GEORGES Perrier looks like he needs a hug. We're sitting at a table in Le Bec-Fin's grand dining room, gilded as ever, underneath those familiar, ornate chandeliers. We're drinking lukewarm mineral water as Perrier smokes what he calls a "cheap" cigar and fidgets with two pill bottles of prescription medicine. Outside, it's a gloomy, rainy afternoon in advance of Hurricane Irene. Inside, things aren't much sunnier. "I'm 67 years old," Perrier says. "Next year I might be dead. I am not the future."
I'm pretty surprised that I don't find a more upbeat Perrier on this afternoon. After all, this is the week he opened the door to his totally revamped and reimagined downstairs bar, Tryst, which replaces his longtime Le Bar Lyonnais. "Sexy" is the buzz word we've been reading for months about Tryst. Perrier, we've been told, is going to "bring sexy back" to Philadelphia. He's already told me, between thick puffs of cigar smoke, that Tryst will be "the sexiest bar in the city."
But when I suggest that Tryst might be his big comeback, Perrier snaps at me. "I don't believe in comebacks," he said. "I'm not making a comeback. I've always been here."
Most of us know the story by now: Last year, in bad economic throes, Perrier announced that he planned to shutter Le Bec-Fin; several months later, Perrier reversed that decision, and Le Bec-Fin was saved. He's brought in a new team of young blood, led by his longtime chef de cuisine, Nicholas Elmi, who's now a partner. And the first order of business was launching Tryst.
Of course, some in local food-writing circles haven't been so kind to Perrier of late. Some have suggested that the drama over Perrier's announcement to close and then not to close smacked of a PR stunt, a look-at-poor-me pity party. Meanwhile, the blog Foobooz recently included Tryst in a vote to determine the "stupidest restaurant name ever." (It lost to the short-lived Swallow.)
All of which may have something to do with Perrier's demeanor, which on this day vacillates between wearily doleful and defensively boastful.
One moment, he modestly talks about the need to reinvent what he's doing. "It is a very simple issue. It's a way of life that's changing. The younger crowd doesn't want to sit down to eat big plates. They want to nibble."
But if I suggest that perhaps he's lost relevance to Stephen Starr or Jose Garces or Michael Solomonov or any number of restaurateurs, he puffs up. "Will you please name me, say to me, how many restaurants are still in business, with the same chef, after 40 years? If you can find it, I'll give you $10,000.
"I have a question for you, the journalist," he continued. His publicist starts to speak, and he cuts her off. "No, you're the f------ PR person. This is a question for him.
"Do you think that the Philadelphia Museum of Art could ever close its doors?" he asked. Before I can answer, he does. "If the art museum closed, the city is never the same. Well, it's the same with this place. If we close, all you'll have is Stephen Starr restaurants."
But once the topic of Starr is raised, Perrier slips back into a doleful quiet. He won't bad-mouth him. It's the opposite.
"In all my years of working, I only have one regret," he said. "Stephen Starr called me one day, years ago, and he asked me, 'Do you want to open a bistro with me.' And I said, 'No.' Just simply no. And this has been gnawing at me for years. I don't know why I said no. I knew how to do the bistro food, and it would have been so easy. This is one I regretted."
At that, Perrier silently puffs on his cigar and fiddles some more with the pill bottles. His publicist chats about how Le Bec-Fin's menu has evolved. How Perrier has changed from prix fixe to a la carte. How he's ditched the waiters' tuxedos. But Perrier interrupts. "In the next two years, I will probably change it all completely," he said. "It's going to have to be done. It has to be modern. It has to be different."
'Food is not everything'
Even five years ago, Perrier was talking this way. In 2006, he told the Inquirer, "This kind of restaurant, unfortunately, is on the way out."
Sure, Perrier has always been quick-tempered and full of braggadocio. But as the game passes him, and he still puts in days that stretch from 4 a.m. to midnight, it's hard not to feel some empathy for the man. I mean, scoff or not, before Le Bec-Fin, Philly dining sucked. The guy single-handedly put Philadelphia on the map - and the quality of the food at Le Bec-Fin has never slipped. But even Perrier himself acknowledges, "Food is not everything."
This fills me with ambivalence. As a kid in South Jersey, I can clearly remember my own parents dressing up for big anniversary dinners at Le Bec-Fin, leaving us with the babysitter, excited to experience the pinnacle of Delaware Valley dining. Of course, when I came of age, the last thing I wanted to do was eat where my parents did. It was only logical that the foodies of my generation abandoned poor Georges for open kitchens and BYOBs and cacophonous dining rooms and $15 cocktails.
A warm, quiet spot
I ate and drank at Tryst with some friends during its opening week, and I would be pleased to do so again. But whether the new Tryst brings in a younger generation of diners remains to be seen.
It isn't as dimly lit as it used to be, but even with DAS Architects' significant update to the design, it's still a warm, quiet spot. Elmi's menu is not terribly ambitious or unique, but everything - from the boquerones to the truffle-and-foie-gras arancini to the bone marrow - was tasty and refined, skillfully executed and with less fuss than I expected.
The by-the-glass list had plenty of interesting wines like aglianico, young Rioja, Austrian zweigelt and even a personal favorite, Chateau Musar from Lebanon.
The drinks list holds its own against some of the city's cocktail-geek hangouts, with solid classics like the Vieux Carre (rye, cognac, Benedictine and sweet vermouth) and Aviation (gin, maraschino, crème de violette, lemon juice) and inventive originals like the Bustier (with gin, the excellent Cocchi Americano, St. German elderflower liqueur and rhubard bitters).
Sure, there were some moments that were a little off-key for a bar that's pitching itself as young and sexy. For instance, one of my dining companions asked for butter, and it was brought out in a fancy silver serving dish, which of course became something of a table joke. Also, my group was the youngest in the bar by a couple of decades, and I'm not that young.
But overall, Tryst succeeds if you're looking for an upscale bar. I would not call it sexy, but I hope Tryst, bad name and all, survives and thrives. If only because I hope that, when I'm Perrier's age, I'm not kicked to the curb simply because tastes suddenly shift.
Of course, whether Tryst raises Perrier's own spirits remains to be seen. As our interview ends and he stubs out his cigar, he said, "Maybe after your article, people will come. And then maybe we can make some f------ money."
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.