The tricky remodeling of a legend: Le Bec-Fin (2002)

This article was published July 31, 2002.


Suddenly, Georges Perrier is tableside, filleting the decor of his own restaurant - the familiar raspberry-walled, Louis XVI preciousness that is Le Bec-Fin.

It has been the gold standard for French formality in Philadelphia, a room he describes in his 1997 cookbook as conferring instant chaleur, "the warmth of ambience" - a flattering, intimate, welcoming space.

But that was then. This is now: "I'm changing everything," Perrier announces, his arm sweeping dismissively past marble busts and faux-marble mantles, towering mirrors, and flocked wall coverings, now referred to not as "warm" by his architect but, impatiently, "pink."

The Faberge egg on Walnut Street has been declared unfit. Frumpy. Outta here.

Ten days from now - at midnight, Aug. 10 - Le Bec will cease to exist as we know it: Two shifts of tradesmen working nonstop will strip the place down to the plaster, then recast the room in muted gold, milled chestnut woodwork, silk panels, and elaborate cornices molded by techniques nearly lost to history.

In the end, in early September, designer David Schultz says, the Louis XVI look will give way to the lighter, airier - but still formal - styling of a late-19th-century Paris salon.

It is tricky business, dismantling a legend: You don't want to alienate the loyalists who have given Le Bec an enviable 20-year run on Walnut Street. Then again, how to generate excitement?

The classic French food already has lightened up. The rigid two-seating policy is on the skids. Music will be added. But without a dining room overhaul, would anyone care?

On this Saturday evening, we seem caught betwixt and between: There is a tall-ceiling grandeur here. (The chandeliers will stay.) But also a heavy, dated formalism.

Other irritants bubble up. The room is tight. The gaggle of waiters creates gridlock in the center aisle, wheeling and swooping to serve like a skittish flock of blackbirds.

The lighting, once you think about it, seems vaguely harsh; more ricocheting than relaxing.

After remodeling, it is promised, hidden, low-voltage lights will "graze" the walls, picking up color, creating a "luxurious, but lighthearted" feel.

A back wall will go, uncramping the space, extending the view.

What Schultz calls the "intimidating, bright, imposing redness" that overpowers the room will go gentle in coming nights.

Schultz, who with his wife, Susan Davidson, is a principal of DAS Architects, says the cosmetic changes were not as daunting as, "How do we evolve Le Bec-Fin properly?"

That its pink wallpaper had to go wasn't the question. The high-concept designer spaces of Perrier's competitors (the Moorish elegance of Striped Bass, Susanna Foo's moody Indochine look, the wall of candles at Tangerine) had created new expectations among customers being charged $200 a head for supper.

The question was how to rejuvenate a tasteful, formal French sensibility: "We didn't want to design something over-the-top, trendy or overly theme-y," Schultz says, "something that said 'Let's go see,' but not 'Let's go back.' "

The stylized, art deco mood of early-20th-century architect Jacques-Emile Ruhlman was considered and rejected. So was a colorful, more flamboyant French-salon style.

And there was something else to consider: the touchy question of decor versus food on the plate - a caution foreshadowed fictionally last year in The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's Philadelphia-centric novel.

In it, a young chef named Denise is about to open The Generator, the hip successor to staid old Le Bec-Fin. But she is consumed with worry that its 60-foot ceilings and Chartres-like banks of high windows will distract from her food.

When the chef is acclaimed, Schultz says, the decor should be studiously secondary, more timeless backdrop than show-stealer, such as the icy futurism of Pod, or brooding darkness of Novelty, two other projects in which DAS has been involved.

So, for all the new crystal and china, the sleek leather-and-silk chairs, the rich carpet, gold leaf, and new mantles, the imperative has been not to overwhelm the galette de crabe and sole pour deux - not to take the spotlight off Georges Perrier.

He swaggers back into the room after our second course, hot from the stove, scowling at some perceived imperfection.

He is obsessed with regaining the fifth Mobil star he lost a few years ago.

He has exuberantly fired his last chef, reinstalling himself in the kitchen.

He is firing his decor: Off with the wallpaper!

For the architects, trying not to upstage Georges Perrier ought to be, finally, the easiest job of all - a veritable piece of gateau au chocolat.

Contact Rick Nichols at 215-854-2714 or