Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bec and Call

There's something here I can't quite put my finger on, in this story by Michael Callahan in Philadelphia magazine about the perceived decline of Le Bec-Fin, for so many years Philadelphia's signature restaurant, and the confusion that its longtime eminence, Georges Perrier, finds himself in as a result.

I arrived in Philadelphia after the "Restaurant Renaissance," the sudden outburst of restaurants -- from haute cuisine to hip cafeterias like the Commissary -- in the 1970s that in some way said that despite Mayor Frank Rizzo, despite the collapse of the workshop economy, despite the Third World aspects of the place (the built-in inefficiency, the bureaucracies, the corruption), the city was not the dour place of organization men, sheltered housewives, high society and Joe Sixpacks that it had seen itself as. One could be hip in Philadelphia, which one could never be before.

The growth of The Inquirer and the eventual downfall of the Bulletin was part of that. The Bulletin was Old Philadelphia -- stable, predictable, Brooks Brothers for the rulers, Sears for the ruled. The Inquirer roared onto the scene in the same manner as Le Bec-Fin or Frog or the Garden -- saying, in essence, Yes We Can. It was in part saying that we were as sophisticated as New York, as important, even while looking over our shoulder and wincing every time New York said, no you're not. But it was also saying that we were ready to stand up to the disapproval of our "betters." Le Bec-Fin was the "we can compete with any city" restaurant; Steve Poses' restaurants were saying that it wasn't inferior to just do what we liked. One dressed to the nines for Bec-Fin, as other restaurants became increasingly informal.

I went to Bec-Fin once, with my wife. I didn't enjoy it very much. It wasn't just wearing a suit for dinner, though I don't like to bother. And the staff was, as advertised, friendly and cooperative, not full of itself. The food, the presentation, were, of course, excellent; and although Perrier is notoriously cranky, he has always wanted people to enjoy being at his restaurant. There was nothing wrong with Le Bec-Fin. It's just that I didn't want to belong to that group, and thanks to the multiplicity of restaurants with food and experiences not on Bec-Fin's level but Good Enough, I didn't have to. I didn't have to prove I could fit in at a place like Bec-Fin to prove that I was knowledgable or sophisticated. I didn't need to feel I had merited Georges Perrier's seal of approval, because it wasn't that the only other option was Howard Johnson's. I knew in my heart that I wasn't sophisticated in that old-school way, but I also said: And it doesn't matter. It's not either Brooks Brothers or Sears.

In looking at department store ads before Christmas from the 1950s, I'm struck by how many said something like "They'll appreciate your gift more when they open that Ayres (or Shillito's or Emporium or Frederick & Nelson) box." Part of the gift was showing that you 1) cared enough and 2) were couth enough to understand that buying a gift at Foley's meant something beyond the gift itself. Why? Well, there really wasn't that much variety. Men wore white shirts to work every day. Women wore gloves and hats. There was a uniform for every occasion.

The department-store box showed that you had bought quality -- possibly even paid a bit more -- for a sweater vest that didn't look that much different than the sweater vest you could have bought at Nat's Cut-Rate Men's Wear. You understood the rules. Newspapers were part of the way in which society said, every day, here's what's important, decide to what degree you are going to fit in. You can decide not to go to Le Bec-Fin, but if you do you will belong to the class of people who don't go to Le Bec-Fin, and there are really only two classes of people.

Georges Perrier's temple of gastronomy is suffering not because he has refused to change -- given the sort of chef he is, he's jumped through hoop after hoop this last decade. It's because no one needs to go to Le Bec-Fin to feel sophisticated anymore. In food, "good enough" is now as good or better than "excellent" used to be, and thus, if I think I am sophisticated, wherever my friends and I go shows our sophistication. We don't have to be "discerning," because "discerning" no longer means "figure out what people better than you say is good, and learn to like it." And thus, the death of "Gourmet."

A department store box no longer communicates that the gift-giver cares, because there's huge variety and nearly everything is of the same quality -- not as good as "excellent" used to be, but good enough that "excellent" no longer matters. And one no longer has to read a newspaper to feel informed -- even if the newspaper is no worse than it was 10 years ago, even if it is an excellent newspaper, "good enough" is sufficient because knowing what's in the newspaper is no longer a civic expectation. You no longer need to show you understand the rules; you find the group whose rules understand you. Or you create one.

"Trade-Off," a new book by Kevin Maney, a longtime USA Today journalist, gets at this from a related angle. He redefines the "you have to be Wal-Mart or Target, but Kmart is nobody" argument as: It's the balance between "fidelity" and "convenience." "Convenience" is the mass-market stuff you don't really care about but need to have. "Fidelity" is what you love. You'll pay a premium for fidelity and suffer as little inconvenience as possible for the rest. Thus, the cost of a newspaper, the getting it from the street in the cold, the ink on your hands, most important having to concentrate on it instead of multitasking are massive inconveniences -- unless you love the newspaper. The problem for newspapers is, not enough people love the newspaper.

What Maney's book doesn't bring out is that it used to be common to have mass-market fidelity. People used to love department stores because one got one's sense of self from doing what seemingly knowledgable people did, which was to buy at department stores. I think it's this sense of wanting mass-market fidelity back that animates many social conservatives -- "I want broadcast TV to reflect my values because I want to fit in with broadcast TV, I don't want to have to care about what's on HBO or AMC, I want there to be a mainstream and I want to be part of it" -- but that's just a silly personal opinion.


gottacook said...

A very well-considered post; thanks.

I lived in center city 1978-82 and was there for the last years of the Bulletin (the awful Pete Rose radio commercials etc.) and several of the glory years of the Inquirer. A few days ago, for the first time in 17 years, I was back in center city - in a hotel room just northwest of city hall - and looked in the phone book hoping to find that the Commissary was still open; alas the only listing was for a "Frog Commissary Catering" in some far-flung neighborhood. Luckily, the tiny diner Little Pete's on 17th Street was still there, and they still make an excellent Greek salad.

Anonymous said...

Try Toscana 52 on Street Road in Feasterville near Trevose. We have family near there and they recommended the restaurant. No suits-and-ties, but excellent food.