Le Bec-Fin sans Perrier?
Le Bec-Fin without Georges Perrier?
Without the diminutive Frenchman in the white jacket bellowing orders in the kitchen?
The city's pioneering French chef, who put Philadelphia on the world's culinary map four decades ago, says he is stepping aside from the helm of his famed restaurant.
On Thursday night he told attendees at the Almost Famous Chef Competition at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College that he planned to retire, and identified Le Bec-Fin's new operator as Nicolas Fanucci, general manager of The French Laundry in California's Napa Valley - a restaurant at the top of many critics' best-in-the-United-States lists.
Perrier has declined requests for an interview, but on Saturday he confirmed details in an interview with the website Foobooz.com.
Fanucci - born in 1971, the year after Le Bec-Fin opened - is no stranger to the Center City restaurant, having served as its general manager from 2000 to 2003. In a brief telephone interview with Philly.com, Fanucci said word would be made official soon to clarify the nature of the relationship, which is not believed to be an outright sale. A news release is expected in about 10 days.
Le Bec-Fin will close in April for renovations, Perrier told Foobooz, adding that the restaurant would maintain its name.
The precise extent to which Perrier may still play a role in directing the restaurant's affairs was not immediately clear. He said he would retain ownership of the building at 1523 Walnut St., its home since 1983, and would retain a small presence in the company. Its current chef, Nicholas Elmi, will not be part of the new incarnation, which presumably would include staff from the orbit of French Laundry owner Thomas Keller, who also owns Per Se in New York.
Philly.com learned last week that at least one Perrier investor had pressured the chef to bring in fresh management. The deal with Fanucci had been in the works for several months, a source said; Perrier told Foobooz that it was seven months.
An associate of Perrier speaking on condition of anonymity, said the chef wanted to step back from a still-brutal work schedule to semi-retire without relinquishing the restaurant. Perrier, 68, had said many times that Le Bec-Fin would close "only when I die."
Perrier still owns a baking company called the Art of Bread, a Wayne restaurant called Georges', shares of Table 31, a restaurant in the Comcast Center, and Mia, in Atlantic City.
He had toyed with closing Le Bec-Fin in June 2010, making headlines by putting the building on the market with an asking price of $3.9 million, offering the business for $600,000 more. Months later, after what he said was a public outcry in favor of his remaining, he dramatically withdrew the listing to great fanfare.
Also weighing on Perrier's mind was a series of setbacks over the last six months. He and his wife divorced; his mother died at age 101; and he made headlines by suing a local blogger for defamation - though the court filing was later withdrawn.
In November, he opened an extensive renovation of Le Bec-Fin's downstairs bar, Le Bar Lyonnais, into a more modern spot called Tryst. It is not known how Tryst - which shares a name only with a Steve Wynn-owned hotspot in Las Vegas - will fare under new owners.
Le Bec-Fin is hardly the first restaurant in the region to change hands without changing names. Most often, the public never knows of such sales; restaurants are mainly private entities. Famous 4th Street Deli's fortunes and image improved after a 2005 sale, but Django, a BYOB heralded at the time as one of the best in the city, lasted only about three years after a sale. The Knife & Fork, a landmark in Atlantic City, is going strong, while Striped Bass floundered after Stephen Starr bought it out of bankruptcy.
But few restaurants' identities are as intertwined with their owners as Le Bec-Fin and Perrier.
He founded Le Bec-Fin in 1970 in a much smaller building at 1312 Spruce St. Through the 1970s, he and the restaurant rode a wave of publicity and awards. He moved Le Bec-Fin from its 30-seat townhouse - now occupied by the restaurant Vetri - in 1983.
Perrier liked to tell the story that the day after he opened on Walnut Street, his customers were assailed by the sight of prostitutes, and that he had told then-mayor W. Wilson Goode to rid the block of hookers or he would move Le Bec-Fin to Los Angeles. The street was quickly cleaned up, and the block - also home for a time to Susanna Foo - became known as Philadelphia's Restaurant Row. The city named the block of Sydenham Street between Walnut and Locust after Perrier. (In 2009, the French government awarded him the Legion d'Honneur.)
But as the 1990s roared, the age of fine dining was fading. Other fancy Center City restaurants, such as Deux Cheminees, began scaling back or closing. Perrier himself acknowledged the arrival of upscale-casual dining by opening Brasserie Perrier, a pricy but decidedly less formal restaurant, a block away in 1998. By 1999, Le Bec-Fin's tuxedoed waiters were dressed in three-piece suits.
Then the bottom fell out for Perrier. In 2000, the then-Mobil Travel Guide demoted Le Bec-Fin from a top five-star rating - which it had held for 18 years - to four stars. Perrier fell into a deep funk, stepping down as executive chef to assume the title of chef-owner. He introduced a Frenchman, Frederic Cote, whom he fired 15 months later. Perrier then hired an American, Daniel Stern, to run his kitchen. Seemingly moments after Mobil restored Le Bec-Fin's fifth star, Perrier fired Stern after 20 months. In 2008, when Perrier decided to end his longstanding policy of prix-fixe dégustation menus, some as high as $165 per person, he had to relinquish the Mobil title. Still, Le Bec-Fin appeared at the top of the list of every dining guide.
Besides less-expensive a-la-carte dining - serving hamburgers at lunch and discount deals at dinner - Perrier tried numerous renovations. In 2002, a critic wrote, the "tired, salmon-colored Louis XVI decor has been replaced by a 19th-century-style Parisian salon replete with gilt molding, woven gold silk panels, and antique mirrors that lend the room the luster of a treasure chest." In 2008, that look changed again. Last year brought a six-figure outlay on the basement bar.
Le Bec-Fin's kitchen has been the keys to the city's dining scene, unleashing a line of chefs, educators, and restaurateurs, besides Fanucci: author Aliza Green and pastry chef Robert Bennett, chefs Chris Scarduzio, Pierre Calmels, Peter Gilmore, Chip Roman, Francesco Martorella, Lee Styer, Michael Schulson, and Stern. More than that, on any given day, you could find a seven-figure professional or two, peeling carrots or cleaning mussels in exchange for nodding acknowledgment of hard work.
The new deal, of course, would bring in a new style. Keller's organization is known as demanding but its chefs are not known for courting personal fame, as Perrier is.
Contact Michael Klein at email@example.com