Vetri, Le Bec-Fin, La Panetière: The illustrious culinary history of 1312 Spruce Street

This might be the city’s most delicious address

Vetri is one in a long line of impressive restaurants at 1312 Spruce

Vetri is one in a long line of impressive restaurants at 1312 Spruce

danya

Originally published November 2015; updated November 2019

As far as restaurants go, 1312 Spruce St. might be Philadelphia’s most charmed address. Now home to Vetri, one of the country’s most respected Italian dining rooms, the small townhouse in Washington Square West has served as the jumping off point for a remarkable number of acclaimed chefs.

“It’s clearly got a great vibe,” said Marc Vetri, who first took over the space in 1998. “When I first walked in, I literally knew in my bones that it was the place. I can’t explain it…it was calling me.”

He followed in the footsteps of many others, including Georges Perrier, who started the legendary Le Bec-Fin in that same room, and often returned to the address to host holiday parties he called “The Magic of 1312 Spruce.”

Here’s a look at the building’s long history.

1860: Construction

Throughout the 19th century, Philly was engaged in a battle for “metropolitan supremacy” with NYC. That rivalry was one of the incentives for the Consolidation Act of 1854, which extended the city’s borders to the perimeters of Philadelphia County. The unification of dozens of disparate townships into one municipality more than tripled the city’s population.

Free of pressure to erect high-rises, like the tenements that were beginning to dot Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs, developers in Philadelphia continued to build relatively small.

Case in point is 1312 Spruce Street, which was constructed as a 3,500-sq.-ft. three-story rowhome despite its proximity to bustling Broad Street and City Hall.

1860s-1900s: Fashionable Home

It’s entirely likely that during its first several decades, 1312 Spruce was a single-family dwelling.

According to the 1891 edition of Boyd’s Philadelphia Blue Book — a periodic “Fashionable Private Address Directory” that listed “the names of 25,000 prominent households” — it appears to have been the residence of the Burton family.

Arthur Milby Burton, who’s listed as living there along with (his daughter?) Miss Mary Robinson Burton, was a descendant of colonists who landed in Virginia in the 1600s. Raised in Delaware, he came to Philadelphia in 1845 to work in the printing business, then left to study law.

Records show Burton was admitted to the bar in 1851, after which he launched a career as a prominent attorney fighting for workers rights. As a co-founder of the Law and Order Society of Philadelphia, he assisted efforts to curb illegal liquor trade, and he also helped launch Philly’s YMCA. He died in 1899.

1900s-1960s: Professional Offices

After the Burtons left, the building was was split up into apartments and professional offices.

in 1912 the address was listed as the home of Princeton alum W.O. Davey, who held an executive position with Philly furniture company Hale & Kilburn. A Dr. Dawson H. Huber had his dental office there, according to a 1916 report from the Pennsylvania Dental Society.

In 1919, the ground floor was used for meetings of the Engineer’s Club of Philadelphia, which shared offices with the American Society for Testing and Materials at 1315 Spruce across the street.

1967-1970: La Panetière

Not much information is available about the building from then until 1967, when real estate developer Leonard Levin scooped it up.

Through his company Mid-City Realty, Levin was instrumental in the redevelopment of Society Hill, and then began to  expand westward. At 1312 Spruce, he turned the top two floors into four distinct apartments, and successfully wooed a retail tenant for ground level.

That tenant was Peter von Starck. Now credited with sparking a fine-dining renaissance, at the time von Starck was just the son of a wealthy Philadelphian with an intense interest in restaurants. It was an attraction stoked by a 1963 jaunt to Provence, where he first met a French rising culinary star named Georges Perrier.

After training under Wally Callahan at Chester County’s Coventry Forge Inn, von Stark was determined to bring haute cuisine to heart of the city. He signed a lease with Levin for 1312, and set about convincing 21-year-old Perrier to relocate to Philly to run his kitchen.

La Panetière — named after the French word for “bread box” or “pantry” — was a success, so much so that von Starck decided he wanted to expand from the 30-seat dining room. He found that larger space at 1602 Locust Street (current home of Tequilas), and moved the restaurant there. Perrier, however, was in love with the petite space, so the two parted ways and the Frenchman stayed behind.

1970-1983: Le Bec-Fin

Georges Perrier talks to guests at the original Le Bec-Fin

Georges Perrier talks to guests at the original Le Bec-Fin

Courtesy of Marc Vetri

For the name of his own incarnation of the jewel box restaurant, Perrier chose the French colloquialism that means “gourmet,” “choosy palate” or “good taste.” Literally, it translates as “the delicate beak.”

La Panetière had racked up local accolades in its new location, but Le Bec-Fin soon wildly surpassed its progenitor in terms of reputation.

In 1974, Craig Claiborne of the New York Times, America’s first regular restaurant reviewer, declared Le Bec-Fin the best restaurant on the East Coast. People traveled from all over the region to sample Perrier’s famous galette de crabe (crab cakes) and quenelles de brochet (fish dumplings), served in a dining room outfitted with crystal chandeliers and gilt-edged mirrors.

Though it took longer than it had for von Starck, Perrier eventually gave into the idea that a larger dining room would better serve his enthusiastic fans, who were forced to book Saturday night reservations six or more weeks in advance. Plus, although he expressed interest in buying 1312 Spruce, the building’s owners were not selling (by this time, Levin shared ownership with his son-in-law, the Realtor Michael Yelson).

Instead, Perrier worked out a deal to purchase 1523 Walnut St. and, in 1983, moved his restaurant there.

1983-1988: Two Quails

French native Joel Assouline had a made a name for himself with a Philadelphia caviar importing operation called Assouline & Ting, and Le Bec-Fin was one of his best customers. Thinking it worthwhile to capitalize on the reputation and success of the now-vacant dining room, he decided to make the move into the restaurant side of the biz.

When Perrier moved out, Assouline took over the first floor of 1312 Spruce and relaunched it under the name Two Quails.

With a much more Americanized menu — albeit still served in haute French style — Two Quails was a modest success, though it never garnered the raves of its two predecessors. A review by the Inquirer‘s Gerald Etter described the atmosphere there as “tense calm” and though he enjoyed the food, he noted that “there seemed to be a strained aura” about the place.

Five years later, Assouline was ready to get out of full-service dining and return to retail, so he began searching for someone to take over the charming space. He found ready takers in chefs Bruce Lim and Francesco Martorella.

1988-1992: Ciboulette

Bruce Lim (left) and Francesco Martorella (right) stand with Marc Vetri at a recent Ciboulette reunion dinner

Bruce Lim (left) and Francesco Martorella (right) stand with Marc Vetri at a recent Ciboulette reunion dinner

Danya Henninger

Born in Singapore but trained since he was a teen in France, Lim was a top chef at Fountain at the Four Seasons when Assouline approached him to see if he was interested in opening his own spot. Turns out he was, as long as Fountain sous chef Martorella would come along with him. The pair had always worked well together, and so they formed a partnership and in 1988, opened Ciboulette.

The name is French for “chives,” and it was back to classic French cuisine in the small dining room. Lim and Martorella softened and toned down the decor, eschewing ’80s excess for ’90s chic.

Their menu of Provencal classics impressed local reviewers like Sam Gugino of the Philadelphia Daily News, who made it his last meal before leaving the city for a new job, and in 1989 Esquire named Ciboulette one of the country’s best new restaurants. The next year, both Lim and Martorella were listed as two of America’s best new chefs in Food & Wine.

Eventually, the partners had differing views of what direction their success should lead. When Lim decided to take up the Park Hyatt on an offer to move Ciboulette to a much larger space at the Bellevue, he and Martorella parted ways.

Lim would continue to run Ciboulette there all the way through 2001, while Martorella went on to become opening chef at Brasserie Perrier.

1992-1998: Chanterelles

A native Parisian born to a French mother and Chinese father, Philippe Chin had landed in the Philadelphia region in 1986. After running Founders at the Bellevue and 210 at the Rittenhouse Hotel, he was ready to strike out with an independent venture, and he was next to take up the reins at 1312 Spruce.

Instead of straight French, Chin presented a menu of Franco-Chinese fusion as a nod to his heritage.

Susanna Foo had already begun to introduce Philadelphians to this meld at her eponymous Walnut Street restaurant, but while her dishes tilted toward Asian presentation with French ingredients, Chin’s were the reverse. A 1993 Daily News review mentions ginger-spiced blini and cream soup with shiitakes.

Chin’s personality attracted as much attention as his food — in 1996 Philly Mag named him one of the city’s “hippest” people — and by 1998 he was ready for a larger platform. He signed onto a project called Philippe on Locust, and then set about finding someone to take over his lease.

1998-Present: Vetri

Vetri's first press headshot

Vetri's first press headshot

Courtesy of Marc Vetri

A native of Montgomery County and now one of the city’s best-known chefs, Marc Vetri’s first cooking gigs were not in the Philadelphia region.

Vetri got his start under Wolfgang Puck in California, and then spent several years training in Bergamo, Italy. On his return, he was snapped up by NYC restaurateur Enrico Proietti, who put him in charge of Upper East Side trattoria Bella Blu and then the nearby Baraonda.

It was good work, and Vetri estimated he was taking home something near $2,000 a week. Nearly all of it went directly into a savings account. “I paid $488 a month for rent at my Hell’s Kitchen apartment,” he told Billy Penn, “and I never went out, so everything I made went right into the bank.”

In the late ’90s, with close to $50k on hand, Vetri began looking for a location to open his own place.

He scoured both New York and Philadelphia, where he still had family, dismissing big spaces that would have required him to bring on outside investors. On one trip to Philly, he ended up in the offices of PR pro Tina Breslow, who was working out details for Vetri to do a collaboration dinner here, and he mentioned his search.

“Philippe Chin is looking to sell,” Breslow told him. “It’s the space where Le Bec-Fin used to be.”

Vetri didn’t know much about Le Bec-Fin, but the idea piqued his interest. Breslow rang up Chin, who was in the restaurant and invited Vetri over to check it out on the spot.

“I walked in and I knew. I was like, ‘This is it,'” Vetri recalled.  Chin was ready for him. “I’m selling for $75,000, no negotiations,” Chin said, and Vetri quickly agreed. They went to 1312 Spruce’s landlords to work out the transfer of the lease.

“Vetri was so young, and he didn’t have much experience with his own business,” said property owner Michael Yelson, recalling how he and his father-in-law Leonard Levin felt about their new prospective restaurateur. “We actually had Philippe Chin co-sign on the lease, because we knew him already.”

Marc Vetri working on renovations before opening Vetri

Marc Vetri working on renovations before opening Vetri

Courtesy of Marc Vetri

Lease signed, and with a small business loan for $100,000 in hand, Vetri took over the space. He then set out to perform much-needed renovations to both the dining room and kitchen, which hadn’t been upgraded much since it first became a restaurant back in 1967.

He and partner Jeff Benjamin, whom he convinced to leave a cushy NYC hospitality job to join him, ripped up the linoleum floor and replaced it with tile and concrete. They smoothed the dining room’s hardwood floors, and painted the walls a sunny yellow. On September 22, 1998, they opened their doors.

For the first few weeks, things were slow. There were evenings when only one or two tables would be filled.

Then, the reviews started pouring in, and so did the customers. Philadelphia City Paper gushed about the place, and so did relatively new Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan, offering up three bells. By 2005, national publications like Bon Appetit were suggesting that Vetri might be the best Italian restaurant in the entire country.

2014-Present: Upstairs at Vetri

The dining room at Vetri Cucina

The dining room at Vetri Cucina

Danya Henninger

Instead of succumbing to the pressure to leave 1312 in order to expand, Vetri went a different route. In 2007, he partnered with his former sous chef Jeff Michaud to open Osteria, and in 2010 he branched out again, joining forces with another disciple, chef Brad Spence, to launch Amis.

The Vetri Family opened several other successful restaurants before the company was purchased by Urban Outfitters in 2016. The deal handed over all venues except the original.

Vetri kept operating in its tiny dining room, at one point even taking away a couple of seats in order to make room for an antique espresso machine. Vetri and partner Benjamin regularly asked to buy the building, but the answer was always “No.”

Landlord Yelson explained his reasoning to Billy Penn: “You keep residential apartments on the other floors because you know they can carry the building if the restaurant on the ground floor happens to go out of business.”

However, over the years, as tenants moved out, Vetri took over first one and then two of the upstairs apartments, using them for storage and offices for the charitable Vetri Foundation for Children. Eventually, as the last of the residential tenants moved out, he was able to convince Yelson to allow him to rent the entire building, even if it still wasn’t for sale.

In 2014, Vetri renovated the second floor and turned it into a show kitchen and private dining room. Dubbed Vetri Cucina, the upstairs now hosts events and cooking classes several evenings each week.

In the petite dining room downstairs, the culinary magic continues to flourish, just like it always has.

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