Photos: Inside Le Cheri, Now Open in Rittenhouse

By Danya Henninger  |  November 20, 2013
Credit: Danya Henninger

With today’s opening of Le Chéri, Pierre Calmels is back in Rittenhouse Square. Along with his wife Charlotte, with whom he owns the highly acclaimed Bella Vista BYO Bibou, the former Le Bec-Fin executive chef has turned the dining room in the Philadelphia Art Alliance into a classic French bistro.

A menu of traditional French plates will be served at nearly 70 seats across two dining rooms and a bar (though the restaurant is currently operating as a BYO until final liquor-license approval comes through). Because his staff at Bibou is so well trained and so good at what they do, expect to find Calmels himself at the new spot, guiding its launch and making sure his vision is executed perfectly.

The kitchen at Le Chéri is nearly four times the size of the one at Bibou, and it’s outfitted with lots of high-end equipment, mostly chosen by chef Nicholas Elmi when he was opening Rittenhouse Tavern there for NYC-based management group Restaurant Associates. (“We did call Nick to ask what one of the ovens was for,” laughs Charlotte.)

Joining Calmels on the line are alum Val Stryjewski and Richard Cusack, who had worked with Calmels before and begged the chef to let him know if he was ever opening a second restaurant. “I’m starting small, just five others and me in the kitchen,” Pierre tells us, adding, “It will be tough on them to begin with, but they’ll emerge better chefs and able to handle anything. A burning desire to learn is what I look for in a cook.”

Click through the slide show for more details and a photo preview of the new Center City destination.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    The Rittenhouse Tavern decor has been updated with slate-blue paint and dark-blue brocade wallpaper and drapes. White tablecloths cover the wood-slab tables, and new, silver-leaf chandeliers provide accents that give the previously rustic rooms a modest elegance.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Calmels is excited about the opportunity to create and serve traditional French bistro cuisine. “At Bibou, I do some of these things, but I get creative with them,” he says. “Here, they will be as perfectly classic as I can make them.”

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    The opening menu begins with appetizers (“Pour Commencer...”) like petite French onion soup, salade Lyonnaise, escargot, foie gras and gravlax. “Les Plats” start with steak frites and poulet with haricots verts, and continue through short ribs bourguignon and duck cassoulet. "Les Abats" section features offal like blood sausage, and there is a Neiman Ranch double pork chop for two. "Eventually I want to add a fish platter for two," Calmels tells us, "and there will also be nightly specials offered."

  • On the back of the printed list is a copy of an original Art Alliance menu unearthed during renovations, which lists items like 15-cent "gumbo jelly" and 70-cent roast rack of lamb. On the new menu, you can expect entrees to run $22-$30.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    “I have never seen a pâté en croûte like this in an American restaurant!” exclaimed a French friend of the Calmelses when the dish was set in front of us for a photo. Georges Perrier is another fan of the time-honored dishes - he’s already visited Le Chéri a handful of times, specifically commending Calmels on the Beaumanière sauce for the roasted Branzino and pronouncing it perfect.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Helping run the front of the house is Ricardo Hernandez, who worked for 10 years at Le Bec-Fin before joining the Calmelses for four years at Bibou. “He is my lifesaver!” says Charlotte. Above, Hernandez stands at the host desk beside a collage of photos of the Calmels family through the years.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    In addition to a wine and cocktail list (soon), Le Chéri also ups the coffee service. While it’s French-press only at Bibou, here you’ll be able to get the Kahwa coffee beans (roasted in Florida by a La Colombe alum) in hand-pulled espresso drinks from a vintage Faema machine.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Though both dining rooms are mostly already full for the next few weeks, the tables in the bar area will be reserved for walk-ins (save for a couple of private parties already booked there). Le Cheri is currently open for dinner 5-10 PM, Wednesday-Sunday. Lunch will begin in a few weeks.

    251 S. 18th St.; 215-546-7700