Good times at stellar spot

The new Les Bon Temps brings back memories of the building's former occupants.

Late last month on the block of 12th Street just north of Sansom, another "grand opening" banner was stripped above the stately windows of what was, once upon a time, the showroom of H.H. Battles, the elegant florist shop.

For 80 years, it held forth even as the streetscape faded, sending arrangements to fill the city's tonier townhouses and the estates of the Main Line.

And if you dine here today - its newest occupant is Les Bons Temps, a Cajun-Creole place - you can still spot clues to its past, H.H. Battles scrawled in the stained glass that is visible at eye level from the mezzanine's box seating; and the company logo set in the tilework at the foot of the long swoon of a central staircase.

That sweeping staircase has been compared in design if not quite in scale to the great staircase at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And combined with the walls of mirrors, the long mahogany bar, the progression of hardwood floors and clunky chandeliers and towering ceilings, it gives the room a sense of easy handsomeness; some of the best natural bones in the city.

Grandeur does not quite describe it. The space has enough old wood and occasional crannies to give it claim to intimacy. During its incarnation as Odeon, my wife and I would order flutes of champagne and a magnificent sauteed crab cake ($3.50) with lemon - or was it lime? - butter, and sit at one of the cafe tables tucked on either side of the entry.

"Did we only do that once?" she asked the other night, waiting for our blackened cod po' boy (bad bread!), and nicely roasted Chilean sea bass with ginger rice.

"No," I said, "didn't we make something of a habit of it?"

That was the late '80s, nearly a decade into the shop's new life as an eating space. First had come London - offering in 1983 a menu of "hobo steak," Cajun shrimp, and "fresh, locally available ingredients."

Its own cast-brass name is set into the pavement outside the front door. (If it ever disappears, might I suggest the authorities seek out Terry McNally, owner of Fairmount's London Grill, who has had her eye on it for years.)

Odeon was next up, featuring playful takes on regional French cuisine: "The duck breast with Szechwan peppercorns and Chinese scallion pancake," co-owner Gary Bachman told food columnist Jim Quinn at the time, "is a pun on steak au poivre."

There were sliced sweetbreads with hazelnuts and a side of asparagus mousse. And red snapper over chopped fennel and a thin, fresh tomato sauce.

But by the mid-'90s, Odeon was over, replaced by Bistro Bix, the look deco, the scene jazzy, the chef Peter Dunmire, who would resurface around town - at Rouge, at Blue Angel, at Silk City, and lately at N. 3rd in Northern Liberties.

For a moment, later, the shop would house Lilies on 12th, a doomed venture presided over by Corbin Evans who - to complete the circle - left to open a successful (until Hurricane Katrina) cafe in New Orleans, which of course is the city that inspires the cookery of John Mims, chef-owner of the new Les Bons Temps.

On the mezzanine one recent night, Georges Perrier was checking it out with his party. And from a box seat not far away, you could see the feet of treadmill-runners grinding away in the second-floor gym across the street, beyond the signature of H.H. Battles in the stained glass.

A grand piano had been installed by the entry. The stairway was stunning. And you could only hope that the good times - this time round - would get to roll a little longer.


Les Bons Temps

114 S. 12th St.

215-238-9100

www.lesbonstempspa.com



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.