On the Side: Tuesday night in the bistros

A walk beyond the Parc, south of South

On a Tuesday evening, it can be subdued in the understated bistros and cafes that lay claim to the corners south of South Street where the western edge of Queen Village gives way to Bella Vista.

But on one Tuesday last week, not all of them were in character. At tiny Salt and Pepper, at Sixth and Fitzwater, for one, the doors were wide open and health experts from as far away as Oslo were sipping a lovely BYO zinfandel and taking hacks at cheeses set out on the counter.

One of the cafe's regulars, Henry Glick, had reserved the entire (20-plus-seat) room to host conferees attending a meeting at Penn on medical decision-making; as in, how often one ought to be screened for a dread disease.

So there was, despite that agenda, an un-Tuesday feel to the place, an air of festivity that had owner Robert Reilly musing expansively about whether, even in a recessionary climate, he should be keeping an eye out for larger digs.

At Coquette Bistro and Raw Bar, at Fifth and Bainbridge, the mood was more sober. The weekend before had been one of its best in a while. But this night the pickings were slim: Cary Neff, the owner, was doubling as the oyster shucker du jour, proudly touting his latest find, a lively, salty number from Canada called Little Shemogue.

Neff had lowered entree prices a few weeks ago, and knocked 50 cents off his Happy Hour oysters, now selling them for $1 apiece, 40 cents over wholesale. (That's not the only food cost in play. Do you buy California romaine, he said, with a five-day shelf life? Or cheaper Canadian romaine which might last two days, thereby voiding any savings because there's more potential waste?)

A fresher French bistro - Bistrot La Minette - a newcomer at barely eight weeks old, was still being test-driven on Sixth Street at Bainbridge across from Beau Monde, the creperie.

For years, this was a dead zone, blank-eyed beneath a big Dalmatian mural. But it glowed now, softly crimson and butter-yellow - the anti-Parc, where the noise was on mute.

Here was a bistro, blessedly, where conversation was not only possible, but where on this day it flowed with effortless abandon.

There were unfussy, undeconstructed French bistro standards - a simple chopped endive salad with walnuts and Roquefort, lemony trout meuniere, and, were you in the market for grilled sardines, possibly the best recent example in the city - sweetly unfishy filets striped alternately (gray and red) with roasted red pepper in a delicate lemon vinaigrette.

Once, this was an old ice house, an iteration still remembered by at least one 90-year-old who recently dropped by, and an explanation for the long cobblestone cartway unearthed during construction.

And what of future projects hereabouts? At dim-lit Chick's Cafe and Wine Bar, tucked in a Victorian-era taproom at the corner of Seventh and Bainbridge, a block west, the talk among the last-call customers was realistic, but upbeat.

Two of them - Douglas Hager and Kelly Schmitz - were bullish about their plans to open (before next summer) Brauhaus Schmitz, an authentic German bierhall at 718 South St. once occupied by a place called American Pie.

The plans call for 20 imported beers on tap, at least 100 bottled beers, and a menu of German fare priced to draw a crowd, but high enough, Schmitz added, "to keep out the riffraff."

Which in the bistros and cafes on the blocks south of South did not appear to be the main challenge - especially in deep October, on a typical Tuesday evening.


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