It's like a wake that began early, before the dearly departed actually departed.

Le Lion d'Or, downtown Washington's 21-year-old grand bastion and exemplar of classic French food, is closing its doors for good tonight, but the mourners have been paying their respects all week long. On Monday, normally a pretty dead night, the place was two-thirds full and buzzin', just as in the old days. "We haven't had a Monday night like this for a couple of years," a black-tie captain observed happily, pouring more wine. And tonight, with the place fully booked, "it should be rocking."

At the center table, celebrated chef Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington and his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, and some friends ate, drank and scoped out the furnishings they hoped to bid on at the restaurant's auction next month.

Everyone, it seems, wanted a memento of the place. O'Connell and Lynch had their picture taken with chef-owner Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle before leaving the restaurant. An older man and woman, grabbing a handful of matchbooks, said to Goyenvalle: "Our children were raised here. Do you think you can fit us in Saturday night?"

Dressed in a beautifully tailored dark suit and patterned gray and white tie, Goyenvalle roamed the dining room, quietly chatting with regulars. His waist might be a little thicker these days and his dark, wavy hair has turned silver, but his toothy, boyish grin was as disarming as ever.

At a table near O'Connell and friends, a party of regulars chatted with Goyenvalle's wife, Colette. "What will you do after the restaurant closes?" one woman asked. Madame's smile slipped just for an instant. "We're not sure," she finally answered. "We need a rest. It's been a tough five years."

In its heyday, "this place was electrifying," said O'Connell. "You'd look to the left, to the right, and always see somebody famous. I remember how Rosalynn Carter's hairdresser brought the Carters here to dinner one night. The president said he had never eaten in such a fancy place."

It is fancy, in a cosseted, time-stands-still kind of way. The linens, somewhat worn now, are a pale pink. The striped silk walls, with their paintings of seascapes and country scenes, are a similar pale, rosy hue. It's the kind of color that makes everyone's skin tone look better.

Around the room, the captains smoothly execute the almost extinct art of table-side preparation. Souffles are deftly flamed; a whole fish baked in rock salt is swiftly boned while the diner watches. And then there are the restaurant's hallmark dishes -- the silky slivers of foie gras enrobed in ravioli pillows, tender quail nestled beneath a flaky dome of puff pastry, roasted pigeon surrounded by wild mushrooms sauteed to a deep mahogany.

For this kind of meticulously prepared food, a typical dinner can easily run $100 a person -- expensive, but not outrageous compared with some of the new high-end steak places.

Lion d'Or -- which followed Goyenvalle's eponymous Jean-Pierre -- was part of a wave in the '70s of French restaurants that hoped to wean Washington off the steak-and-martini meal that was then the epitome of fine dining. A generation later, it's the renewed popularity of steakhouses and designer martinis that may have contributed to a waning interest in formal French cooking.

Business has been slowly declining at the elegant restaurant, located in the basement of an office building near 18th and M streets NW. After a year's worth of rumors that he was on a month-to-month lease and getting ready to close, Goyenvalle, 61, finally decided this was it. "It's time I retire," he said gruffly to a reporter. "I don't see why you're so interested."

Trained in France, Goyenvalle has worked in or owned top-flight Washington restaurants for more than three decades. In the late '70s and early '80s, Lion d'Or was considered the zenith of fine dining in the nation's capital and the place where anyone with a shred of sophistication (or political clout) went to eat. As recently as October, Gourmet magazine readers voted it among their top three favorite restaurants in the District.

Goyenvalle told his staff he was closing only four weeks ago. "We were all very surprised. We thought he'd hold on until summer," said one waiter, who has worked there for 15 years.

Restaurants are already snatching up the experienced staff. Citronelle, the California-French restaurant in Georgetown's Latham Hotel, has taken on some. Lion d'Or's chef, Michel Pradier, has been hired by restaurateur Gerard Pangaud to be the chef at his new wine bistro, Vintage, due to open in Georgetown on Jan. 6.

At its peak, everyone wanted a corner table with a view of the celebrities at Lion d'Or, says Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey, who has been a regular since the restaurant opened. "It used to be packed every day. All the power brokers of the day would be there. All the ambassadors. You'd see their dark limousines lined up outside. "The clientele has changed, not the restaurant. Jean-Pierre remains as good as there is in the country, maybe even the world. We just got back from Paris on December 8, and two days later we ate at Lion d'Or and it was just as good as the three-star places we had visited in Paris."

But these days, great food may not be enough, especially if that food hasn't changed in years. Restaurant reviews in 1980 that describe the best dishes at Lion d'Or describe the very same ones in 1997.

For a younger generation of diners, a place may seem dated. Retail broker John Asadoorian, 35, a Washington native who remembers going to Lion d'Or as a child with his family, admits he has never taken his clients there.

"That downstairs location, it's like taking a step back in time. I want a restaurant that's a little fun, with a variety of food," he says.

In addition, as Gerard's Place owner and chef Pangaud puts it, "we're in a world where chefs must speak about marketing, public relations, advertising. Jean-Pierre was very shy about that. As a chef, I hate to say this, but food is only 20 or 25 percent of it. A chef these days has to be more high-profile."

Goyenvalle is anything but. All along, he has steadfastly believed in one thing: If you cook it well, they will come. It's what he was trained to believe from an early age: that the best French chefs stay in the kitchen every night, cooking impossibly complex, sophisticated, impeccable food, using the finest ingredients they can find (ignoring the cost), and that their customers will gladly dress up in their best clothes to pay handsomely for the privilege of eating such ethereal offerings. What Goyenvalle saw as a resolute devotion to high standards, a new generation of customers sees as being anachronistic and rigid. The most glaring proof is the black and gold plaque at the entrance to the restaurant stating, "Coat and tie required."

"His closing doesn't have anything to do with his food or his prices," insists 78-year-old Francois Haeringer, a master chef like Goyenvalle who had a top French restaurant downtown for 28 years before abandoning the city and opening the popular and pricey L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls in 1976. Says Haeringer: "He had the best French restaurant in town. I see him go with much regret. But times change. The customer does not want formality. People live in the suburbs and don't want to go back downtown for dinner."

"Lion d'Or helped take French food to a new level in Washington," agrees William Rice, a food and wine columnist with the Chicago Tribune and a former Washington Post restaurant critic who knew Goyenvalle. "But his clientele got older and even though his food was still impeccable, among younger diners there was that impression that he was Old Guard and unchanging."

Maybe, maybe not, counters Robert Greault, owner of La Colline and another of Washington's longtime French chefs. To Greault, whose Capitol Hill restaurant also has been described as one of Washington's last havens of classic French cooking, there are many reasons a restaurant can close these days, even after two decades of celebrated success. To begin with, he says, there's age. "How long is he going to want to work?" Greault says. "And then there's more competition downtown, customers want a less formal atmosphere, cooking styles come and go, the location becomes undesirable, the weather, the taxes -- in this business, we're always looking for some excuse," he adds with a laugh.

As for Goyenvalle, he's having none of it, at least publicly. Brushing off questions about why he's closing and whether changing customer expectations have anything to do with it, he replies, his voice rising, "I'm retiring. That's all. It has nothing to do with what the customer wants." CAPTION: Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle, owner of the 21-year-old classic French restaurant, steadfastly believed in one thing: If you cook it well, they will come. CAPTION: Au revoir, Washington. Chef Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle's restaurant closes its doors after 21 years.