Changing Skyline: Will Le Bec-Fin's old-school charm translate to new world of restaurants?

Le Bec-Fin's made-over main dining room. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Le Bec-Fin's made-over main dining room. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 16, 2012

The more things change elsewhere, the more they seem to stay the same in Philadelphia. So it should come as no surprise that the grand dining room at Le Bec-Fin, designed in 1983 to evoke the sumptuous Paris salons of the ancien regime, was given just the lightest of makeovers by its new owner for its much-anticipated reopening this week.

The forest of delicate, bone-white paneling remains in place on the walls, culminating at the ceiling in an intricate band of molding frosted with real gilt. The original glass chandeliers, voluminous as a mature hydrangea bush, have been cleaned and will continue to cast their magical glow on diners. While the royal blue carpet, laced with gold vines, may be new, its pile is as thick as a Reagan-era stock portfolio. Even Marie Antoinette's bust is back in its niche at the turn of the stairs, presiding without a hint of irony. Clearly, we are a long way from the world of Stephen Starr.

"Everything was so beautiful, we didn't see any reason to change," explained John Kelly, the Philadelphia interior designer who strategically tweaked the main salon, freshening things up with new fabrics in a rich slate blue but otherwise leaving the culinary shrine pretty much intact.

Le Bec-Fin loyalists will no doubt celebrate, but how will a new generation raised on casual dining respond to such mannered flourishes? It's a question being hotly debated in restaurant circles. Can Le Bec-Fin's old-school beauty — and it is beautiful — translate into fine-dining success in the era of small plates and big-name chefs?

For the man who now runs the house, Nicolas Fanucci, it is impossible to separate the storied culinary institution from its ornate French dining room. He served as general manager there from 2000 to 2002, during the last of its truly great years, before heading to California to oversee Thomas Keller's renowned French Laundry. From the moment he decided to buy Le Bec-Fin from its founder, Georges Perrier, Fanucci was determined to restore the restaurant to its Michelin-starred glory.

For him, that meant bringing back the integrity of the interior, which had suffered, like the food, through several unfortunate modernization efforts. Standards had fallen so far that the grand salon was eventually decked out, Fanucci said with a Gallic shudder, in earth tones. "Our goal," he said, "was to put back Le Bec-Fin's original beauty, from the time when it was successful."

Of course, dining out has undergone a sea change since the heady days of the '90s, when Esquire magazine deemed Le Bec-Fin the best restaurant in America. When Perrier moved the dining room from the location where it was founded in 1970, at 1312 Spruce St. (now home to Vetri), to the soaring space at 1523 Walnut St., Philadelphia had few restaurants worth talking about. Celebrities such as David Letterman made pilgrimages to Philadelphia to worship at Perrier's table.

Nowadays, good food is everywhere. At restaurants across the country, tattooed, shaven-headed iron chefs rule the stoves, serving five-star meals on bare wood tables. Their discerning customers (the male ones, at least) no longer wear ties, never mind jackets, when they saunter in for three-figure meals. Meanwhile, the great French restaurants have died off in many cities, New York included, and exist only as delectable memories in the minds of their aging clientele.

Because of those lifestyle changes, some restaurant consultants, such as Michael Whiteman, president of New York's Baum+Whiteman, argue that Fanucci made a serious error in not overhauling the well-known decor.

"If you're going to reintroduce a brand, you've got to do it in a new way," he argued. "I don't care how gorgeous that French interior is."

He suspects that the foodies who rush out on Saturday mornings to scour the farmer's markets won't want to spend their Saturday evenings in a hushed jewel box, being waited on by a phalanx of servers in starched white shirts and black vests. "The place is too ‘adult' and compels the customers, psychologically, to sit up straight in their chairs," he said. Indeed, two of the younger people at an opening party that was heavy on senior citizens said they couldn't imagine eating a meal at Le Bec-Fin.

Consultants, of course, could go through Fanucci's entire $150 prix-fixe menu at Le Bec-Fin and not agree on the right course for the design.

"The first question I'd ask," said Paul Bentel, a well-known New York restaurant designer, "is ‘Who are you serving?' Are regulars the focus? Or tourists? One of the challenges is to understand the market."

His firm, Bentel & Bentel, went through that exercise when it helped one of New York's remaining great French restaurants, Le Bernardin, with its first-ever renovation. They realized that the clientele had developed sophisticated design tastes. Their research led them to gut the space, which resembled an over-decorated corporate boardroom, and give it a sleek minimalist look dominated by a single, eye-popping abstract painting. "People who go to good restaurants today have been trained by a very different set of experiences than the older generation raised on Julia Child," said Bentel.

"I don't think that Le Bernardin's design would work here," cautioned Philadelphia's Neil Sandvold, of Sandvold Blanda Architecture, which has designed interiors for Iron Hill Brewery and the Marathon restaurants. "It's a very old-guard mentality, which I think is terrific. It's one of the things that makes Philadelphia very authentic. If would be very difficult to unravel [Le Bec-Fin's] history, without losing a sense of where it came from."

Clark Wolf, another New York restaurant consultant, agrees that tradition is more valued in Philadelphia. This is the city, after all, where some longtime patrons of the Philadelphia Orchestra balked at leaving the ornate, 19th-century Academy of Music and refused to support the modern Kimmel Center.

After seeing snapshots of Le Bec-Fin's new interiors, Wolf declared himself impressed. "It's true that we have much less fine dining in the country now. So what," he said, rebutting Whiteman. "There will always be a place for something lovely and refined."

That's exactly what Fanucci is counting on. "The experience here will be all about generosity, about making the interaction a personal one," he promised. "We will remember people's names, things about them." Borrowing a trick from Facebook, he added, "We have a system to track information about our customers. We will know your birthday."

It would be wrong to say that the only changes at Le Bec-Fin are about food and service. Kelly has made one significant design change: He shifted the host stand from the cramped entry vestibule to the middle room, previously an extension of the ornate dining salon. Kelly, who specializes in high-end suburban homes and has done only a few restaurants, installed two glamorous gold velvet banquets, cocktail tables, and a new parquet floor in the Fontainebleau pattern. By Le Bec-Fin standards, it's almost sexy.

The shift was made possible because Fanucci reduced the seating capacity from 90 to 62 in the main dining area. (There will be roughly 30 seats in the cozy basement bistro, now called Chez Georges.) The reduction is a big commitment, Wolf said. "It changes the whole DNA of the restaurant" because it allows every diner to feel he or she is the center of attention.

Fanucci expects there will be two staff for every customer, an unheard-of ratio in most restaurants. Even though the prix-fixe menu is the city's most expensive, Fanucci is throwing in valet parking, gratis, as a way of making customers feel indulged.

Fanucci and Kelly declined to reveal the cost of the renovations, which include a hand-painted mural of oversize fleur-de-lis by Dennis Haugh in the special-events room. Fanucci almost didn't renovate the dour basement bistro, but Kelly prevailed on him to give it a low-budget design infusion. On the walls, Kelly literally tacked shirred, blue polyester fabric, and he bought a set of Philippe Starck's gray plastic Louis ghost chairs to go with the dark wood tables.

There are subtle signs that Le Bec-Fin is going in a more modern direction. Once rich with shades of pink and salmon, the restaurant now has a slate-blue color scheme suggesting Loire Valley rather than Paris, conveying a slightly more casual French country look. Chef Walter Abrams intends to source as much food as possible from local farmers, a shift in style from Perrier's day.

He also plans "to pay a lot of attention to modern plating." Translation: no more gold-edged Limoges dishes. The kitchen shelves are stocked with plain white dishes that look almost architectural. How they play against the classic French salon remains to be seen.

Outside, Le Bec-Fin's exterior is virtually untouched, with its curving art deco-inspired canopy and name in cursive script. It's still a facade that hides its secrets behind marble walls. Will the fabulous decor of a bygone age be enough to get a new generation of diners to venture inside?

Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com, or @ingasaffron.

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