End was long in coming for storied Le Bec-Fin

1971: Chef Georges Perrier, then 27, making a souffle.

As dining eras go, Le Bec-Fin's didn't end so much with its Veuve Clicquot-soaked farewell dinner last weekend as it did - if far more quietly - five or six years ago, maybe longer.

Georges Perrier, a Lyonnaise import, had founded the singular, storied dining room in 1970 when merely unearthing fresh thyme in Philadelphia or nonfrozen squab required considerable detective work.

And fine dining? It meant well-done steak or steamed lobster, or a coveted salad of iceberg lettuce topped with bacon and - hold your hats! - shrimp.

Adoring customers - with visions of Perrier's signature snails with champagne, and airy galette de crabe in mustard sauce, dancing in their heads - filled two seatings (132 seats) on Perrier's final Saturday night in the Walnut Street jewel-box. One had flown in on a whim from Florida.

Of course they came back. Le Bec was the city's first taste of a magic kingdom - domed silver platters and velvety broths, tuxedoed waiters who swarmed like crows, and a cart of French pastries that sparkled in the light of a crystal chandelier, its type rarely encountered outside an old-school opera palace.

A gaggle of chefs, many heading their own restaurants today, kept the whiskey flowing late in the downstairs bar after that final night of service, trading tales of the profane, demanding boot camp Perrier ran in what was for decades one of the most lavishly acclaimed French kitchens in America.

But Perrier, 68 now, had long seen the end coming - the turning of a page, the new culinary sensibility (un-French!), and the flight from the formality that was, of course, Le Bec's original raison d'être and finally its Achilles heel.

More than 10 years ago, smarting from the loss of his fifth Mobil star (he'd eventually regain it), he'd hinted it might be time to turn over the reins.

Then, as he did time and again, he dug back in - dashing the hopes of more than one heir apparent (Frederic Cote, Daniel Stern, Pierre Calmels, etc.). The indispensable alpha chef vowed that he, Georges Perrier, would retire only "when he was underground."

The ego that created Le Bec-Fin now stood implacably in its way.

In more reflective moments, he was clear-eyed, if resigned, about Le Bec's future. He sneered at the emergent Stephen Starr empire and its food-as-fun ethic. He despised the BYO boom, arguing that it sucked the lifeblood from fine dining. He saw poseurs around every corner; he once created a scene in an Ardmore cafe where he found the cooking wanting.

His kind of restaurant - in the gold-tinted tones of a fin de siecle Parisian salon, its three-hour tasting menus running (with wine) toward $200 a head, its clientele heavy with the rich, the famous and expense-accounted, its service mannered - he conceded, more in anger than in sadness, was "on the way out."

He'd opened (and closed) Brasserie Perrier down the block. Then there was Mia, the Atlantic City property. And Georges', a suburban outpost in Wayne, where he rued the penny-pinching ways of the Main Line. And recently a bakery in Narberth with the artless name of the Art of Bread.

The world and the dining world had changed, no question. It was Spanish-accented now, thanks to Jose Garces. It was northern Italian, compliments of Marc Vetri. And decidedly more casual.

But that wasn't Georges Perrier. "He never reached out to the next generation," said a fan and former manager, Kevin Keys.

This created a deadly dynamic. Le Bec catered increasingly to a sparser, special-occasion-only crowd, ratcheting up diners' expectations at the same time cuts and staff turnover made it harder to meet them.

A theater critic who encountered Perrier just months ago in Le Bec's refurnished downstairs bar asked him how business was going.

"Here, take this rifle and put it to my head," Perrier said, hoisting an imaginary gun: "You hold it. I'll pull the trigger."

Late last year, Perrier's top investors were getting twitchy. Le Bec was bleeding money, with no end in sight.

Talks to sell it - this time in earnest - were proceeding with Nicolas Fanucci, the former Le Bec manager who had been managing the French Laundry in Napa, Calif.

He was close to sealing the deal weeks ago, but not before Craig LaBan, the Inquirer food critic and long an admirer of Le Bec, weighed in with a brutal reassessment - its legendary cheese cart was wobbling like a Home Depot lumber wagon, the fabled crab cake had lost its mojo, and service was, at best, spotty.

In the 1990s, the waitstaff included veterans averaging more than seven years' service. At a recent meal, a local gourmet said, her waiter was a well-meaning but amateurish Temple University student who promptly dropped a slice from the dessert cart onto the floor.

LaBan knocked Le Bec's ranking down by two bells, news about as welcome to a chef as a rat spotted diving in the soup. "It hurts every bone in your body," Perrier said. But he did not dispute that the place had slipped.

Fanucci says renovations will start Monday, with a reopening - and new chef - this spring. Such an overhaul won't be an unfamiliar scenario at 1523 Walnut St.

In the waning days of his 42-year run, Perrier tried everything to keep Le Bec afloat. He hired new chefs, French ones at first, then fired them. He tried an American, Daniel Stern, who won praise, and then fired him. He got rid of the waitstaff's tuxedos, and the rigid $120 prix-fixe menu.

He fired the wallpaper, even - transforming Le Bec's raspberry-tinted, Louis XVI chamber into a softer Parisian salon, albeit with $900 silk and leather chairs.

He dropped the dress code, populating the dining room with dudes in black T-shirts sitting bare elbow to tailored elbow with uptight septuagenarians.

And yes, struggling to survive in the teeth of the recession, less than three years ago, he offered - quelle horreur! - an express lunch of a (very good) hamburger and fries, $15.23, the same as Le Bec's address, sans decimal.

What was impossible to change, of course, was Perrier himself, exacting and single-minded, gifted and driven, respected (by the likes of Chicago's Charlie Trotter, and New York's Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert, who called him "America's Bocuse" in a recent New York Times story) and painfully hurtful, at turns floridly profane, cartoonishly pompous, charming, and sincerely concerned and generous with dishwashers in distress.

And he had a signature of his own: He was given to tantrums so ferocious that they may well have gotten him slugged but for his disarmingly short stature and an accent that took on comical pitch in the higher octaves.

To get a measure of how the tablescape has changed since the last days of Perrier, one need only stroll down Walnut Street between Broad and 18th, the so-called Restaurant Row.

Susanna Foo's acclaimed French-Asian dining room now houses a Chipotle fast-food counter. Brasserie Perrier has been shuttered. And Striped Bass, Neil Stein's marble-columned seafoodery, is a retro steak house in the Starr firmament.

But the new wave has meant other things as well. If ties have died out, a whole new cadre of young diners is packing tacquerias and trattorias and gastropubs. Cookery once unheard of beyond glittering French dining rooms (the bygone Deux Cheminees and pioneering La Truffe among them) is now commonplace: Last week Stateside, a corner spot in South Philadelphia, was running a special of bone marrow and black truffle sausage with slivered sunchoke and brussels sprouts puree.

Near the Italian Market, a 40-seat jewel called Bibou is almost fully booked through June on the strength of a more traditional French cookery of Calmels, one of the once-presumed heirs at Le Bec. (Bibou, along with Bistrot La Minette and Fond, are run by Le Bec alums, stoking a modest uptick in French-accented cuisine.)

And as proof that fine dining isn't dead so much as wearing different clothes, Ristorante Vetri, in a warmly appointed townhouse at 13th and Spruce, has taken out a few seats and gone to a northern Italian all-tasting menu ($135) and never looked back. It occupies the exact space where Perrier opened the original location of Le Bec-Fin 42 years ago.


Contact Rick Nichols at richard.nichols@comcast.net.