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Georges Perrier lightens up Le Bec-Fin

Philadelphia has lost its only Mobil five-star restaurant.

Saying he wants to "start having fun," chef Georges Perrier will do away with the fixed-price dinner menus and set seating times that have been the hallmarks of his landmark Le Bec-Fin since it opened in 1970.

Starting Monday, Perrier will drop prix-fixe dégustation menus - some as high as $165 per person - in favor of much less expensive à la carte dining at the French restaurant at 1523 Walnut St. Instead of 6 and 9:30 p.m. dinner seatings Mondays through Saturdays, reservations will be booked every 15 minutes.

The vibe will be relaxed as well, although he has no plans to change the decor.

Jeans at Le Bec? Oui.

"I want to make my restaurant casual because I have no fun anymore," Perrier, 64, said in an interview.

The move - Le Bec-Fun? - comes at a price, at least to Perrier's ego. Perrier yesterday relinquished his prized five-star award, the top prize from Mobil Travel Guide. Mobil demands it back when a restaurant changes its concept.

Le Bec-Fin was one of only 17 such five-star restaurants in the United States.

Anonymous Mobil inspectors demand the highest standards from a checklist of nearly 300 criteria. Five-star restaurants, for example, must be "flawless" in all respects. Solid ice cubes are preferred over hollow ones. Washrooms must have "cloth towels, fresh plants or flowers and elegant fixtures." Not only must such restaurants offer an amuse bouche - a tasty morsel served before the first course - but it must be "of exceptional quality and presentation."

"You have no idea what it is like to live with this kind of pressure," Perrier said.

When Mobil downgraded Le Bec-Fin to four stars in June 2000, Perrier slipped into a deep funk that did not lift until November 2002, when - after numerous staff changes and a $500,000 freshening of the decor to that of a Parisian salon - Le Bec-Fin regained the fifth star.

Newly married and 30 pounds lighter, Perrier said he wants time to breathe. He also has another restaurant due to open next month.

He and chef de cuisine Pierre Calmels have set up a new menu of appetizers (an $11 endive salad to a $17 tuna tartare with caviar) and entrees ($17 for pasta to $68 côte de bœuf for two). Perrier said two people could eat for less than $100.

Le Bec-Fin's all-you-can-eat dessert cart will remain ($15), as will its cheese cart. Lunch, which became à la carte last year, is served on Fridays and Saturdays.

It's many years removed from Le Bec-Fin's opening on Spruce Street in 1970, when a six-course menu cost about $12.

"I am upset that a lot of food critics always feel I am the most expensive restaurant in Philadelphia," Perrier said. "Maybe 25 years ago, yes. But I feel I was the cheapest in terms of quality [of the food]. You can go to a steakhouse and spend $120."

Around the country, fancy restaurants are loosening their ties. Bastide in Los Angeles relinquished its five stars last year when it closed to reconceptualize. The five-star Alain Ducasse in New York's Essex House closed last year, forcing the chef to start from scratch at the St. Regis Hotel with his new restaurant, Adour.

Though his dinner checks may be half of what they were, Perrier said the trend toward more casual dining elsewhere was not a factor.

"I think this is a wise decision," Perrier said. "I've always been at the avant garde of my profession. I have my awards. I was the first to open on Walnut Street" in 1983, after 13 years at 13th and Spruce Streets. "I have nothing to prove to myself or to anyone. I just want to please myself and my customers."

"Georges has always been ahead of the curve," said Norman Cohn, a longtime customer. "If he feels now is the time to come to à la carte, then it must be right. I'll miss the old Le Bec-Fin, but I have a lot of confidence in him. That took a lot of courage."

Contact columnist Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/michaelklein.

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