Caribou Café

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Only a few strides removed from the Forrest Theater in the gentrified neighborhood of Wash West, the Caribou Café corrals a hip mix of city crawlers, theater goers, local and national personalities, and plain old Philly folk. The festive décor in this vibrant slice of France frames the intoxicating upbeat insouciance that replicates the spirit and verve of the real-deal French café. The moderately priced menu focuses on regional everyday French standbys while simultaneously providing a gastronomic tour of France. Diverse delights from Alsace to Provence tempt the palate – all interpreted delectably by Maitre Cuisinier de France, Olivier Desaintmartin.

A Savory Slice of France in Wash West

Don't fret. The theater is not dead. At least not in Wash West. In fact, it's quite alive at the Caribou Café. Listen carefully to the joyful buzz reverberating between these hallowed old Philly floors and high ceilings and you just might catch the hushed, hopeful tones of a preppy young actor reciting lines and prepping for an audition at a nearby playhouse. Or you might tune into a passionate argument at a nearby table where tidy Main Line types banter on about the artistic merits of the Walnut Theater's playbill. Or you might chuckle as you eavesdrop on a gaggle of Iggles or Phillies “phans” alternately extolling and decrying their team's latest fiascos. Suffice it to say, the Caribou Café crowd confounds categorization.
 
Caribou Cafe is in the 'hood known as Washington West – Wash West, if you want to be Philly hip. This area was the second slice of Philly pie to be bitten into in the gentrification scheme to rehab the decay Philadelphia suffered in the forties and fifties. Quaker City's clean-up/ paint-up/ fix-up scheme rolled from the Delaware River westward. Thus the more riparian quarters like Society Hill and Olde City were the first areas to undergo full-scale re-buffing. Next came Washington West. Philly purists will tell you Wash West is the area bounded on the east and west by 6th and 10th Streets and on the north and south by Walnut and South Streets. Not so these days. With Wash Wests' still-burgeoning cachet, those boundaries have stretched. The bustling, world-class theater and restaurant scene in the area stokes a bustling pedestrian and vehicle thoroughfare. Gentrification is galloping there as well. For residents Wash West has the advantage of being within striking distance of most Philly happenings, particularly theater happenings. A few doors away is the Forrest Theater where shows like “Funny Girl”, “The Music Man”, and “Chicago” debuted before wowing Broadway and the rest of the globe. The Walnut Street Theater lies only a few blocks to the south. This historic playhouse, which debuted in 1809, is the oldest continually operating theater in the English-speaking world [is it time for Great Britain to consider dropping the “Great” portion of that title?]. Three blocks west of the Caribou Café is the Avenue of the Arts, site of the marvelously modern Kimmel Center, the Merriam Theater, the Wilma Street Theater and others.
 
Ah but don't be misled. The Caribou Café is anything but the exclusive domain of the theater crowd. This eatery is not the exclusive domain of any one group or tranche of society or business, which is just the way personable Chef Olivier Desaintmartin wants it. Olivier's little Walnut Street gem authentically replicates the feel, the warmth, the smells, the sounds, and the vibes of a bona fide French café. It's the kind of place that romantics get starry-eyed about, the kind of place that Van Gogh captured on canvas in Arles. The small tables, wall-side banquettes, and dark wood throughout provide the kindling for the establishment's pervasive charm. That vibe is then set aflame by a cheery, knowledgeable, and loyal waitstaff [most have been here since the Caribou debuted] coupled with the Café's lively, diverse crowd.
 
On the main floor, bistro tables in the front of the house give way to a row of wall banquettes as you make your way deeper into the room. A jumbo 30-foot-long Art Deco bar from Belgium made of deep-dark-wood, is über-laden with bottles sporting provenances from numerous places around the globe. The bar is tastefully ornamented with figurines and statues, eye-catchy kitch the curious eye can't resist. The bar boasts one of the city's highest bars in terms of quality and sweep when it comes to imported beers. You'll find brews from Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. A generous list of wines, mostly from France, is available by the glass. It's not surprising that the bar serves up a terrific Etienne Dupont, but the bartenders can also whip up a pretty potent pomegranate or applejack martini as well as any other specialty drink you mention. Sorry though, the bar doesn't serve absinthe despite being as traditional a French café as you'll find on our shores. Besides the main floor dining room and communicating bar, there's an upstairs room that stretches half the length of the main floor. Two-top tables line two of the walls, thus providing another riff on the Cafe's overlying theme.
 
And that overlying theme is? Make no mistake, the focus of this delightful eatery is to recreate a savory slice of France in the heart of Philadelphia. The Quaker City, after all, has maintained a soft place in its heart for the French ever since the Marquis de Lafayette was a Philadelphia fixture and man about town [The General incidentally was in attendance for the opening performance at the Walnut Street Theater].
 
To recreate the insouciance and essence of the French café, Chef/ Owner Olivier Desaintmartin links outstanding, vibrant regional French cuisine with an atmosphere that is at once festive and relaxing. Desaintmartin brings a winning measure of gastronomic savvy, training and excellence to the task. His mettle and the respect he earns in his métier has been recognized. In 2009, he was admitted into the highly selective society of Maitres Cuisineir de France. That's no meager feat. The honor is conferred on only about 300 chefs worldwide.
 
Olivier perfected his culinary chops while working in some of the world's most renowned food palaces where he had the good fortune of apprenticing under some superstars of French cuisine – legends like Paul Bocuse and Michel Gerard. Olivier also helped open Le Bernardin in the US. His introduction to the City of Brotherly Love came when he was selected fro the prestigious task of reopening the Bellevue Stratford following the fallout from “Legionnaire's Disease” which caused the grand old hotel to be closed. In opening Caribou Café however, Olivier chose a different path: a return to the cuisine he grew up on. He opted not to open a posh French white-tablecloth palace but rather one that showcased the diversity of French regional cuisine for the everyman. His menu is a veritable tour de force gastronomique around France.
 
Tartare de Boeuf, an Alsacien favorite is a wide, heaping compact coupon of red, diced beef that towers next to a green tangle of frisée speckled with red chunks of tomato. Presented on a huge white recessed plate, the tartare is no less a treat to the eye than to the taste buds.
 
The classic Soupe à l'Oignon, a Parisian standby, restores the gusto I've lost over the years for this dish. On our shores, too often the preparation suffers from kitchen ennui. Familiarity breeds blandness that results in an uninspired and disappointing dish. Not at Caribou Café. The delicious hot concoction redolent of Gruyère sets the mouth watering before it even hits the table. The soup is served in an attractive terrine in which the Gruyère has melted cheesy muscle into the crunchy baked cap atop the soup. Salade de Chèvre, a popular salad in Burgundy as well as other regions of France is a colorful temptation that scores with textural interest and vivid flavoring. A pair of red beets play pedestal to a leafy green column of spinach with a dulcet hit of balsamic vinegar. Perched on top of the spinach is a browned crisped slice of crusty French bread hoisting a warmed silky slab of goat cheese garnished appetizingly with parsley.
 
Among the entrées, Raie aux Câpres is a pet dish of Olivier that he perfected in his days in Provençe. Haricots verts alternating with salsifis [oyster plants] lay across the plate side-by-side like a veggie logjam. The ripply look of the vegetables is replicated in the undulated profile of the skate. A brownish pool of caper sauce rims the plate while a full green battalion of capers caps the skate. Delicious.
 
Truite Farcie, a dish that makes them go gaga in the south of France, uses a hefty cod brandade to give the trout oomf. The trout is lightly dusted with flour and pan seared with lots of lemon and butter. Then the brandade of cod, a pounded combination of salted cod, olive oil, garlic, milk and cream. is stuffed into the trout which is layered with slivered almonds that lend subtle crunch. Beside the trout, which rests on a green bed of haricots verts, is a sweet, grilled half tomato infused with garlic. Filet de Porc, Choucroute d'Alsace, Saumon Provençal round up a few of the other regional treats gracing the country-trotting carte.
 
As one who apprenticed under legendary pastry chef Gaston Lenotre, Olivier confects a plethora of dessert dandies. Crème brulée is prepared in the classic fashion with Tahitian beans. Souflé Au Chocolat soars on Arabica crème anglaise. Served à la mode, it becomes sinfully good. There's also a series of zestily flavored crèpes as well as a long slate of additional post-entrée temptations.
 
But why Caribou Café? Well the name is a holdover from the previous owner. Olivier decided to keep it, since the century-old building holds historic value in a neighborhood where preservation rules. And again: Why the Caribou Café? Because this eatery distinguishes itself from scores of ersatz wannabes. The Caribou Café comes off authentic and real because it is. This place has all the ingredients: Outstanding down-to-earth regional food, a vivacious vibe, delightful décor, and attentive service. In fact, if Toulouse Lautrec ever came to Philly, he'd make a beeline for the Caribou Café even though they don't serve absinthe. He wouldn't give up his absinthe for any place but the best.
 
Insider Tip: When you are in the mood for your favorite French dish but your group can't or won't go out to eat, don't fret, because Caribou Cafe will cater! 
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  Restaurant Info

  • 1126 Walnut Street
    Philadelphia PA 19107
  • Address: 1126 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA 19107
  • Cross Street: South Quince Street
  • Location: Center City | Washington Square West
  • Cuisine: French |
  • Cost: $$ | Inexpensive | $25 - $50
  • Category: Casual Dining
  • Star Rating:
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Dress Code: Business Casual
  • Meals Served: Brunch | Lunch | Dinner |
  • Parking: Street |
  • Payment Options: VISA | Amex | Mastercard | Discover | Diners Club |
  • Corkage Fee: 20.00 | Per 750ml bottle.
  • Staff: Olivier Desaintmartin | Chef
    Mark Weigel | Matre D'
  • Phone: (215) 625-9535

  Business Hours

Monday
Main Dining Room | Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Tuesday
Main Dining Room | Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Wednesday
Main Dining Room | Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Thursday
Main Dining Room | Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Friday
Main Dining Room | Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Saturday
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Brunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.
Sunday
Main Dining Room | Brunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 4 p.m. - 6 p.m.

Features

Occasion

 


  F.A.Q. - Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, Caribou Café’s mezzanine seating can comfortably seat 40 guests.
No, Caribou Cafe has an a la cart brunch menu.

 Menus

All Day Menu

Les Appetizers

Les Soupes

Les Sandwiches

Les Salades

Les Bistros Classiques

Les Desserts

All Day Prix-Fixe

First Course

Second Course

Third Course


 User Reviews

Never disappoints  

This is the third year in a row my wife and I have visited Philadelphia from lower Delaware and the third time in a row we have eaten at the Caribou Cafe. The food is wonderful, rich and tasty..the service is always attentive - our server was Carrie Anne, very pleasant and close by for any request. The atmosphere is like a French cafe with art deco pieces and warm,dark woods..a great bar also. We have eaten upstairs but prefer the downstairs booths near the bar. Caribou Cafe never disappoints; a tad pricey but you get a great meal guaranteed.

New Year's Dinner  

This restaurant was absolutely amazing! The ambiance, the food, the drinks, and especially the waiter, made it second to none! Jamie is amazing and well suited for his job! The entire staff was nice! I am glad that we found them online. The Hawaiian Butterfly Fish was so wonderful and the chocolate dessert was one like I have never had before! By the taste of the food you could tell that a lot of talent and preparation went into it. I wish we lived closer but the trip was worth it! We will be back! I would definitely recommend Caribou Cafe!!! It is a must!

An Evening at Caribou  

While in Philadelphia on business my wife and I wanted to find a great place to eat without paying exorbitant rates. Being from NYC and after spending years in the food business we are rather spoiled and food conscious to a fault. On line I found 2 places that looked appealing, Caribou and Zinc. Seating at Zinc was too late for us since we were calling last minute, but Caribou called back and confirmed. We were more than pleased. Adding 2 more to the table, we loved the authentic French Bistro ambiance and wonderful menu. We had fantastic hanger steaks, escargot, salads and fish. Excellent wine, spirits and service and a very reasonable bill at the end. My only regret was that I didn't order the canard confit! Well........a perfect reason to return!

Sunday lunch  

Highly recommended.

A slice of Paris in Philadelphia  

Ambiance, service and food is fantastic. Quite a value considering the cost of airfare to France.

Parisian Atmosphere  

Our lunch at the Caribou Cafe was like being in a Paris Cafe. The outdoor seating is like what you see on the Blvd. St. Germaine. The food is wonderful. And the deserts are marvelous. There is a great wine list to chose from. Caribou Cafe is a jewel in Center City.

A little Paris in Philly  

Great bistro food.

Great Restaurant  

This is my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. Enough said!

Great Cafe !!!  

Felt like I was in a little bar in the suburbs of Paris. Laid back,not pretentious great french comfort food. I could eat their cassoulet every night.

GREAT!  

Great food and service. A must try :)

great pick  

first time though we lived in the area 8 years-now we live in AC -needed a place for graduation family gathering-food choice for everyone from the picky brother in-law to the snooty Mom --everyone was happy- food -service -ambiance all great!! We will be back. thanks for a memorable afternoon-my niece will always remember the day with fondness. thank you. Amy-Morgen Heinze

Our Great Experience at Caribou  

Our experience at Caribou was more than we expected. The food was beyond our expectations, and the service was great!! We will return again soon. Thank you for making our theatre night enjoyable!!

EAT HERE NOW  

I met some friends at Caribou Cafe (made reservations ahead of time) for a brunch. It was the first time eating there for all of us. We took one look at the menu and all agreed we couldn't decide--it all sounded amazing.SO, when in doubt go with the special! We each ordered the seafood crepe special with a side of greens. Delicious. Service was fast, but we did not feel rushed. They did not care that we sat outside to chat, while others were waiting for a table. I would return again!

We would definetely go back.  

The food was good, the service was great, the prices were reasonable and the atmosphere was nice. We would definetely go back.

C'est magnifique!  

I always enjoy my visits to the Caribou Cafe. The food is delicious, even the butter tastes like butter does in Europe. The bottled wine list is fantastic, and the wines by the glass are much more varied than most other restaurants. The live music on the weekends and the large floor to ceiling windows in the front, which are truly a joy when open in the spring time, combine to provide a Euro feel that you would normally expect to drive to New York to find.

Great food!  

I loved every bite ! All we needed to make the experience supurb was direction through the menu and suggestions.

Nice place, nice menu  

I enjoyed the restaurant and saw a lot of items on the menu. I would like to go back and try and what I had was excellent.

Great food, great atmosphere, poor service  

The food was excellent and very fairly priced. The ambiance was also great. The only thing that detracted from the night was the fact that our server seemed disinterested. Overall, highly recommended for a romantic evening, especially for the price-conscious person.

Great Food and Service  

Great food and service at a good price, I had the salmon and it was very good. We really enjoyed our server she was very nice and made us feel special.

Great food!  

Great food!

Tout va bien et nous sommes tres contents.  

As a regular visitors to France and lovers of French cuisine, my wife and I were delighted to find the real thing at Caribou Cafe, during our stay in Philadelphia.

good choice  

nice experience for an early meal outdoors. Happy hour prices and sliders were a real deal, but main menu is on the steep side for a casual spot. Staff was great

Great fun  

Vibrant Friday night crowd, tasty food, good service.

Caribou Cafe - a piece of Paris  

It was our first time to the Cafe. I have had the pleasure of traveling to Paris on a number of occasions and was most pleasantly surprised -- Caribou Cafe could be a transplant from the City of Lights -- wonderful interior, great wine and beer selections and very good food. Waiter service was excellent -- friendly (but not overly), informed about their dishes and willing to make recommendations. We will be back!

The French Experience  

I am not very knowledgeable in French Cuisine but the performance and atmosphere they offered at the Caribou Cafe was quite outstanding. The wait staff met the needs of our visit. I will go back there when I need to impress family and friends of my knowledge of the city.

Generally positive experience.  

Excellent food but the wine was overpriced and the portions could be bigger. Fantastic waitstaff was very knowledgeable and courteous. Great bread. Outdoor dining was very nice but subject to unwanted homeless people begging for money on the way by. Try the skate if you go.

Good food but too quick!  

3 Stars may be a little harsh as the food is very good but the service was a little quick for us English who do not like a rushed meal! the atmosphere for a Saturday night was quiet but this may be explained by the fact that it was memorial day weekend