Café Lutecia at (almost) 35: Mom, Pop and Daughter Shop
Valerie Blum runs Café Lutecia, a beloved fixture in Fitler Square. The cafe is renowned for its authentic French cuisine and warm, community-centric atmosphere.
By Jessica Quiroli
Valerie Blum had decided.
The year was 1990, and she’d been working in the Caribou Café at 24th and Lombard (Barber on 24th has been there since 2007). Back then, she was subletting the space from the owner. Her authentic French cuisine was a hit.
“Business was booming,” she recalled, as we talked on a Tuesday afternoon, just before closing time at Café Lutecia.
The building owner saw an opportunity to benefit from Blum’s success and informed her that he planned to raise the rent. She responded with resolve.
“If you do that, I’m going to buy the vacant property up the street, and start my own restaurant,” she told him. “And I’ll put you out of business.”
That’s exactly what she did.
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For almost 35 years, Café Lutecia has been a touchstone for residents of the Fitler Square neighborhood, on the corner of Lombard and 23rd. As you navigate past a market, a butcher shop, and a dry cleaner’s, the café has the aura of suddenly appearing, like you’ve discovered a secret. Its charm is both fresh and timeless.
For those who’ve never been, here are some basic details: there’s ample outdoor and indoor seating, a variety of baked goods at the counter, and you can call for takeout—pick-up only—before closing time at 2pm.
The name Lutecia derives from the name the Romans gave Paris—Lutetia or Lutece in French. It isn’t merely a place to eat a croissant or get a latte. It’s an experience. Unlike a Starbucks or other chain coffee spot, there are few to no laptops on the tables. People are talking. Like in the cafes we might read about in classic literature. The kind that still exists in France.
A Family Affair
Patrons ask Valerie’s daughter Jordane Blum, who works there as une serveuse (or “waitress” for the uninitiated), about the food. Jordane is the warm, welcoming face of the café, the person you’ll see and talk to the most.
Dad Jon Blum is the co-owner and handles a little bit of everything all day. He’s always busy. When the café opened, he quit his job to manage the business. Born on the Mainline, Jon Blum traveled to Israel, and it was there that Valerie met him in a kibbutz. They married in 1983 and relocated to the U.S. when eldest daughter Julia was three, and Valerie was three months pregnant with Jordane.
The café became her daughter's life too. “They were like my students, coming here after school,” Valerie said.
An Authentically French Experience
Tuesday through Saturday the work day begins with Jon and Valerie arriving to prepare for the doors to open at 8am. If you come early enough, you can order omelettes such as the Parisiene (ham and cheese), or the Saumon Fume (lox, capers, crème fraiche), maybe add a freshly squeezed orange juice.
For lunch there’s a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, and you maybe (definitely) want to try the tomato bisque that longtime Philadelphia restaurant critic Craig Laban once called “the best in the city.”
In November of this year, Foursquare ranked the café’s quiche 3rd best overall in Philadelphia. The bisque is mentioned again by Dominka Franciszkowicz in Foursquare’s rankings, saying “it really is to die for!”
But the food is just part of the reason people are loyal to the café. They return again and again, year after year, knowing they’ll be received with kindness, with a sense of belonging. As the Cheers theme song goes, it’s “where everybody knows your name.”
There’s comfort in the food, but you also find comfort on a deeper, more soulful level. Not every place with a great menu can create that. Is it the fact that Valerie Blum, the woman behind it all, is the “real deal” as one might say? Her vision was unique to her—authentic, simple sophistication, traditional. Perhaps that vision remains the secret to its success.
One of the hallmarks of the café is that you don’t see a lot of “the woman behind it all.” Valerie’s quietly at work. When you hear her voice it’s unmistakable: warm like Jordane’s, but softer, and thick with an accent (she’s from “Biarritz, the Basque country” as she told the Inquirer in 2015).
When she has a free moment, or feels social, she’ll chat with diners. She’s got a hearty laugh. But stays mostly where she needs to be cooking, trying to get to the end of the day.
Balancing Business and Family
When Valerie talks about developing the business, she’s forthcoming about the sacrifices she’s made in order to achieve success. “[My daughters] resented it because we were always here,” Valerie says softly. “I missed a lot.”
Jordane, however, views her and her sister’s upbringing very differently.
She remembers how hard both her parents worked to give them an enriching, happy life: summers in France spent with Valerie’s parents and extended family; Dad Jon attending all their soccer games and track meets.
Each year, Jordane recalls her mother Valerie’s homemade Halloween costumes, or her staying up late to help with school projects, then rising early to be at the café.
“Whenever we needed her, she was there,” Jordane says.
Jordane also appreciates the value of what her parents accomplished beyond their own family.
“There’s a sense of community that my kids are exposed to…that a lot of people don’t have. They care about us,” said Jordane. “There are [regulars] who genuinely care about my well-being and the well-being of my parents. Whenever we close because of something—an illness, or an emergency—I get so many text messages asking if they’re ok.”
That feeling of community is integral to the success of Lutecia. The way that Jordane engages with customers is a huge part of that. She’ll greet regulars with a “we don’t have X today,” when their favorite dish or pastry isn’t available. She knows what they want, maybe what they need.
There’s a menu, but if you ask her what’s good that day, or describe what you’re craving, you don’t need it. That’s about knowing the food, of course, but more than that it’s about knowing the people. She’s social even when it’s clear she’s exhausted. Or at least clear to anyone who might be familiar with her cues.
There’s a rotation of a few servers that seem like friends saying hi. Jon will bus or grab someone’s order. He chats quietly, but has a sharp sense of humor that can catch you off guard, with an easygoing ability to be both personal and professional.
There’s also fun in the chaos. Private jokes, loud laughter, keeping the mood light when things get extremely busy and loud, usually between noon and closing hour. The hustling can lead to arguing. And they argue openly, sometimes loudly and with fervor. Jordane and Valerie will switch to French, often mid-argument. Their conflicts sound intimate, at times comical, but when they really get going, you see the pressure of being a family that works together so closely. When asked if that’s difficult, Jordane quickly responds with a grin.
“Yeah! But at the end of the day, whatever happened here, it doesn’t transfer over into our life. Everything is left at the door,” she said.
There have been times when they had to rally. Jon was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2000 (he’s been in remission for years); Valerie has cystic fibrosis. Together they sustained a catastrophic pandemic. Though many restaurants went out of business or had to downsize during the worst days of COVID-19, Lutecia was one of the survivors.
Despite the decades of success and overcoming challenges, the joy isn’t quite what it was in earlier years. Valerie feels the weight of loss now.
“It’s not the same since my mother died,” said Valerie.
She talks about her country, all that she misses. Days after we spoke she and Jon took a trip home to France to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. The videos and photos shared on the café’s Instagram highlighted the food, the beauty, and the people, but the essence of France is what you feel the most. Her love of her home country is clear. Which makes the fact that she created such a home-like atmosphere in Philadelphia all the more meaningful, and impressive.
Then again, Fitler Square feels very much like a village, the kind you might find comfort in if you’re far away from home, building your own family. When Jordane was pregnant with both of her children in recent years, she chatted with customers who’d just learned the news. Some hugged her, asking about her due date. She happily shared little details with them. The generations unfold, and Valerie’s vision evolves.
What will Café Lutecia be in another ten, twenty years?
“I don’t know,” Jordane says. “My parents built something from the ground up, and it’s lasted. I would love for it to continue on for many years. I would love it. This is their legacy.”