A year after Le Bec Fin's well-publicized downfall led the celebrated restaurant's owner to bid adieu after 42 years, the chandeliers are again sparkling, the linens are crisp, the silverware is shining and the reviews are positive.
Yes, Le Bec is back. But this former grand dame of French gastronomy, which spent decades in the rarefied air of haute cuisine, is still adjusting the recipe on its second act.
The challenge was taken up by Nicolas Fanucci, a Le Bec alumnus credited with reviving its lost luster in the early 2000s. After a generally warm response from critics to his menu and decor changes, many were surprised by the sudden departure this month of the head chef and pastry chef he brought along from The French Laundry in California.
Fanucci declined to elaborate on the split or say what other changes are in the offing for Le Bec 2.0 and its $150-a-person eight-course tasting menu.
“Our goal was to put it back together, to bring it back to what it was, the way people remember it,” he said. ”Now, we're going to put our personal stamp on it.”
Former chef Georges Perrier, known perhaps as much for his prickly Gallic temperament as for his four decades of gustatory magic at Le Bec Fin, hung up his chef's whites shortly after a painful review in The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 2012.
Under the headline “Dear Georges Perrier: What the Bec has happened?” the sausage-stuffed quail was likened to a “bird-shaped Bob Evans patty” and the formerly impeccable service as “food runners stomping about in suits, wondering what to do.”
Four weeks later, Perrier served his final dinner at Le Bec Fin. His successor, who had restored its coveted five-star Mobil Guide status before departing in 2003, immediately set to work on the reboot.
“Everything that I had implemented was still there but was diminished” Fanucci said. “Chairs were broken, the silverware and plates were the same from 10 years ago.”
He gave the classic French menu an American twist with local and seasonal ingredients, restored the dining room to its Louis XVI gilded glory and reduced the number of tables from 18 to 11. He dropped the extraneous hyphen in Perrier's Le Bec-Fin - a colloquialism for “the fine palate” - and christened the downstairs bistro Chez George in his predecessor's honor.
Chez George was recently renamed Le Bar, at the request of Perrier advisers citing unspecified business reasons. Perrier, who put his 9,000-square-foot Philadelphia home on the market and is said to be traveling extensively since his departure from Le Bec Fin, could not be reached for comment.
The toughest reservation in town during its heyday, it's now possible to get into Le Bec Fin - even on a weekend - with little advance notice.
Restaurants like Le Bec Fin are anachronisms in an era where diners can get top-notch meals in more relaxed settings, said Alain Sailhac, award-winning chef and executive vice president and dean emeritus at The International Culinary Center in New York.
There has been a revolution in American cuisine, he said, as TV chef shows and cooking schools proliferate and as more knowledgeable diners seek out fare that's lighter and simpler. Sailhac, who earned international acclaim as executive chef at New York's Le Cirque in the 1970s and 1980s, sees the changes as positive.
“If someone were to make a restaurant like Georges', I'm sure old people like me or older than me, they would like that,” he said. “But the older people will disappear.”
Sailhac likened Le Bec Fin post-Perrier to a contemporary, New York's legendary Lutece, after the departure of chef Andre Soltner in 1994. It closed in 2004.
“They tried to do it with Lutece, to keep it the same. Nobody could. No one,” he said. “You cannot replace Georges. You just have to do something else.”
Fanucci works with the understanding that Le Bec is not only about conjuring otherworldly meals, it's about changing perceptions that keep even dedicated foodies from coming to the table.
“There is an impression of a very strict, severe, not fun experience,” Fanucci said. “It's never been like that and once we get people through the door, they realize it.”