Forty years ago, French cuisine reigned supreme in America. There were no serious Italian restaurants, no cooking schools or celebrity chefs, and indigenous American food was held in contempt. French chefs were the stars, and they didn’t worry about pleasing their customers—it was up to diners in French restaurants to demonstrate that they were worthy of attention.
In 1970, Georges Perrier opened Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia. Perrier had trained at the legendary La Pryramide in Vienne. Le Bec-Fin became known as one of the finest restaurants in the country; along with Manhattan establishments such as Lutece, La Grenouille and La Caravelle, it pioneered the concept of the prix fixe menu, and celebrated the classical and elaborate cuisine of France.
Slowly, though, things began to change. Barcelona and Tokyo eclipsed Paris as the culinary capitals. Americans became more knowledgeable and adventurous at the table, and their passion for food was paired with a relaxation of dress codes and behavior standards. For a generation that grew up on gastropubs and farm to table fare, it was difficult to relate to tuxedoed waiters, tableside cooking and entrees concealed under silver domes. By the time the new millenium arrived, grand French cuisine was regarded as an amusing anachronism in America, and places like Le Bec-Fin were struggling.
In July, 2010, Perrier announced that he was closing the restaurant. He had a change of heart last year and decided to keep it open, but a series of stinging reviews made it clear to him that his era was over. Earlier this year he announced that he was retiring and turning the restaurant over to his executive chef and general manager. He served his last meal on March 6.
Le Bec-Fin (a French term roughly translating to “a finely tuned palate”) is currently undergoing renovations and will reopen in in May. The kitchen will be under the direction of chef Nicholas Elmi, while the front of the house will be orchestrated by Nicolas Fanucci. Fanucci, who has been at Le Bec-Fin since 2000, is the former general manager of The French Laundry in Napa. He believes that he can restore Le Bec-Fin to a semblance of its former glory, and he has a job on his hands.