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Escapes: At Philadelphia's Le Bec-Fin, savor the end of a grand era

By Robert DiGiacomo
Friday, August 27, 2010; WE17

All during a recent dinner at Philadelphia's French restaurant stalwart Le Bec-Fin, I kept a watchful eye on the sumptuous dessert cart as it made its rounds.

At last it was my turn to get a close-up view of the dozen or so options and to hear them described by a young woman who treated them with all the seriousness that such fine sweets deserve.

Given three choices, I went for something classic (the restaurant's signature frozen Grand Marnier Souffle); something rich and chocolaty (the rum-soaked Gateau Le Bec-Fin); and something "light" (a coconut cake with caramel mousse, mango jelly and diced lychees).

As I slowly worked my way through this fittingly rich ending, I made sure to gaze around the Parisian-style dining room tricked out in oversize crystal chandeliers, mirrors and gold trim. I wanted to savor the Old World atmosphere as much as the food, since Le Bec-Fin's days -- as well as those of this type of grand dining experience -- may well be numbered.

The 40-year-old restaurant, which helped put Philadelphia on the nation's culinary map, is up for sale and scheduled to close by June.

Le Bec-Fin's famously mercurial owner and executive chef, Georges Perrier -- who seems straight out of central casting, with his thick accent, barrel-chested build and imperial manner -- believes that the time is right to close this major chapter in his storied career.

In the meantime, it's business as usual for Le Bec-Fin, which is marking its anniversary with a $40 four-course dinner special. Or perhaps it's more business than usual: A midweek reservation was hard to get, probably due to the discounted prix fixe, which runs through October, and the interest generated by news of the impending closing.

As a longtime Philadelphia resident, I'll probably return at least one more time before Le Bec-Fin's finale, but I'm more likely to head to its clubby downstairs bar than the more formal main dining room. Le Bar Lyonnais fields a less pricey a la carte menu that even includes (sacre bleu!) a burger and fries.

Granted, it's no ordinary patty: The $14 prime ground sirloin is topped with a cherry tomato confiture instead of plain old ketchup and served on a house-made brioche-style bun with hand-cut fries. But the burger's very inclusion is one of the concessions that Perrier has made in recent years to try to stay relevant.

Several years ago the restaurant made deliberate moves to loosen things up. It no longer requires jackets for men, although they're "strongly encouraged." The staff has stopped bringing the food to the table beneath silver domes and revealing the dishes with a theatrical "Voila!" And my sommelier was a woman, a rarity in many restaurants, let alone one as traditional as Le Bec-Fin.

Perrier has also experimented with all kinds of special menus, discounts and even a pay-what-you-wish gimmick last summer. The regular prices are stiff -- dinner is $80 a person for four courses and $120 for six courses -- but not out of line for this caliber of restaurant. Lunch is much more affordable, with a la carte options and the relative bargain of a $55 five-course prix fixe.

Even with these changes, Le Bec-Fin (the name is a French idiom for a refined palate) seems to belong to a different era, and not in a bad way. While other restaurants spill out onto the sidewalk, Perrier's is a rarefied white-tablecloth sanctum behind a polished brass door.

Inside, the staff is friendly but not too familiar, swirling around you in a pleasant buzz of efficiency. Someone refolds your napkin when you leave the table, various servers consult on the wine, take your order and bring the bread, and someone is always available to escort you to the restroom if you don't know the way.

Although Le Bec-Fin's closing is unfortunate, it's more a changing of the haute guard than a sign that Philly's food scene is losing its mojo. Several chefs come to mind as possible successors to Perrier, who was born in the French culinary capital of Lyon, trained at top tables and came to the United States in the late 1960s.

But these heirs apparent are very different in style. Marc Vetri, with his shaved head, grape leaf tattoo on one arm and love of motorcycles, is more rock-and-roller than traditional chef. A James Beard winner, he now runs three restaurants, including his flagship 40-seat contemporary Italian Vetri (in the building that first housed Le Bec-Fin) and two more-casual spinoffs.

Another chef with an increasingly big rep is the low-key Jose Garces, who first made his name at Stephen Starr's El Vez. Since 2005 he has opened a pair of famed tapas restaurants, Amada and Tinto, and four other spots in Philly and in his native Chicago. He also has received a James Beard award, authored the "Latin Evolution" cookbook and been named a winner of "The Next Iron Chef."

Meanwhile, the 66-year-old Perrier, who co-owns and/or manages three other restaurants, doesn't seem likely to stray too far from the foodie scene he helped create. He is mulling opening two more places in the city and another in the suburbs.

And given that he recently returned to France to celebrate his mother's 100th birthday, it's very possible that he might be found presiding over some restaurant kitchen, if not in 40 years, then certainly for some time well into the future.

DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia writer and co-editor of The City Traveler, an online magazine.

Staying there

Hotel Palomar

Philadelphia

117 S. 17th St.

215-563-5006

http://www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com

Upscale Kimpton-owned boutique hotel. Rooms from $135.

Eating there

Le Bec-Fin

1523 Walnut St.

215-567-1000

http://www.lebecfin.com

40th anniversary $40 four-course dinner from 5-6:30 p.m. Tuesday-

Friday, through October. Regular four-course

dinner is $80 prix fixe.

Amada

217 Chestnut St.

215-625-2450

http://www.amadarestaurant.com

Flagship tapas restaurant of Jose Garces. Small plates from $5; chef's selection from $45 a person.

Amis Trattoria

412 S. 13th St.

215-732-2647

http://www.amisphilly.com

Casual Roman-style Italian restaurant from chef Marc Vetri. Pasta dishes from $14.

Tinto

116 S. 20th St.

215-665-9150

http://www.tintorestaurant.com

Garces's tapas bar and restaurant specializing in Basque-style cuisine. Small plates from $4; chef's tasting $55 a person.

Vetri

1312 Spruce St.

215-732-3478

http://www.vetriristorante.com

Intimate upscale Italian restaurant. Tasting menu from $115.

Information

http://www.visitphilly.com

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