Philadelphia: Au Revoir, But Not Goodbye for Master French Chef

All during a recent dinner at Philadelphia’s French restaurant stalwart Le Bec-Fin, I kept a watchful eye on the sumptuous dessert cart as it made its rounds.

At last it was my turn to get a close up view of the dozen or choices and hear them described by a young female attendant who treated them with the seriousness such fine sweets deserve.

I went for something classic (the restaurant’s signature frozen Grand Marnier Soufflé); something rich and chocolate-y (the rum soaked Gateau Le Bec-Fin) and something “light” (a coconut cake with caramel mousse, mango jelly and diced lychees).

As I slowly worked my way through this fittingly rich ending, I made sure to gaze around the Parisian-style dining room tricked out with oversized crystal chandeliers, mirrors and gold trim. I wanted to savor the old world atmosphere as much as the food, since Le Bec-Fin’s days –– as well as those for this type of grand dining experience –– may well be numbered.

The 40-year-old restaurant, which helped put Philadelphia’s culinary scene on the national map, is up for sale and scheduled to close by next June.

Le Bec-Fin’s famously mercurial owner and executive chef Georges Perrier, who with his thick accent, barrel-chested build and imperial manner would seem to fit central casting’s idea of a French chef, believes the timing is right to end this major chapter in his storied culinary career.

However, the 66-year-old Perrier, who co-owns and/or manages three other restaurants, doesn’t seem likely to stray too far from the restaurant scene he helped create. He has several new places in the works for city and suburban locations.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual for Le Bec-Fin, which is marking its anniversary with a four-course $40 dinner special. Or perhaps it’s more business than usual –– a midweek reservation was hard to get, likely due to the discounted prix fixe, which runs through October, and interest generated by news of the closing.

In recent years, Perrier has loosened things up considerably at his flagship restaurant, by relaxing the dress code; trying out all kinds of special menus, including a pay-what-you-wish gimmick, and even introducing a burger and frites.

Even with these changes, Le Bec-Fin, whose name is a French idiom for a refined palate, seems to belong to a different era, and not in a bad way. While other restaurants spill out on to the sidewalk, Perrier’s is a rarefied, white tablecloth sanctum contained behind a polished brass front door.

Inside, the staff is friendly but not too familiar, swirling around you in a pleasant buzz of efficiency. Someone refolds your napkin when you leave the table, various servers consult on the wine, take your order and bring the bread, and someone is always available to escort you to the bathroom if you don’t know the way.

The 40th anniversary choices show that culinary standards, under chef de cuisine Nicholas Elmi and Perrier’s watchful eyes, remain high, even as the menu continues to evolve.

Among the highlights of a recent dinner were the octopus and chorizo with pickled blueberries, a chilled pea soup with toasted almond “ice cream” and roasted flat iron steak with red wine poached shallots.

The meal didn’t seem like a trip down memory lane to your dad’s favorite old-school restaurant –– at least not until the dessert cart arrived.

After polishing off those luscious treats, I had to admit that sometimes father knows best.