At the mere mention that an outpost of Le Pain Quotidien was headed for the 1400 block of Walnut Street, my female friends would invariably fall into deep, often sighing, reverie.
They had idled at one in the Capitol Hill section in Washington, on a sun-filled corner, sipping cafe au lait not from handled cups, but from those wide-mouthed bowls typical in the French countryside. Or they'd popped in at one in Pasadena, happy for the breath of bleached wood and European sensibility. Or in Manhattan, marveling at the long lines for coffee and the cheery tables of young families.
They were too sophisticated to ever utter the word quaint. But that seemed to be the subtext; that, and the fact that Le Pain Quotidien offered moderately priced, medium-fast, presumably fresh food - a step up from clamshell salads, a step beyond Au Bon Pain (or the more explicitly franchised Panera), and all in a warm, natural, easy, unplastic, big-windowed, upbeat space.
That is the advance billing I'd gotten before I set foot in the first Philadelphia branch of the Brussels-born chain, now numbering more than 150 bakery-cafes in 19 countries. And at a glance, stepping in a few weeks ago, I could see what they were talking about: long rustic communal tables, sponged farmhouse walls the color of Tuscan summer, grand shelves of round wheat sourdough, and unruly displays of sunny-faced tarts, with patches here and there of beautifully exposed brick.
It would have been a pretty story indeed, had I not ordered food. But I did. And things went downhill. The bread? The signature baguette a l'ancienne (as in "old-fashioned") was tasteless. The sourdough boule, so jolly and rotund, was dusty dry. Hmmm. This is a bread-based place. But they don't actually bake bread here. (It's baked in a commissary in southern Maryland that also supplies the Washington outlets.) And there's this: I fear I've been spoiled by Philadelphia's great breads - Sarcone's and Faragalli, Le Bus and Metropolitan, and the extraordinary baguettes at Agiato Bread Co. in Manayunk.
The menu wasn't a total loss; there was decent coffee, fair curried chicken, an OK tuna melt. But the corn "chowder"? Thin and dreary. The mushroom omelet? Chain-hotel buffet fare. The organic quinoa salad? I've had better at Marathon Grill. The smoked salmon tartine (an open-faced sandwich)? Passable, but little better than Ikea's. The dessert berry tart? Fine for a catered banquet. (Once again, I've been spoiled: The incomparable French pastries at Le Petit Mitron smile up at me from their cases each morning in Narberth's centre-ville.)
One could suggest that the place is new and working out the kinks. But it is actually No. 150+, so you'd think the kinks would have been worked out. There's also this: In the 13 years since Alain Coumont's beloved bakery-eateries made landfall in the United States, the quality of bread, of sandwiches, of olive oil, and omelets - at least if you know where to go - has soared. And it's also not exactly difficult to find the "artisanal," "organic," "natural" products that Le Pain offers with belated fanfare.
Which is not to say at all that the place is unwelcome on Walnut Street, where the real estate has been dumbing down, despite the Tiffany's across the street, Butcher & Singer, and Le Bec-Fin. (A Chipotle, for Pete's sake, occupies Susanna Foo's old Asian-fusion digs.)
A recent dining companion opined that Le Pain Quotidien is "the next Cosi." Far cozier, for sure. A tranquil urban oasis. Yes, she agreed, the food wasn't anything special, adding, seamlessly, that if she worked closer by she could see lunching there with friends at least once a week, maybe more; much more.
Le Pain Quotidien
1423 Walnut St.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.