprofundis

              I just ate at Barclay Prime; it was good but the food was far from great. Lacroix was much, much better in food, drink and service, not to mention a better value.

              1. re: barryg

                I'm not the biggest fan of Barclay Prime either, but LaBan's review made it sound like Per Se in Rittenhouse. I actually like Butcher & Singer better.

                Edited to add: Also, Barclay Prime is a legit "fine-dining" type of place that would fit in with the other current 4-bell places.

              2. re: deprofundis

                It looks like the Fountain's most recent 4-beller was in 2009, there was a chef change and Laban re-revisited it to make sure it was still worthy I think:


                I'd say with Laban's current ratings, Bibou has a better chance than Zahav of moving up to 4 bells. It's a BYO, but so was Django. The service there is more fine-dining-ish than Zahav. I think Bibou has actually supplanted Zahav as my favorite place in the city but it's still pretty close on food alone. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

                1. re: Buckethead

                  Bibou and Barclay Prime are my best guesses.

                  What about demotions? The current list is ripe for a shake-up. Le Bec-Fin, while still good, is clearly not the "destimation restaurant" it used to be. I think they're getting axed from the list. Also, The Fountain. When I think "The Fountain" I think "over-priced hotel restaurant". I predict the ax falls on The Fountain as well.

                  1. re: deprofundis

                    I don't think The Fountain is moving down. During his weekly chat last week, someone asked LaBan about The Fountain and if he should keep his reservation there. LaBan's answer made it sound like it would stay at 4 bells.

                    My personal feeling is that Le Bec-Fin is moving down. Like I said in my original post, I was not as impressed with my meal there (service and food) as I was with The Fountain, Lacroix, and Vetri.

        2. I would not be surprised at all if Bibou got a raise from 3 to 4 bells. LaBan revisited not too long ago and it's received national accolades since his original review. He also loves small BYOB mom 'n pop operations.

          It's tough enough getting reservations already and they've raised prices -reasonably- once or twice.

          1. The article is available online....


            The new top five are:

            The Fountain
            Talula's Table

            Lacroix demoted to 3 bells and Le Bec-Fin demoted to 2 bells.

            Let the discussions begin!!!!

            48 Replies
            1. re: Philly Ray

              I would go so far as to say Le Bec Fin is rated too highly. I partly blame it on the huge influx of people from the groupon coupons... but no high end restaurant owners brother should be chasing a patron out the door when they forgot to put an after dinner drink on the final bill when they brought the bill to the table before we were even ready to leave. I have had better service at the local diner.

              1. re: cwdonald

                It's funny. When my wife and I were there before they were (allegedly) closing, my wife was absolutely stunned that they did not crumb our table before dessert (or at any other time during the meal). And there it is, in a very brief review by LaBan, the same complaint noted.

                We also sat at a table in the back of the main dining room, near the kitchen. At one point, we thought we smelled cigarette smoke wafting out, and sure enough when the door opened, I spied Georges himself taking a few puffs.

                1. re: cwdonald

                  I agree with Laban's comments on Le Bec Fin. It's sad but true.

                  1. re: cwdonald

                    Having eaten at Le Bec Fin twice in the past year or so; one time at full price the next with a RueLaLa (like Groupon) discount, I agree with the 2 bell rating. The first time the cheese cart and dessert cart were the highlights of the meal. The second time, nothing was exceptional - being stuck in the 2nd floor room, accompanying wine flight pours were laughably small, etc. No reason to go back.

                  2. re: Philly Ray

                    Wow! I have to say I'm not surprised by Bibou and Talula's Table. His review of Le Bec-Fin was fricken brutal. My god, how embarrassing.

                    With regards to Zahav, you have to admit that making them 4 bells really lowers the bar for what a four-bell restaurant is. The definition of four bells says "sets fine dining standards". So apparently things like white tablecloths, fine china and silverware, etc, don't matter anymore.

                    Also, if Zahav is four bells, I don't know how Osteria isn't. In my opinion the food is better at Osteria.

                    Talula's Table shouldn't be ranked. It's not a real restaurant. But I'm sure the food is great.

                    Honestly, this list saddens me a little bit. Out of the five, only Vetri really stands out. In the other four you have 1 that isn't really a restaurant, 1 is a hotel restaurant, 1 is a French BYO, and the last is totally a casual restaurant. Fine dining is dead in Philadelphia.

                    1. re: deprofundis

                      So apparently things like white tablecloths, fine china and silverware, etc, don't matter anymore.

                      Nope! Welcome to 2010!

                      1. re: Buckethead

                        The problem I see with Zahav is that the level of service is not close to a Lacroix, Fountain, even Barclay Prime. The service is very good and accommodating, well above average for restaurants in that price range, but it's just a cut below. It degrades the value of 4 Bells IMO too.

                        Lacroix got dinged mainly due to slip ups in service, so how does Zahav get elevated when it doesn't even compare?

                        1. re: barryg

                          Because Zahav isn't trying to have the same style of service that a place like Lacroix (or Vetri, or Le Bec) is. They're trying to be more casual and approachable. And they're successful at it. I think Laban is changing his standards to reflect the reality of our dining scene. He should probably drop the "fine" from his 4-bell note and just say "Sets new dining standards".

                        2. re: Buckethead

                          These things DO matter when you're using the 4-Bell rating as a guide to choose a special occasion restaurant, which is what elite ratings like that imply (or should).

                          1. re: deprofundis

                            They matter to you. They don't matter so much to me. When I'm going out for a special occasion at a restaurant the food is my overriding criteria. Service is a distant second. That's not to say I don't appreciate the service you get at a place like Vetri, but I'm not going to choose a restaurant based on the service. And if you want to know that sort of thing, you can just read the text of the review.

                            1. re: Buckethead

                              I know you love Zahav, but in my opinion their food, while good, doesn't meet the criteria either. We can agree to disagree on that one. haha

                        3. re: deprofundis

                          l now seem to have someone else on this board who thinks like me, l am truly sorry for Deprofundis. l again agree with every word of their post. Keep on posting. Just finished a conversation with a colleague who is an executive chef in a prominent NY restaurant about these listings. He had gone to Bibou and Zahav on our first visits there and has been to Vetri with me as well. The other 4 Bell spots he has not been to. His comments seem also to mimic mine and Deprofundis. He says in NY places like Per Se, Le Bernadin, Jean-Georges and 11 Madison Park receive the highest accolades as they should. These 4 bell places other than Vetri while excellent restaurants are not in the caliber of the major award winners in other top flight restaurant cities as NY and San Francisco. l thus also fear the bar is being lowered as 'Fine Dining' is dead in Philadelphia.

                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                            I agree with him. NYC just towers over every other city in the country for fine dining though, so it's difficult to compare with Philly. If Zahav were in NYC it would probably be a 2-star restaurant. I haven't been to Bibou so I can't comment on their food, but considering they're a BYO French Bistro type of place, I suspect they'd also get 2 stars in NYC. Maybe 3 if the food's really great.

                            1. re: deprofundis

                              The food IS really great at Bibou. In my opinion, they deserve the 4 bells. I did think, however, that this was the first time Laban awarded 4 bells to a byob. Charlotte corrected me last night, noting that Django had received 4 bells. This said, there was much excitement at Bibou last night with their friends coming in with gifts, kisses, etc. I'm happy for them. They are a lovely couple. Pierre, btw, is very modest.

                            2. re: Delucacheesemonger

                              I think so called "fine dining" may soon be a thing of the past as PBS's Downton Abbey's absurd nightly dining "events", set in the early part of the last century, are now a curiousity as well a thing of the past. Craig LaBan's article rethinks just what "fine dining" is now in my opinion.

                              1. re: mmgth

                                In Philadephia, perhaps. Not in New York.

                                1. re: deprofundis

                                  The maitre d' directed service, the elaborate 3-4 hour meal, the dress code...
                                  Is this "fine dining" or dining theater?

                              2. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                Le Bernadin et al are great, but there's nothing remotely equivalent to Bibou or Talula's Table in NYC (fantastic food, unpretentious atmosphere, no-corkage, free parking).

                                Their loss.

                                1. re: ftarazu

                                  Aside from Vetri, there's nothing equivalent to Le Bernardin, et al, in Philly.

                                  1. re: ftarazu

                                    Allow this New Yorker, who spends some time in Philly and has eaten at two of the new four-bellers (Zahav and Talula's Table) to chime in with his two cents.

                                    Craig LaBan has clearly defined the four-bell experience differently than the reviewers of the New York Times. And,there's absolutely NOTHING WRONG with two cities having two different definitions of fine dining.

                                    My wife and I visit Le Bernardin annually for our anniversary. Daniel is her birthday dinner. Del Posto and Jean-Georges are our go-to lunch places when our young-adult children are in town. Have not yet been to Eleven Madison Park and probably will never go to Per Se (unless we win the lottery). What New York's four-stars have in common is an almost-luxurious experience that begins at the coat room and ends hours later, an experience that combines ambiance, service, food and wine.

                                    LaBan, in my opinion, says that food is #1, 2, 3 and 4 in the experience. Neither Talula's nor Zahav have the same ambiance as any of the NYC 4-stars and, according to LaBan's criteria (and shared by many of us), don't need to have the same ambiance to be stellar restaurants. The same statement holds true for service (which is excellent at both, but, come on, are not in the same class as NYC's 4-stars) and wine (Zahav's strengths are Israeli and Lebanese wines, many of which would never be found by American diners were it not for Zahav's fine wine department).

                                    Philadelphia, contrary to what many believe, is NOT NYC's sixth borough. It is a unique city with a wonderful culinary scene. You are lucky to have places like Zahav and Talula's.

                                    I was, frankly, a little surprised (but pleased) about Talula's. I am a big fan of NYC's Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare and, applying NY-think to speculation that Talula's might be named a 4-bell, thought it was impossible, given Brooklyn Fare's 3-star review. I speculated that it would be impossible for a BYO restaurant to get 4-stars or 4-bells. After all, isn't part of a review based upon wine selection and service? LaBan says a resounding "no" and, given how many BYOs Philly has, he might be justified in omitting wine as a criterion.

                                    1. re: famdoc

                                      l think the point to be made is that while food can be numbers whatever, there is more to the silly term, fine dining, than food. Yes, a back alley Chinese restaurant in Queens may have the best Chinese food in the states but as Zagat says, the food may be 28 and the atmosphere may be 6. No there is nothing wrong with this but it is a different experience. Michelin has been doing it a lot longer than others and their criteria requires fine service and luxe plating and utensils blah blah blah to get more stars. Does it make sense, who knows or who cares but this was the 'definition' of fine dining and you can give a rating of whatever the rater thinks appropriate but it will not fall into the definition of fine dining. To say it for the tenth time, Babbo may carry four stars from the NY times,but as Battali himself says, it is as far from fine dining as you can get. That must be a record, in one paragraph l wrote fine dining five times, WOW.

                                        1. re: deprofundis

                                          Damn, of course it is Del Posto that is 4

                                      1. re: famdoc

                                        "What New York's four-stars have in common is an almost-luxurious experience that begins at the coat room and ends hours later, an experience that combines ambiance, service, food and wine."

                                        "Really, what all this says to me, is that Philly needs more than just LaBan.... no one person should be setting the terms, rating the food, writing the articles, etc etc."

                                        These two points get to the crux of the issue. Philly only has a few places with 4-star service and atmosphere. Having our preeminent critic saying that service isn't all that important worries me because I don't want to lose these experiences. It's already hard enough to find great food in a restaurant that doesn't pack people in like sardines and requires shouting across the table to have a conversation.

                                        1. re: barryg

                                          You raise a few good points. The noise level at Zahav, in parts of the restaurant, is higher than one would expect at a 4-star.

                                          The service at Talula's and Zahav, while excellent, is not in the same league as Le Bernardin or Daniel.

                                          Again, I come down squarely on the side of supporting a different definition of 4-star for Philadelphia than NYC.

                                          People who go to Talula's should spend as much attention to their wine selection as some of the commenters, below, have. Whether you are a wine collector or not, getting the menu in advance and pairing your selections to each course will greatly enhance your experience. This goes without saying for collectors. However, others should take extra time to locate a good wine merchant. In PA, some of the state wine stores have temperature-controlled rooms and/or have collectible wines and may have knowledgeable sales people. Or, take along a member of your party who knows wine. In any case, avoid falling into the trap that there is a direct relationship between price and quality. You can purchase enough wine for an evening at Talula's for 12 people for less than $500.

                                          1. re: famdoc

                                            Maybe if I buy my wines now, they'll be mature by the time I'm able to get a reservation at TT. Seriously, that's a lot of leg-work to expect of a customer for a 4-bell place.

                                            1. re: deprofundis

                                              This is true, but fortunately the choice isn't just between aging your own wine or buying from a 4-star's cellar. Many wine auction websites make it easy to obtain aged wines for much less than what I'd have to pay at a 4-star.

                                              Moreover, for those of us who are passionate about wine but couldn't afford the mark-ups that the 4-stars charge, it adds to our enjoyment of the BYO experience (and detracts from that of the 4-star experience) that we don't have to worry about whether we can afford the wines we'd like to drink.

                                              1. re: deprofundis

                                                It's not exactly leg-work -- it's phone work, as I understand it. Used to be, if you perched at TT's front door a few minutes before 7:00 AM a year from the date you wanted your reservation, you had a pretty good shot at getting the Table for your date (that's how I got mine). But now, if I'm correct, reservations are taken only by phone.

                                          2. re: famdoc

                                            The wine service at Talula's is outstanding! It makes no difference that the wine has been brought in by the customer rather than purchased off a wine list -- in fact, being a BYO venue affords customers an opportunity to enjoy outstanding wines, paired perfectly (in advance) with each of the courses, at prices that are quite affordable. Talula's table uses high quality stemware that is appropriate for various wines, and holds customers' wines at the right temperatures until serving.

                                            For our dinner at Talula's Table, I shopped for wine at Moore Brothers in Wilmington. I brought along with me a copy of the menu for the evening of our dinner and I was able to take advantage of the expertise of Dave McDuff (no longer at Moore Brothers) who not only knows wine, but was also a frequent guest at Talula's Table.

                                            Our dinner at Talula's Table was memorable; We didn't need white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers to create fine dining ambiance -- it was there at the farmhouse table, and it showed up in every course that was served to our group of 12.

                                            And speaking of wine -- I thought it was interesting to observe in the photo of Talula's Table in this morning's Inquirer, that although the table was set with wine glasses, no one at the table had any wine. Just an observation -- not a judgement.

                                            1. re: CindyJ

                                              It does matter if a customer has to bring the wine.

                                              For one thing, unless the customer is a serious wine collector, they're likely stopping by the liquor store before dinner to pick up their wine. Liquor stores don't generally carry rare or vintage wines. You know, like the kind you might want to pair with your fancy $100+ meal. Even if you have a nice wine collection at home, it probably doesn't rival that of one of the serious 4-star places in NYC. Also, the storage facilities at those places are likely better than what anyone would have at home. And then there is a litany of things that wine snobs might care about, like how transporting wine in a car (vs just walking it up from the wine cellar) can affect the flavor, and how a lot of customers can't tell if a wine is corked. The wine snobbery stuff may sound silly, but if you're the type of person who's spending 100's of bucks on a bottle of wine, that stuff matters.

                                              1. re: deprofundis

                                                If I'm going to spend "100's of bucks on a bottle of wine", I'd MUCH rather buy it at a quality wine store and tote it to a great BYO than buy it off a wine list at a restaurant. There are plenty of upscale restaurants that either don't know or don't care about proper wine storage and correct serving temperatures. I'd much rather take the responsibility for temperature control while transporting my own wine to a quality BYO than pay overinflated prices at a restaurant. Also, a $100 bottle of wine at a restaurant is only a $30-35 bottle at a wine store -- all of a sudden, it's not such a magnificent wine after all.

                                                Maybe I'm in a minority, but I seek out BYOs when it's a fine dining experience I'm after. More often than not, I'll print out a copy of the restaurant's menu and bring it with me to the wine store, where I receive expert wine/food pairing advice (clearly, I don't shop for wine in PA!). Even if there are just two of us going to dinner, we often bring a white and a red to dinner. It's not unusual for us to begin our meal with a well-paired white for our appetizers, and follow it with an equally well-paired red for our entrees.

                                                On a different point -- I don't think it's fair to compare the dining scene in NYC to that in Philly. They're different, with several important distinctions between the two cities.

                                          3. re: ftarazu

                                            Really Ftarazu, places like Brooklyn Fare and Lucali's in Brooklyn as well as bunches in Manhattan do it every day, rated very highly, but yet again not to be considered fine dining.

                                            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                              Really, what all this says to me, is that Philly needs more than just LaBan. Whom I like - I find I agree with him most of the time. But no one person should be setting the terms, rating the food, writing the articles, etc etc.

                                              Incidentally, this Philadelphian never considered Philly a "sixth borough" - nor did I consider the more formal definition of fine dining a New York definition. To be honest, though, when I am in NYC it's not the fine dining options I'm jealous of, it's the bakeries and the independent liquor stores.

                                              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                NYC may be the "Fine Dining Capital of the US", but Philly is clearly the "BYOB Capital of the World". Of the two, I prefer the latter with occasional visits to the former.

                                                Your mileage may vary...

                                          4. re: deprofundis

                                            >>>Talula's Table shouldn't be ranked. It's not a real restaurant.<<<

                                            Perhaps the definition of "real restaurant" has changed -- as has the definition of "fine dining." If so, I'm fine with the new definitions. They take into account the evolution of the restaurant scene to meet the demands and desires of today's restaurant patrons.

                                          5. re: Philly Ray

                                            Congratulations to Bibou and Talula's, both well deserving choices (and you thought it was hard to get reservations before!).

                                            Everyone knew Le Bec was toast, but the drop to 2 bells was a real kick in the ass. By far the best meal I've had there was when Han was guesting.

                                            Barclay Prime, widely cited as a candidate for 4 bells, also drops to 2. So much for LaBan being biased in favor of Steven Star restaurants.

                                            1. re: Philly Ray

                                              Interesting that, with the exception of Talula's Table (for obvious reasons), how many tables are available three and four weeks from now at each of the others...check Open Table and see.

                                              1. re: famdoc

                                                Got a res at Zahav for Wed this Mon AM, at prime time

                                                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                  Tables at Vetri for Fridays and Saturdays in three/four weeks.

                                                  1. re: famdoc

                                                    Is that really such a surprise? None of these are new restaurants, and they are known quantities. I wouldn't expect a real reservation boost like a new restaurant review would yield.

                                                    1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

                                                      I'd be more interested to see if reservations slow down at LBF, Lacroix, and BP.

                                                      1. re: barryg

                                                        I wonder if this will persuade Perrier to stop the ruelala/groupon specials. And I was happily surprised that LeBan took a personal shot at Perrier's brother.

                                                        1. re: barryg

                                                          They have to, especially at LBF. If I had a reservation at LBF, I don't know about you, but I'd cancel after reading that review.

                                                          1. re: barryg

                                                            While I would never return to LBF (and that is based on our previous visit there, which this new review confirms), I have no qualms about returning to Lacroix.

                                                            1. re: Philly Ray

                                                              I don't hold the new rating against Lacroix so much because a lot has changed there, chef-wise, since they were rated 4 bells. I'm not in any hurry to get to Barclay Prime now though, it had been on my list to try one of these days.

                                                    2. re: Philly Ray

                                                      At the end of the day, fine dining is what you want it to be. If you are the type of person that needs fancy utensils and formality to define your dining experience, by all means, turn your nose up at Zahav. For 8 out of 10 people in this city, I don't think there's a care for that. If there was a colossal demand for that, we'd see it. Clearly that's not what this blue-collar city wants.

                                                    3. Right up front LeBan notes that his bells are awarded based on a restaurant achieving their stated goal. Which I believe is a reasonable approach for a city like Philly. Bells are not stars. One problems I do have with his approach lies in his definition of a Four Bell that contains a reference to fine dinning and his take on that. Which some of his 4Star choices do not seems to fit into. We love Zahav, great food good service but "fine dining": I think not. Interestingly the most respected ratings are by a tire company who will tell you if a restaurant is worth a special trip, worth a detour or just a very good restaurant. When comparing, NYC to Phila, common definitions and standard make it more meaningful. I for one will accept Laban's evaluations as being localized and a good guide to good choices in dining in Philadelphia and rely on Michelin to point out the world class stars. In which NYC is a galaxy!

                                                      19 Replies
                                                      1. re: Bacchus101

                                                        "Right up front LeBan notes that his bells are awarded based on a restaurant achieving their stated goal. Which I believe is a reasonable approach for a city like Philly."

                                                        I disagree with that. There has to be a standard of excellence across every category of the dining experience. If just achieving your goal was enough, then you could argue places like Federal Donuts should get 4 bells.

                                                        1. re: deprofundis

                                                          I suggest you read the rest of the comment regarding standards and common definitions. Since LaBan has declared his approach, agree or not, lit is how he does his reviews.. You are most welcome to your opinion as to "if it is a reasonable approach for Philly!" Thanks very much. Philly and this board seems to have a "Best of " interest in food. LaBan's method fits is town's interest, IMHO. Want a world class standard for reviews look to a world class guide.

                                                          1. re: Bacchus101

                                                            I don't know if it's a reasonable approach for Philly. I mean, let's say you're coming to visit Philly from out of town and you don't know what's here. You want to try out the best of the best, so you look up which places have 4-bells. If you end up choosing Zahav, you're probably going to be pretty disappointed.

                                                            1. re: deprofundis

                                                              Or the opposite - you might want a place like Zahav, but avoid it because you suspect it will be too stuffy. (A more likely scenario for me, in any case).

                                                              I will say this: achieving your stated goal is important, but there does have to be some sort of 'degree of difficulty' aspect. I'm thinking of movies I've seen. Legally Blonde - there was a movie that was all that it set out to be, and I fully enjoyed watching it. Does that put it up with The Godfather? I say no.

                                                              1. re: Bob Loblaw

                                                                If you're afraid it's going to be too stuffy, you probably wouldn't be looking at 4-bell restaurants in the first place.

                                                                  1. re: deprofundis

                                                                    Are you saying that 4-bell dining is, by definition, "stuffy"?

                                                                    1. re: CindyJ

                                                                      No, of course, but 'fine dining' is more reserved, quiet, better dressed and better manners on both the part of the restaurant and the patrons.

                                                                      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                        let's just say that other people are perfectly at ease in situations that I find stuffy. if you prefer the term 'refined atmosphere' i've no problem with that.
                                                                        i'll put it this way: I've got a pair of new balance walking shoes. they're brown, with black laces, and quite comfortable. when i go on vacation, these are usually the most formal shoes I bring. if that means i can't go to le bernadin or l'arpege, so be it.
                                                                        those shoes will do fine at Zahav (I suspect that they already have, though I don't specifically remember what shoes I wore when I ate there). but if I was coming in from out of town, i might see a 4-'star' AKA bell review and think, nope, too formal.
                                                                        i still go back to what i said before - LaBan just has too much influence in setting the terms of the debate right now. This doesn't mean that someone else would do the same job better, just that more people should be involved.

                                                                        1. re: Bob Loblaw

                                                                          Bob- don't you think that Philly Mag, City Paper, Philadelphia weekly, plus the myriad of bloggers out there have influence? Philadelphia can barely support one daily paper. I am not sure where you are going to get another voice with the same gravitas that the weekly reviews from the newspaper have. But there certainly are other people out there expressing their opinions, and writing about the Philadelphia dining scene. And given the precarious economic situation of the Inq. its highly unlikely that the paper is going to hire an additional food writer.

                                                                        2. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                          I always thought of fine dining as being at least as much about the food and presentation as the things you mentioned -- maybe even more so. I can think of a couple of places close to where I live that would qualify as "fine dining" by your description, but whose food is blah at best. I wouldn't think of those places as "fine dining."

                                                                        3. re: CindyJ


                                                                          I guess stuffy is a pretty subjective thing though. A great restaurant should never really feel "stuffy". Remember, this is the hospitality business. A great restaurant should make the guest feel like a king.

                                                                          1. re: deprofundis

                                                                            That's a good point. When we were at Le Bec-Fin, the servers never really connected with us. But at Lacroix, they were much more personable and always made our evening seem special.

                                                                    2. re: deprofundis

                                                                      I admire the populist sensibility behind the new ratings, and share Laban's view that perfection in a restaurant is an equation more ephemeral than food + service + decor. But I'm afraid I agree that Laban's departure from the received meaning of fine dining is going to beget some confusion and disappointment. I adore Zahav; it's my favorite restaurant in the city. But people are going to look to the 4-bell category in search of that special-occasion place, and I don't think Zahav is this, nor is it trying to be. (I've also always noticed a weakness on desserts, a fact possible acknowledged by their absence in the 4-bell review?)

                                                                      On the other hand, I don't much lament the absence of Le Bernardins and EMPs in Philly. The elaborate show of luxury at these restaurants has, in my view, more to do with flattering the sensibilities of the super-wealthy than it does with providing actual comfort. I do lament that we don't have more restaurants doing 4-star food--more Brooklyn Fares and Robertas, to continue the New York analogy.

                                                                      Final thought: I wonder whether Laban's food-focused view of restaurant excellence might soon be the norm. Even the New York Times has recently challenged the received sense of fine dining, with Bruni gave 4 stars to Masa on the strength of the food alone, and Sifton giving Roberta's chef's table 3 stars "no matter the paper napkins or hard wood seats."

                                                                      1. re: nwinkler

                                                                        Sifton rightfully demoted Masa to 3 stars. Ridiculous, in my opinion, to award a sushi bar 4 stars in the first place.

                                                                        1. re: deprofundis

                                                                          If you have eaten at his original L.A. place, now called Urasawa, you might change your mind. l do love sushi and that place as well as two or three in Japan were in my top ten meals anywhere. OTOH l have not done Masa yet.

                                                                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                                            On that we will have to disagree. I do love sushi. But it is a 100% entirely ingredient-driven type of cuisine. You can't compare any sushi preparation to the skill, creativity, labor, etc, that go into dishes at places like Per Se, EMP, JG, etc. Kaiseki may be another story. I have yet to experience a true kaiseki meal.

                                                                      2. re: deprofundis

                                                                        I'm here this weekend from out of town. I know a bit, but not much, of what's here. Based on LaBan's rave as well as several other recommendations, I ate at Zahav last night. It was the best meal I've had in months, if not years. Eye-opening. Happiness-inducing. Deeply satisfying (and I didn't even have the lamb shoulder!). Supremely comfortable and inviting, even for a single diner. And notably better than the meal I had at Osteria the night before, which was pretty darned good.

                                                                        "Fine dining"? I suppose not. But thank goodness for that, not least because I had a *ton* of spectacular food for under $50.

                                                                        1. re: Marty L.

                                                                          I've been to Zahav 3 times and never experienced a meal worthy of such superlatives. But I'm glad you enjoyed it.