At five restaurants in the area, a meal has to make the grade.
They are restaurants operated by culinary and hospitality schools, at which students plan menus with an eye toward costs, wait tables in regulation dining rooms, cook in state-of-the-art kitchens overseen by scolding, betoqued chef-instructors, and wash dishes - trying their best not to break too many.
The clientele are parents, family and friends as well as seekers of adventure and a bargain. Top freight is $50 a head for the ambitious wine-pairing dinners at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill's "Great Chefs" room; most dinners at the schools are about $20, and lunches are under $10 - in sum, about half of what a commercial establishment would charge.
The cuisine ranges from straightforward American favorites like pot roast at Widener University to carefully created "tastes" such as truffle toast with wilted radicchio and poached egg at the Art Institute.
Expect smiles and overattention to detail along with the usual goofs found at any restaurant. Compare it to getting a haircut at a beauty school. Your hair will grow back; you will live to eat another meal tomorrow.
Schools frequently change menus and close for breaks, so reservations are a must. Most menus offer choices, and vegetarian alternatives are sometimes available.
Here's the sampling, in no particular order:
Heintz Dining Room at Widener University (1 University Place, Chester, 610-499-1127) has all the charm of a Marriott banquet room, and that's fine. Widener runs a hospitality school, not a culinary school, and the program's 200 students are future hotel and country-club managers, marketing managers and event planners. John Mahoney, who oversees the two meals a week (Tuesday lunch, Wednesday dinner), expects students to know about the back of the house, too.
"If you've been in the shoes of a dishwasher, you'll understand," says Mahoney. Back in the kitchen, a sign over the dishwashing machine lists the price of china pieces. Break a cup, and the restaurant bottom line is hurt by $2.32. A lunch plate, $1.29.
The Heintz has a full bar, and student workers pour wines and make budget cocktails, such as a $3.50 whiskey sour. Collegians are discouraged from hanging at the bar by the rule that they must order a meal while drinking.
Results are homespun. Service from tuxedoed students was efficient; a late arrival to our table was seated and served with aplomb.
Lunches focus on sandwiches. Dinners are themed; a recent Pennsylvania Dutch night featured rich cream of broccoli soup, a garden-variety garden salad, a choice of pot roast or pork chop, and bread pudding for $17.95, tax included. (Prices vary, but don't top $20.)
Get there soon. Two dinners remain this semester - April 18, southern France; and April 25, Pacific Coast Highway. Meals will restart in mid-October.
The Art Institute's Petite Passion (2300 Market St., 215-405-6766), which combines culinary and management students, could be described as a laboratory - albeit one with white tablecloths. Through a large window, patrons see (and hear) the kitchen. Petite Passion is open Wednesdays and Thursdays for lunch, but the real draw are the six-course tasting dinners. Of the meals scouted for this article, Petite Passion's easily was the most ambitious, as bite-size portion after bite-size portion rolled out of the kitchen door. Like the precious morsels served at the new crop of foodie-focused restaurants (such as Ansill and Snackbar), the meal begged for a food dictionary.
The $30 tab (cash only) was a third of what a similar meal would have cost at a trendy place. It's BYOB.
"Shell-Borne Out of the Sea," served in a martini glass, included a plump pesto-marinated mussel with panzanella (bread salad) puree and marinière aspic (a savory seafood gelatin).
"Harvest From Sea and Rivers" was a seared sea scallop, roasted vegetable goulash, microgreens, and Hungarian gremolada, topped with creme fraiche. Quite tasty, though the ingredients in the gremolada (that's parsley, lemon peel and garlic - to spare you the dictionary) were not minced quite enough.
"Gustatories, Varied & Cold" was an app-size chunk of crispy veal cheeks topped with black cherry raspberry vinaigrette, herbs, and sea salt and warmed Brie with ginger bread, Gran Marnier caramel, ginger crisp, and ground black pepper.
And so on, for nearly two hours.
Drexel University's Academic Bistro, a restaurant and cocktail lounge in the Academic Building on the campus in University City (33d and Arch Streets, 215-895-5872), has warm, clubby surroundings and a view of West Philly from the sixth floor.
Instructor Adrienne Hall, who manages the bistro, says culinary-arts students enjoy mixing up the cuisine throughout the semester. A three-course lunch ($9) is served this term on Wednesdays and Thursdays with one noon seating (and it's usually booked). Dinner ($25) is served with one seating at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays.
Among recent theme dinners was "An Evening in Italy," with the usual assortment of pastas. Occasionally they get creative, such as an "Everything Old Is New Again" night, which included cheese fondue and tableside flambéed cherries jubilee over cheesecake
The food rises above decor at JNA Culinary Institute in South Philadelphia (1212 S. Broad St., 215-468-8800). Patrons walk through the lobby, which doubles as the school's office (cluttered desks, dingy carpet) and step down into the dining room.
The look screams "1980 Hechinger's Rec Room": paneling, drop ceiling, parquet floor, fake grapevines, faux stone, flower carts, and mirrors behind the bar.
The school, known for turning out line cooks and chain-eatery managers, serves a fixed menu Tuesdays and Fridays for lunch and dinner.
One recent lunch featured a "deconstructed BLT" - greens, tomatoes and crumbled bacon topped with a crostino and served in a martini glass - plus a respectable cheesesteak sandwich made of thick slices of filet, iced tea, and an honest slice of Black Forest cake for $8. Dinner is $22, or $25 with a cheese plate.
The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College (4207 Walnut St., 215-222-4200, Ext. 8), the region's granddaddy, has four theme restaurants (European, American, Italian and upscale continental/American) open Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner. A cafe for mostly takeout is open weekdays.
A recent dinner in the richly appointed "Great Chefs" room ($35; a wine dinner option is $50) - five courses, including amuse-bouche, cheese plate, and dessert flambéed tableside - was a mixed affair, highlighted by rich tagliatelle carbonara made tableside but torpedoed by sauteed skate wing that the kitchen later acknowledged had gone bad. A follow-up dinner at the Italian trattoria ($17 per person) included delicious pastas (pumpkin ravioli, seafood over spaghetti) served by a staff eager to make up for the gaffes at Great Chefs.
Days and Hours Prices
Art Institute's Petite Passion Lunch, 11:30 & noon Wed & Thu $15
2300 Market St., 215-405-6766 Dinner, 7 p.m. Wed & Thu $30
Drexel University's Academic Bistro Lunch, noon Wed & Thu $9
33d & Arch Sts., 215-895-5872 Dinner, 6:30 p.m. Thu $25
JNA Institute of Culinary Arts
1212 S. Broad St., 215-468-8800 Lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tue-Fri $8
Dinner, 4:30-8 p.m. Tue-Fri $22
Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College Dinner only, Tue-Sat
4207 Walnut St., 215-222-4200, Ext. 8 European Courtyard, 5:30-10 p.m. $21
Italian Trattoria, 6-9:30 p.m. $17
American Heartland, 6-9:30 p.m. $17
Great Chefs, 6-9 p.m. (wine) $35/$50
Widener University's Heintz Dining Room Lunch, 11:30-12:30 p.m. Tue $4-$7
1 University Place, Chester, 610-499-1127 Dinner, 5:30-8 p.m. Wed $18-$20