Death of an Institution

By Beacon Staff

The owner of a very famous restaurant in Philadelphia announced last week that after 40 years he has decided to close.

Business was not off (that much). The chef did not quit (the owner is the chef). The rent didn’t go up (he owns the building).

So why did Le Bec Fin close?

Sounds like burnout to me. After 40 years doing the same thing day in and day out, one gets tired. It’s to be expected. This chef had received every possible accolade. His restaurant consistently received the highest praise from food critics in Philadelphia and from other cities and countries.

It was one of those institutions that, if you were in Philly, you just had to go there.

It was as if Philadelphians and visitors to the City of Brotherly Love took the translation of the name of the place literally. I do not speak much French and I’ll be darned if I understand their idioms and I have no idea how the words, “le, bec,” and “fin” mean “time to dine.” But that’s what it means. And, as I said, folks there took it literally. They always found time to dine at Le Bec Fin.

Le Bec Fin served some of the most elegant French food one could ever hope to eat in this country. This restaurant pre-dates the food craze by many years. In 1976, I lived close enough to Philadelphia that I was able to visit during the Bicentennial. The restaurant was only six years old and already it had carved a niche as the place to eat. In some ways this restaurant probably set the standard for the other very excellent restaurants that sprouted up all over Center City around the same time.

But none of those restaurants lasted as long as Le Bec Fin.

The first time I ever had foie gras was at Le Bec Fin. The first time I ate a quail egg was at Le Bec Fin. There were a lot of firsts for me at this restaurant long before I even had the thought of cooking professionally.

If you wanted to impress a date or a prospective client, this was the place you took them.

The restaurant business probably has the highest failure rate of any category of business. More than half of new restaurants close within the first year of opening. And of the remaining half, fully half of them close within two years. The five-year survival rate is even more dismal. It’s the primary reason new restaurants have the hardest time getting a bank loan. It doesn’t matter how great your concept is or how great a chef you may be. You are a high risk. Period. No getting around it.

It’s a tough business. Margins on food are notoriously low. Qualified and stable employees for the kitchen and for the front of the house can be hard to find, train and keep. When you decide to make your restaurant a “fine dining” institution, all of the foregoing becomes even more difficult. The training to understand the terminology and technique involved in fine French cuisine is pretty intense.

White linen tablecloths and napkins; tuxedos for waiters; crystal water glasses; crystal wine glasses in six or seven different shapes and sizes; specialized cutlery and other silverware and flatware; stocking the wine cellar so that every dish on the menu can be properly paired; and the list goes on.

I haven’t been to Le Bec Fin in many years, but I have very distinct memories of nearly every meal I had there. I probably won’t be able to get there before it closes for good and that saddens me.

Philadelphians, I’ll wager, are probably more distraught than I’ll ever be.

Adieu, Le Bec Fin. Merci beaucoup pour les nombreuses années de la nourriture et le vin extraordinaire.

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