In 1970, a Frenchman named Georges Perrier opened an opulent little jewel box of a restaurant just off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and astutely named it Le Bec Fin, a French expression that literally translates as the Fine Beak, but that also means the Fine Palate. He quickly seduced the city's frequently Francophile establishment, and, more important, tutored them in Gallic gastronomy like a stern but conditionally charming headmaster. For almost 40 years, Bec Fin was considered the best restaurant in Philadelphia, and one of the finest French tables in the United States.
Then in 2008, Bec Fin fumbled an attempt to remain relevant. It dialed down its stern dress code and moved to an à la carte menu. But the expense and rituals of old-school French haute gastronomie still seemed dated and oddly joyless.
In 2010, Mr. Perrier announced his intention to close the restaurant in 2011, but instead sold it early in 2012 to Nicolas Fanucci, a former Bec Fin manager who had just spent six years at the French Laundry in California. After closing for a discreet renovation, this storied dining room reopened in June, with the chef Walter Abrams, also a French Laundry alum, in the kitchen.
The new Bec Fin is an excellent but rather puzzling place. If a certain aura of haughty exclusivity, which characterized this restaurant in its prime, is long gone, the miniature-Versailles grandeur of the dining room hasn't changed, with lots of gold leaf and several tons of crystal chandelier overhead. A mostly French crew is still employed, meting out the type of fussy French service they mistakenly think Americans want.
Mr. Abrams's lovely cooking, however, issues from a profoundly American locavore-driven idiom. To be sure, the impressive steeliness of the kitchen's technique still reads like French mettle, but the celery-root velouté with apple relish and hazelnuts that recently opened the $150 eight-course tasting menu was as wonderfully homespun as Betsy Ross's apron, as were Hudson Valley foie gras with pistachios, turnip, shaved persimmon and honey; and striped bass with carrots, caramelized romaine lettuce and Meyer lemon butter. France flapped its wings a bit with dishes like a succulent free-range poularde with creamy lentils, lardons, beets and jus (not to mention a cheese course that's almost invariably French), but the superb grand finale, a spiced pumpkin cheesecake by the talented pastry chef Jennifer Smith, swung back the American way.
So the same distracting question recurs throughout a meal here: Does serious food in the United States really still need a French benediction? By proving that it doesn't, the new Bec Fin rather curiously succeeds in spite of itself.
Le Bec Fin, 1523 Walnut Street, Philadelphia; (215) 567-1000; lebecfin.com. Prix fixe tasting menus for dinner are $115 and $150 (vegetarian, $150); for lunch, $39 and $55.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.