Taste: Reviews: The French Evolution
The roi is restless. Again.
He’s recouped his fifth Mobil star, and pinned it to the lapels of his serving staff. He’s won nearly every dining award in existence. Four restaurants bear his imprint, a cookbook documents his legacy, and his gilded flagship on Walnut Street remains the haute-est fine-dining destination in Philadelphia, though much has changed since 1970, when an ambitious young Frenchman named Georges Perrier opened a nine-table marvel of a restaurant on Spruce Street and called it Le Bec-Fin.
At age 61, Perrier should be content, but he is not. Still fiercely competitive, he recently scrapped prix-fixe policies at both Le Bec and Brasserie Perrier, opened a Brasserie branch at Boyds, and made children welcome at his newly renamed Georges’ in Wayne. He has no intention of standing pat this year as Le Bec-Fin marks its 35th anniversary, a fitting time for a review of his realm.
Perrier’s current obsession is not a lost star, but Stephen Starr, whose 13 restaurants are filled with beautiful young people every night. Perrier wonders: Why aren’t they eating my food? But he knows the instant-messaging generation will not sit still for a six-course dinner, or even a three-course lunch. Older customers don’t want to eat so much anymore, either. Which is why Perrier ended Le Bec’s leisurely $45 lunch prix fixe in March. The $135 dinner prix fixe will soon follow suit. New à la carte menus allow customers to order one, two or three courses, as their timetables and appetites permit. A $35 three-course express lunch, also new, will require no more than 45 minutes of a busy person’s time.
Except for some lighter dishes, the food won’t change, Perrier says—only how it is ordered. He is even reprising some of his greatest hits, such as the airy pike quenelles, in this anniversary year.
But I wonder if à la carte ordering and hurry-up dining will sap the sense of ceremony that set Le Bec-Fin apart from every other restaurant in Philadelphia. A meal here was never about the number of courses or who was in the dining room, but about putting the world on hold for as long as it took to dine.
A few weeks before the changes take effect, I go for lunch and dinner. I notice subtle updates since my last visit: one perfect orchid on each table, instead of extravagant mixed bouquets. Solid white plates, instead of bone china with patterned rims. The rest is as I remember it: massive crystal chandeliers, staff in tuxedos, heavyweight flatware, silver cloches adding a soupçon of drama to every main course.