When the Penn’s Village Walking Group (West) meets every Monday morning by the goat in Rittenhouse Square, we usually do not have a specific route as we explore center city Philadelphia. We improvise on the spur of the moment and discover one of the many facets of the city while walking, chatting and gawking (our mantra!) Prompted by the flurry of articles on the recent anointing of Philadelphia as the French-est American city in the new green Michelin Guide, and the facetious article in Billy Penn on the elusive French Quarter (FQ), we decided to walk along memory lane to explore how the city designated the area around the Sofitel Hotel (at 17th and Sansom Streets) and beyond with red FQ markers, also seen on 18th street, Rittenhouse Square, and Walnut Street.
We joyfully went gleaning along the way, identifying the forgotten sophisticated names, defunct retails, faux or authentic French establishments which contributed to a Gallic ambiance that led to the baptism of the area, “French Quarter”, by City Hall - twenty years before the Michelin Guide!
Our starting point in Rittenhouse Square reminded us of the triumvirate that would mint for generations to come a definite French seal: Paul Philippe Crêt and his superb design of the park (inspired by the Parc Monceau in Paris), Antoine-Louis Barye, the famous 19th-century animalier sculptor and his lion-crushing, The Serpent, the first bronze statue gracing the area (also in the Louvre Museum), and Luc Olivier Merson, the artist responsible for some stained glass windows in the church of the Holy Trinity (the very same artist giving France the mosaic in the chancel vault of the Sacré Coeur in Paris).
Let us not forget that Mary Cassatt’s family was living on the Square: most likely, the first time Philadelphians had the opportunity to admire, on this side of the ocean, the works by French impressionists that were in the Cassatt mansion (where the Rittenhouse Hotel now stands). On one of her trips back to the U.S., Mary, an indefatigable promoter of her French fellow painters, was introducing the new art movement to potential collectors.
We strolled along memory lane: some stores are still gracing the FQ; a few have moved elsewhere, others are gone. Here are some of our discoveries.
Flanked on each side of the Square by two pillars of European traditions: le café et les baguettes on 19th Street, still making a little slice of the old continent; freshly roasted coffee beans at La Colombe which was founded in 1994; daily baked breads at Metropolitan Bakery, founded in 1993. Both were a significant departure for savvy center city foodies. Pascal Roger (moved since to 21st Street), a renowned French hair stylist, had established the first VOG salon in the US there.
Before Parc opened in 2008, Neil Stein, a trailblazing restaurateur, opened Rouge in 1997, a hip bistro and then its companion restaurant, Bleu, introducing us to the joys of an outdoor terrace, the ultimate French sidewalk art de vivre!
On 18th Street, Maribel and Didier Leroux had opened their pâtisserie and tearoom “Mademoiselle de Paris”, a perfect complement to Le Bus where Esther McManus was supplying local demanding chefs (George Perrier of Le Bec Fin and Jean-Marie Lacroix of the eponymous restaurant at the Rittenhouse Hotel) and neighborhood customers with the best rolls and breads. A French butcher had opened shop on that street, too, for a short a time.
Sansom Street boasted Monique Messin, a most elegant store for high-end household gifts; La Crêperie was the place to stop for a taste of sweet and savory crêpes. l’Hexagone, a cool bar and hip nightspot, was attracting a younger crowd of francophones. The anchor by 17th and Sansom was and still is the luxurious 5-star Sofitel Hotel with its innovative brasserie, Chez Colette.
Walnut Street played its share of adding a French touch of style: Rodier, a famous brand of chic knitwear for men and women; Descamp, a purveyor of fine French linen; Jacques Ferber fur flagship showroom; Longchamp boutique of leather goods; Janet Calderwood‘s treasure chest of French art nouveau and art deco furniture; L’Occitane en Provence. Le Bec Fin, Brasserie Perrier and Le Colonial were buzzing with waiters enumerating the special “plats du jour” in perfect French.
On 17th Street, there was a destination for the sweet palate: Miel Pâtisserie, now closed, served the best macarons in the FQ; a Swiss chocolate artisan that made too short an appearance in our city; and a Belgian Chocolate House proposed pâtes de fruits, candies and… chocolates! Belgian, Swiss, French, we share the same high quality European standards when it comes to cacao products!
Those were the times indeed when Robert Pierson, a superb advocate of locally grown food, started dreaming of an outdoor food market around Rittenhouse Square (yes, a French-inspired marché). It took him some battling and a few years of total dedication for the concept to be embraced.
Yes, we may have skipped a few stops during our walk and more retail stores have opened since. If you have memories of French Philly in the 90s, leave me your thoughts in the Comments Section below.
Daniele Thomas Easton has been a long time resident in center city Philadelphia after leaving her native France. Involved in the launching of many business and cultural French American initiatives in her adopted city (French American Chamber of Commerce, French International School of Philadelphia, she now enjoys an active retirement and takes advantage of the programs and activities of Penn’s Village.
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