In late August 2002, as he walked up to the job site at Le Bec Fin, a Philadelphia establishment that is one of the nation’s finest restaurants, Michael Kahmar, vice president of Kahmar Electric, started slightly when he noticed the sign posted at the front entrance: “Accepting reservations for September 7.” That definitely set the deadline for the 26-day job, he thought as he opened the front door to see the entire restaurant gutted. “I just wondered,” Kahmar says now, “how it was going to happen within the time frame.”

The $500,000 remodel, done during closure of the restaurant, was initiated by owner George Perrier. Until 2000, the 20-year-old restaurant rated five stars from Mobil, an honor held by only about 14 restaurants nationwide. That year the rating dropped to four stars, enough for many restaurants but not for Perrier. After shuffling chefs to no avail, he decided to try redecoration. The restaurant’s closure was announced and chatted about in the local papers. The last dinners served in the rooms with the old décor were covered on the local news. Not your ordinary remodel.

Kahmar Electric’s job was to work with the team transforming the decades-old restaurant. It included DAS Architects/Interior Designers, Philadelphia; Grenald Waldron Associates, lighting designers; and General Contractor A. J. Lewis, King of Prussia, Pa. Out with the ornate, 1700s Louis XVI look, replete with flocked raspberry wallpaper. In with a lighter, airier, late-19th century Paris salon look in a muted gold color scheme. In with walls covered by milled woodwork with inlaid silk panels. Up with several large oil paintings of French landscapes. “Le Bec Fin has a very big name. We were nervous but confident,” said Cindy Kahmar, president of Kahmar Electric. Their part included rewiring the entire restaurant, installing recessed lights and a new dimming system. “It was a nutty, crazy few weeks,” said Cindy, who with her husband Michael founded Kahmar Electric in October 1996.

Architect David Schultz, President, DAS Architects/Interior Designers, was responsible for the new design. The old lighting was described as “vaguely harsh, more ricocheting than relaxing” by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols. 

“Lighting is very important in a restaurant,” said Schultz. “It’s been about 17 years that the restaurant had the Louis XVI period look. The majority of light came from the large chandeliers, the remainder came from wall sconces. We added several layers of lighting so we could reduce glare off chandeliers, to make the room really come to life. We knew where the tables were going to be so we could work out a lighting pattern that would work with them. We completely gutted the restaurant and started fresh with the exception of the chandeliers.”

Le Bec Fin has three dining rooms in the 25-foot wide establishment. “One of our key objectives was to make the space feel bigger,” said Schultz. Lighting Designer Lee Waldron, Grenald Waldron Associates, explained how that was to be accomplished.

“The restaurant is long and narrow,” said Waldron. “By lighting the perimeter walls that are on the long side, we, in a sense, gave an expansive quality to the room so that it seems a bit larger than it actually is. We put the crystal chandeliers on a pre-set dimming system so they were at a low light level. By using concealed architectural lighting up in the ceiling—low-voltage fixtures with a very small aperture—we were able to highlight the walls and the fabric panels on the walls.” Interior designer Susan Davidson of DAS also used mirrors with gold-leaf frames, lit by the ceiling lights, to augment that effect.

The task for Kahmar Electric was to rewire the three dining rooms to install the ceiling lights. There were no lights in the ceiling before, other than the large chandeliers in the main dining room. The ceiling lights were a special order. “A lot of times when you have special lighting fixtures you have a minimum wait of six weeks,” said Michael Kahmar. “Since the decision on what fixture to use wasn’t made until the last minute, we were afraid they wouldn’t arrive in time. We got the materials in stages. We received the housing first so we could start the installation. Then we worried about whether we’d get the rest. We did. Everything worked out fine.”

Christopher Falcone, project manager for Kahmar Electric, and two other electricians performed the work. “There was a painting of a lady on a swing on the ceiling in the front dining room,” said Falcone. “We had to put eight lights around that without affecting the painting, then place other high hats closer to the walls—in between a ceiling molding and the wall. We only had a 6-inch wide space and the lights were 4 inches wide. If there was a stud in the ceiling, we had to have the carpenters frame out the ceiling so we could put a light in the space. We had to move 10 studs. A. J. Lewis loaned me a carpenter who worked with me. The entire job was a combination of effort.”

Lighting designer Waldron selected the fixtures from RSA Lighting LLC, Chatsworth, Calif. “It was like a design/build,” said Michael Kahmar, “as we were told what fixtures to use.” Waldron’s choice was based on appearance. “RSA is one of the companies that deal with this product,” said Waldron. “Some fixtures have an outside trim that is basically the housing frame. When you cut a hole in the ceiling, the trim fits up against the ceiling and there’s an insert plate that fits within the trim. RSA’s product doesn’t have that extra line on the trim so it is basically a clean surface. We were trying to achieve an anonymous look to the lighting so the patrons wouldn’t notice a lot of larger holes in the ceiling. The fixtures were 41/2 inches in diameter and the aperture hole in trim plate inside was 1 to 2 inches. They were low voltage. The light was concealed in the hole so that there was not a lot of glare or distraction for the restaurant goer. What we tried to do is imply that the decorative chandeliers were providing all the light in the room and that the architectural lighting was supplemental. By providing a number of subsystems, we attempted to create a very intimate environment so that the chandeliers would not be glaringly bright and the real lighting, the functional lighting, would be concealed.

Kahmar Electric only ran into one snag in terms of their schedule. As they were rewiring the three dining rooms and installing the 60 to 70 new fixtures, they discovered they had to rewire the kitchen as well. Perrier had purchased new equipment that wouldn’t work with the old wiring. “The amount of work kept snowballing,” said Michael Kahmar. “It all worked out, but the weeks went by in a blur.”

While the prior lighting system had a simple dimming system that controlled all three rooms with one switch, the new system allows for manipulation of different lighting for each dining room. The light levels for lunch, cocktails, dinner and maintenance are pre-set so they can be selected by the push of a button. The panel is situated in the waiter’s station.

So how did it all turn out? How did the patrons respond to the new look and to the lighting? The local news covered the opening. The first diners were surprised during when the lights went out unexpectedly, when the lights dimmed without notice, when they went haywire. A problem? Not really. Turns out that due to the limited space in the station, the waiters, trying to squeeze by one another, kept leaning on the new control panel, inadvertently hitting the preset buttons: A simple grate installed over the panel solved the problem. “I’m surprised the news didn’t do a story on that,” said Michael Kahmar.

And the fifth star? It’s back. Mobil bestowed it again on the newly refurbished Le Bec Fin, new lights and all. EC

CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.