Customers of Seasons 52

By Len Lear

With all of the anti-recession devices employed by restaurants these days — all of the Groupon clones, the two-for-one offers blanketing the internet, BYOB options even for those with a liquor license, the “Restaurant Weeks,” the ubiquitous 3-courses-for-$35 at even many of the most upscale restaurants like Le Bec Fin (which now has a Permanent 4-courses-for-$40) — you’d think that for an upscale, non-BYOB restaurant to fill a couple hundred seats every night of the week with no discounts offered would be as tough as building a footbridge over the Grand Canyon.

But you’d be wrong, discount diva. When we walked into Seasons 52 in the King of Prussia Mall (160 N. Gulph Rd.) last Wednesday night, we thought we must have been following the wrong calendar. With a packed house — and a parking lot so full we practically had to park in another county — we would have sworn it was a Saturday night. We were told they can seat 265 downstairs and 120 upstairs for overflow and private parties, and it seemed to us that every table was occupied, not to mention a beehive crowd around the huge J-shaped bar surrounded by tall booths. And based on the dozens of comments about Seasons 52 that I read on several restaurant blogs, last Wednesday night’s crowd was quite typical.

Seasons 52 is a national chain. The first one opened in Orlando, FL, in 2003, and there are now 16, including the King of Prussia location (previously occupied by Bennigan’s) that opened in April of 2010. The “52” refers to the fact that in addition to the regular menu that changes four times a year, there is a new list of specials every week. The basic concept of Seasons 52, however, is sheer genius. In a country that is so obese I would not be surprised if we collapsed one day into the ocean, no dish on the menu, from the signature flatbreads and appetizers to the entrees and “mini-indulgence” desserts, is more than 475 calories.

Because of the caloric limit, I fully expected small portions, but I was pleasantly surprised. Only the desserts are smaller than what you would expect at a fine-dining restaurant anywhere in the Delaware Valley. I have no idea how they squeeze the calories out of the food, but Seasons 52 has clearly discovered a formula for success. (The executive chef, Anne Moriarta, is a perfect advertisement for this concept. In addition to serving you a side order of class, she is a thin former horsewoman in Chester County. She eats her own food every day, and obviously, it works.)

A flatbread special with artichoke, goat cheese, spinach, balsamic onions, roasted peppers and a razor-thin crust was a cornucopia of wonderful flavors and a bargain at $8.60. Equally satisfying was an aesthetically presented ramekin of four caramelized mushrooms stuffed with crab and shrimp, enhanced by roasted garlic and Parmesan cheese ($8.95). An amazing entree was sea scallops grilled and served with roasted asparagus and tomato-mushroom pearl pasta, tiny nuggets of ambrosia ($19.65).

Every menu entree was under $21, but a weekly special worthy of the term was a bowl of savory tuna with noodles, miso mushrooms, toasted sesame seeds and bok choy ($24.95) that was too big to finish.

Desserts, all $2.50 each, are small (to squeeze under the 475-calorie limit, I suppose) but definitely big enough after a meal like this. Seasons 52 also boasts a selection of 100 wines with 26 varietals and dozens available by-the-glass.

The staff at Seasons 52 is a class act. From the young ladies who greet you at the front desk to general manager Brian Grossman to our server, a handsome, hunky native of Morocco named Amine Belahbib, everyone is friendly and knowledgeable. Chain restaurants often get a bad rap from critics like Craig LaBan, but there has to be a reason why a place like Seasons 52 is as busy as an airline terminal every day of the week. One reason is that genuinely friendly workers like these are able to unlace the corset of social pretense.

One negative was a cocktail I had, a Hawaiian pineapple Cosmopolitan. I could not taste any pineapple at all. It tasted like pure 100-proof alcohol that could have pacified a wild stallion. And there was a loud piano player who was about as necessary as running shoes on an octopus. We were told that every Seasons 52 has a piano player every night. All it does is make people talk louder to be heard and increase the overall din. We loved Seasons 52, but it is anything but a small, romantic venue that benefits from piano playing. (Several bloggers were of the same opinion.) And the coffee was bitter-tasting.

One other Seasons 52 in the Greater Philadelphia area opened at 2000 Route 38 in Cherry Hill, NJ, in the spring of 2009. All 16 Seasons 52 have the same basic menu, although each one has its own list of weekly specials. The Cherry Hill location also has a 400 square-foot outdoor patio.

For more information or reservations, call 610-992-1152 (K of P) or 856-665-1051 (Cherry Hill), or visit www.seasons52.com.