1523 Walnut Street, 215-567-1000, lebecfin.com
AVERAGE ENTRÉE PRICE: $35.
FOOD: Fancy French.
GET: French classics like beef bordelaise.
DON’T GET: An à la carte meal if you can splurge for the tasting.
Eyebrows went up in 2006 when Le Bec-Fin introduced a less pricey four-course menu for weekday diners. Late last year, when the restaurant cut back on lunch service, the rumor mill churned. But that was nothing compared to the buzz this spring, when Action News ran promos showing a teary Georges Perrier intoning, “It’s time.” Was the Le Bec-Fin era over?
When the segment rolled, Perrier didn’t announce Le Bec’s closing. Instead, he heralded a new à la carte menu, a cheaper alternative to the prix fixe, and said he would even welcome diners in jeans to his heretofore jacket-required restaurant. But weeks later, it’s hard to tell what has changed in the chandelier-lit space. The woven silk walls are still lustrous. The staff is as formal as ever. And there certainly isn’t a stitch of denim in sight.
Only once you open the menu do the differences emerge. A delicate poached salmon with asparagus, smoked caviar and a hibiscus-scented sauce costs only $24. The dish is inexpensive — at least relative to the old days — but the kitchen’s trademarks of fine ingredients and perfect technique are still in effect. Of course, many entrées cost more, but the level of excellence invariably matches the price. Tender veal medallions, at $35, are complemented with a generous serving of meaty morels and a velvety mushroom sauce. A pressed foie gras terrine is costly for an appetizer at $17, but its buttery flavor tastes like luxury.
Contrary to the sound bites of the recent PR push, Le Bec is no bargain. It remains an unapologetically opulent place to indulge. In fact, almost half its diners still order the $140 seven-course tasting menu. And they still want to linger over their $255 burgundy. (Which is good, because bargains are hard to find on the wine list.) And, as always, they’ll happily pay for the experience.
Today’s Le Bec-Fin isn’t the peerless jewel it used to be. The à la carte menu changes the once-uniform pace of the evening, and the formerly impeccable service has slipped to merely excellent. (On one visit, servers placed entrées before the wrong guests; on another, appetizer dishes weren’t cleared before entrées arrived.) But the food reveals a gifted chef still on his game after 38 years. It’s not yet time for Perrier to turn in his toque — but there’s a palpable countdown in the air. Restaurants like Vetri and Lacroix have muscled into Perrier’s kingdom of culinary superlatives and updated our notions of fine dining. Diners in denim, if they ever arrive, won’t extend Le Bec-Fin’s swan song forever.