After four days of covering the GOP convention in Philadelphia, I was tired of eating on the run, wolfing down well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfying room-service sandwiches while the folks I covered gorged themselves in drunken, bacchanalian orgies of food. Every morning in the Philly Inquirer, Metro reporters detailed the high flyers' most recent repasts, presumably fighting off hunger pangs as the fat cats fed and preened themselves.
On Wednesday, I decided I'd had enough. It was time to strike a blow for the Fourth Estate, to leave the soggy press-tent pizza behind and set out for greener pastures. I realized that I'm never going to be a fat cat, but darn it, I was finally going to eat like one.
And eat like the fattest casts of all. "Le Bec-Fin, please," I told the Bell Atlantic operator. (Quick bit of background: Le Bec-Fin is Georges Perrier's legendary hotspot, a Philadelphia institution. Often mentioned in surveys as the best restaurant in America bar none it had been booked solid for days, primarily by GOP lobbyists, governors and congressmen.)
And I got in! For reasons that will never be quite clear to me no bribes, no threats of violence I was cheerfully granted a seat at 1:30. Hurrah! I thought. My stomach responded with a growl.
At 1:30 sharp, I arrived at the fabled doors, colleague in tow (it was really heartwarming to see him sacrifice himself like that). Sorry, we were politely informed, but the party previously booked at our table was running a bit long, and would we mind taking a seat at the bar downstairs? We trotted down the thickly carpeted stairs and sat down at the bar five feet from Reagan adviser Michael Deaver! He was having a Coke and telling a story about not having hot water in a hotel room, which my lunch partner pointed out was probably code for "Contras" and "Nicaragua."
They keep their promises, these Bec-Fin people. Precisely 15 minutes later, we were seated in the salmon-and-gilt main dining room. The place was packed with men in high-end suits and women in cashmere sweater sets, and I experienced a moment of panic, wishing I'd had a chance to pick up my pearls before I'd set out. Not to worry; the staff were warm and welcoming, even to the underdressed, and the fat cats were meowing and purring too much to notice.
After a brief perusal of the biggest menu I have ever seen, we listened to the longest list of specials (is that what they're called at Le Bec-Fin?) I've ever heard. Another 15 minutes later, the descriptions finally ended, and we got down to the serious business at hand: Deciding whether the man sitting directly across from us was, in fact, Oklahoma governor Frank Keating or merely a clever imposter.
Then the food came. And just for the record, I was impressed. I've had just enough experiences with overhyped restaurants producing middling food to be floored by the quality of Le Bec-Fin's offerings. The hors d'oeuvres were works of art: beautifully seared scallops enveloped in a light, tomato-infused sauce, a delicate, almost-too-lovely-to-eat salad accented by white anchovies, an olive and tomato compote, and escargots oozing with butter. The second course was a triumph: lightly sauteed soft-shell crabs and an arctic char my table-mate dubbed "a sort of impetuous little salmon" (a comment that makes abolutely no sense, but he'd had a couple of glasses of very good Merlot at that point).
And the dessert cart! I hesitate to attempt a description, but, in the spirit of journalistic duty, I'll give it a shot. Nineteen tarts, pies and concoctions, including an absolutely sinful key lime and white chocolate pie, a deadly flourless chocolate cake, homemade banana ice cream and various sweet, fluffy extravaganzas, drizzled expertly with a homemade raspberry sauce. It was truly astounding.
This was definitely Republican food, a far cry from the blue-collar cheese steaks this city is famous for. That fact was not lost on then-mayor Ed Rendell, who, when courting convention planners from both parties, took GOP bigwigs to Le Bec-Fin and dragged Dems to a hoagie joint. The proof, to use that worn gastronomical phrase, is in the pudding: The Dems took their party to the left coast, while Republicans cheerfully descended on this most Democratic of cities. Was it the food? What else?
The service at my lunch was, happily, impeccable: Friendly but not obsequious, informed but not at all pushy. Our various waitstaff (there seemed to be a new person introduced with each new course) were lovely, and extremely attentive. I've never seen so much glassware we went through roughly 10 wine glasses by the time our first course arrived, and a new set would appear virtually every time we'd put a few fingerprints on them.
By the time the meal drew to a close, I was satiated, both spiritually take that, overpaid politicos! I can eat right next to you! and physically. I strolled to the front door, stepped out into the humidity and headed back to the hotel, momentarily content in the knowledge that I'd just had the best food I was likely to encounter for a long, long while.