by Len Lear

Old City, which for years was the darling of the media, has been getting a slightly bad rap in the last couple of years, thanks to what I call “scenesters,” the raucous, brain-dead Jersey Shore types who hang out at the nightclubs and then spill out on the streets of Old City, with four-letter words in stereophonic sound in their wake. Maybe they’re hoping to get a “reality” TV show. (Regarding crime in the area, I heard that a one-armed man was even arrested recently and charged with unarmed robbery.)

Manager Laeth Sous and server Tony Clark are two of the many attractions at the one-month-old Reserve at 123 Chestnut St. (Photo by Len Lear)

On the other hand, Old City is still home to lots of classy restaurants — Amada, Positano Coast, Panorama, Fork, Revolution House, Cuba Libre, City Tavern and La Famiglia, to name a few. That number increased by one on February 25 with the grand opening of Reserve Restaurant/Bar/Lounge, a steak and seafood house, at 123 Chestnut St. in the former Corn Exchange Bank Building, a historic, spectacular 1869 structure with about 35-foot ceilings. At one time it was home to Rococo and more recently Cebu, but it had been vacant for about two years.

“The existing space possessed a great shell for us to work with,” explained Didier LaFontant, operating partner. “We felt that Old City had a need for a chic hangout with delicious food and unparalleled ambience. And when we looked at the space and learned about its history, we decided it had to be a steak house.”

The name Reserve is a twist on the word “reservation” and the fact that the atmosphere is “reserved,” as opposed to some of the more flashy restaurants in the area. “We have the largest selection of bourbons in the Philadelphia area, more than 100, and lots of cocktails using bourbon,” added Didier. “And we take great pride in our steaks. Our supplier is Buckhead Beef, which has a great reputation, and they are certified Angus beef.”

I checked out the internet restaurant blogs and found quite a few comments similar to this one on OpenTable: “This was my first visit to Reserve, and it won’t be my last. From the time you walk in the door until the time you leave, you are waited on hand and foot. From checking my coat at the door until I paid the check, I don’t think three minutes went by without somebody asking if there was anything I needed. I believe this to be one of the best meals I have ever had, not only in taste but  also in quantity. My only regret was not having enough room left for dessert. It was my first visit, and they made me feel like a regular.”

Manager Laeth Sous is what I would call a swaggernaut — big, beautiful smile and big, beautiful personality. A big asset to Reserve. Another sweet spot is the background music; we were as tickled as Elmo to listen to sweet soul music from the likes of Sam Cooke, Etta James, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bobby Darin, Tracy Chapman, etc. Scratched us right where we itch. So much more enjoyable than the techno music that seems to be the trend in so many downtown restaurants.

Reserve is planting its flag as a destination for steak mavens. They do offer some seafood dishes, but this is not the place for a-fish-ionados. Ordering a seafood entree here would be like going to an ice cream store with 40 flavors and ordering vanilla. A chopped salad ($10) had about 10 different ingredients, but it had so much balance it could be an Olympic gymnast. Also making our highlight reel was a tuna tartare appetizer ($15), silky, delicate slices of Ahi tuna in an ambrosial marinade.

But the heavy hitters of this outing were the steaks: a perfect 10-ounce Angus beef filet mignon suffused with muscular flavor ($38) and a 12-ounce, 28-day dry-aged Delmonico steak ($36) which had an abundance of both flavor and fat. Side dishes of macaroni and cheese ($8) and sauteed local wild mushrooms ($6) were both supremely satisfying.

A glass of J. Lohr Cabernet was dry and full-bodied and matched up well with my steak, but the glass was too small. A Rendezvous cocktail ($10) with four different types of liquor was one of the best cocktails we’ve had in a long time. Great mix of flavors. Our server, Tony Clark, was a model of efficiency and solicitousness. Executive chef Ken Deiner and executive sous chef Adam Brod are likely to see an upward trajectory of their careers at Reserve; they are not likely to wind up in thick gravy. It’s only a matter of time before theirs are neon names.

Reserve wears its sophistication lightly without even a hint of self-satisfaction. Its long, beautiful bar seats about 50 and is a classy place to have a before- or after-dinner drink. Negatives: a tiny table for us that could barely fit all the dishes and silverware, although there were lots of unoccupied booths and larger tables. Lobster bisque and Irish coffee which both had great flavor but were not served even a little bit hot. They were out of bottled water. It’s very dark — romantic but hard to see. I always carry a flashlight in my bag that came in handy.

For more information, call 215-964-6262 or visit www.reservephilly.com