Food for Thought: Fine Dining Is Dead

Long live fine dining!

The lament rang far and wide — or from Center City to the Main Line, anyway — during the third week of July: Fine dining in Philly is officially dead. Over. Finis!

Like much of Philly’s dining-scene drama, this declaration had its roots in Georges Perrier. In this particular case, it was due to the legendary chef’s revelation — splashed across the front page of the Inquirer, of course — that he’ll shutter his famed French restaurant, Le Bec-Fin, in the spring, after a whopping 40 years.

For some, it was the final nail in the soigné dining scene’s coffin. With Susanna Foo on Walnut Street now closed (and being replaced by — oh, the humiliation! — a branch of fast-food chain Chipotle), the demise of Striped Bass (the Neil Stein version), and the general decline of formality in dining-at-large (grimy baseball hats worn without so much as a doff in high-priced steakhouses; the rise of the gastropub), there really isn’t anything like Le Bec left anymore.

But the truth of the matter is, while fine dining in Le Bec fashion might be dead, fine dining — if you take that to mean exceptional food — is very much alive in Philly. Thriving, in fact. If you love fine food — not just classic French fare served in multiple courses by suited waiters in a rococo theater of a dining room — the options have never looked better. Between Marc Vetri’s mini empire of Northern Italian restaurants, Chip Roman’s elegant modern fare at Blackfish, Michael Solomonov’s splendid Middle Eastern adventures at Zahav, and even humble BYOBs (including Fond and Bibou, both run by former Perrier cooks), there are so many opportunities to eat exceptional food. And while none of them are Le Bec — and Philly’s dining scene wouldn’t be what it is today without Perrier — that doesn’t mean they’re any less “fine.”

It’s easy to see why there’s sadness over the demise of Le Bec: The place is as full of memories as Grand-mère’s hope chest. After all, for years — decades, really — it was the go-to place for Philly’s power diners, an elegant clubhouse for the elite, and a very special spot in which to celebrate special occasions for just about everyone else who could afford to try it at least once. Plus, this isn’t a town that embraces change of any kind. But does Le Bec’s closing truly spell the end of fine dining in Philly?

Only if you’re looking in one direction: backwards.