by LEN LEAR
About 30 years ago, Georges Perrier opened Le Bar Lyonnais as an homage to his native Lyon, France, and as a lower-priced, more casual alternative to the opulent Le Bec Fin upstairs at 1523 Walnut St.
But times have changed, to put it mildly. A couple of decades ago, quite a few center city restaurants — Le Bec Fin, the Fountain Room and Prime Rib, to name a few — had a strict dress code; jackets and dresses or pants suits required, no baggy jeans, tee-shirts, sneakers, flip-flops, etc. I can remember an article by Jim Quinn, who wrote restaurant critiques for the Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, who blasted Downey’s at Front and South Streets for insisting that he wear the jacket they handed him when he walked in wearing a poncho.
Nowadays, however, even the fanciest emporiums will not turn away any creature with two legs and a non-expired credit card. A couple of summers ago we sat in the main dining room of Le Bec Fin as a couple who appeared to be tourists were ushered in wearing tee-shirts, shorts and sandals as if they were in Avalon or Wildwood. In other words, the fashion wars are over, and the upscale restaurants have lost. Two years ago, a manager at Prime Rib told me they had no choice but to do away with their jackets-only rule.
So late last year, when Perrier and chef Nicholas Elmi rescinded their idea of selling the building that houses Le Bec Fin, they decided to remake Le Bar Lyonnais, which was gutted. The bar/restaurant replacing it, which debuted in late August, is now called Tryst (a meeting, often clandestine, of lovers).
The former cloakroom at the bottom of the steps is now a seating area. The bar area has contemporary leather banquettes and small black-topped tables behind a wavy wall sculpture. The bar, now sporting a frosted, lighted glass top, is beautifully framed in whitewashed antique wood molding, but the emphasis is on casual.
By the way, because of its prices and Versailles Palace-like ambience and formal attire the staff used to wear, I have had people (including some who had never been there) tell me that service at Le Bec Fin is stuffy and intimidating. Our experiences have been the exact opposite. Perrier has long been fanatical that his staff eviscerate all vestiges of stuffiness.
I mention this because just last week we visited a new, pricey restaurant in center city with outstanding food, but the server had a facial expression all night long as if his day job were in a morgue. We all know that service is a major contributor, for good or ill, to one’s restaurant experience. And during our recent dinner at Tryst, its manager, Erik Lombardo, was the mortar in Tryst’s facade with his genuine friendliness, attentiveness and encyclopedic knowledge of the menu and wine list. A French gentleman named Sylvain who greeted us was also super-friendly. He even gave us some information that has saved us money. (He told us that all parking at center city meters on Wednesday nights is free. No money is required.)
The handsome Lombardo went to Cornell University but not to its famous restaurant management school. “I went for psychology,” he said, “an irony that is not lost on me. My knowledge of food/wine/cocktails comes from my passion for them. My mother is a chef, and I like to say that I grew up in a kitchen, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to turn that passion into my area of focus.”
Drink prices are serious at Tryst ($13 for cocktails, but there are some good wine selections for less than $10 a glass). If you do get a cocktail, try the Delicious Sour, sheer peach heaven. Food prices are quite reasonable, between $5 and $21. Dishes that completely blew us away were classic escargots with hazelnut and garlic butter ($16), a wig of moist, soft tagliatelle with dried chile and Italian cheeses ($12), toothsome mushroom ravioli draped with a subtle ivory sauce ($13) and sublime Burgundy short ribs ($17).
A dessert of sour cream coffee cake from executive pastry chef Cedric Barberet was ambrosial, unlike any coffee cake we had ever tasted. In fact, next week we are entering a 12-step program to wean us off of coffee cake.
The only negative during our visit was a group of 12 people at an engagement party at a nearby table. They were about as loud as the fans at a Phillies game. But I heard the groom-to-be say that he had asked his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage. The last time that happened was in a Jane Austen novel.
With the top-of-the-line food, drinks and staff at Tryst, it looks as if it has turned into one of the hottest bars in the area. When we arrived at 7:20, the place was less than half-full, but by 9 p.m., it was so packed, one of us almost had to inhale while the other exhaled. More information at 215-567-1000 or http://trystlebar.com/.