THERE are places in every city that are pure magic, where form and design and light come together and create the perfect ambience. In Philadelphia, one of these such places is XIX on the 19th floor of the Bellevue Park Hyatt Hotel, overlooking the city and yet somehow maintaining its own intact microcosm of preserved enchantment.
The Barrymore Room is a beautiful domed round room where the acoustics allow you to hear the conversations directly across the room from you at the same volume as your own chatter. Back in the day, the Barrymore Room was the seat of the Bellevue’s High Tea. Now, the hotel has opened up a balcony off the Barrymore Room, which is available for outdoor seating in warmer weather, and plays up the Philadelphia view at the weekly Sunday brunch. The ambience of the room is soothing and reminiscent of old luxury. It’s a marvelous place to sit and toast the end of one week and the dawning of another; it’s the perfect setting for concocting plans and reveling in dreams.
Passing from the Barrymore Room, you enter a tighter hallway with a cooking station to the right; beyond that is the bar, decorated with wine bottles and hosting the dessert display of the Sunday brunch. Beyond that is another airy, light-filled room. For brunch, this room is home to the Raw Bar, where oysters and shrimp await you, alongside fresh salads and little bowls of cocktail sauce.
While the ambience of XIX is commendable, so too is the display and the food. At the European Breakfast Table, you are invited to partake of a multitude of pastries and fruits. With a Nutcracker themed party going on elsewhere in the hotel, it was no surprise that the main decoration for the Barrymore Room was holiday-themed. Silent soldiers, red berries in a beautiful vase, sprigs of colorful flowers and the aroma of nutmeg…Not to mention that the croissants and sticky buns were beautifully lit by the light streaming through the large windows. It was all so appealing, like a Christmas delight long before gift-unwrapping time; guests coming in for the first time oohed and aahed, and stopped to stare appreciatively before inquiring politely after a table.
From the European Breakfast Table, you are invited to help yourself to the Asian Pantry. Here, dumplings and sushi, dim sum and Asian salads await you. Chopsticks, wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce all contribute to the experience. And the Pantry itself, tucked into an isolated cooking station, looks as much like a cooking school master class as it does a part of the XIX experience. I helped myself liberally to the sushi and the noodle salad, decorating my plate with the dumplings and a dash of wasabi.
Following the Asian Pantry, the Raw Bear Under the Pearls beckons. There, you are greeted by two crescent-shaped bars filled with oysters and poached cocktail shrimp; they are complemented by red wine shallot vinaigrette, spicy dill mayonnaise, cocktail sauce, and a selection of fresh salads.
At this point in the brunch, you should have had a chance to gauge how full you are. Your waitress will prompt you to look at the menu and decide on a main course, so be sure to save some room! My mother ordered the Smoked Salmon Hash, our friend and realtor Mark Wade the American Breakfast, and I the Baked Farmers Omelet (I was after the cheddar cheese baked into the omelet, which beautifully set off the asparagus and potatoes). Each dish was carefully presented; none bore the ostentation I had been expecting, instead allowing the rustic plateware to bely the flavors to come.
Ah! Now that you’re settled in with coffee, your appetite happily sated and conversation lazily drifting around what the rest of the day will bring, well, now is the time to find some room for dessert. Tucked in by the bar, XIX offers quite a dessert spread. From gilded mini cakes and assorted parfaits to fruit tartlets and fresh berries, it’s your last hurrah. Take the plunge and sample everything that captures your fancy! Our table danced with the assorted flavors and colors; we laughed at the whimsy of the presentation even as we enjoyed the richness of the options.
Mmmm. XIX serves up decadence with aplomb and vigor. There’s a sense of Old Philadelphia here, a history remembered and delighted in. Sure, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel is the hotel of Legionnaire’s fame. But the memories evoked on the nineteenth floor of that hotel are now those of a city past memory: the city of the Barrymores, the Strawbridges and Parrishes; the city of the first Centennial Exposition. There’s a sense of accrued wonder, of knowledge passed down. Even as the hum of modern cash registers and elevators rise around you, there’s still a sense of magical displacement.
For one moment, for one meal, you’re as Tracy Lord or C.K. Dexter Haven, and the city is yours to enjoy.