It was an evening of celebration tinged with melancholy when the venerable Bistro Français shuttered its doors on Sunday evening. After 41 years at the same location on M Street in the heart of Georgetown, chef Gerard Cabrol, 68, decided it was time hang up his toque and bid adieu.
Over the years the popular restaurant became part of culinary and social fabric of the city. When the bistro opened in 1975, it was the only dining spot that stayed open after ten o’clock, serving a late-night menu of omelettes and eggs Benedict until 3:00 am. It quickly evolved into a watering hole for night owls, chefs, and Kennedy Center performers. On many late nights, lines formed around the block to get into the 75-seat space. One night, opera star Jose Carreras and a gaggle of singers broke out into arias, much to the astonishment of diners. Every Bastille Day, well known chefs including Michel Richard, Roberto Donna, and Jean-Louis Palladin gathered in the back room for a lavish and festive wine tasting.
Arlette Toppoc, owner of a Georgetown beauty salon, has been a regular every other Sunday for 25 years. She brought seven friends for a last meal of salmon en croute, crème brûlée, and a kir royale.
“This place is unique,” she said. “Georgetown is starting to look like a mall.”
“It really is the end of an era and horribly sad,” said wine expert Pierre Rovani, a close friend of Cabrol. “It’s been my hangout, and it’s like losing a piece of your family.”
“There is so much history. So many memories here. I don’t think people realize what they are losing,” reflected former employee Pascal Bincheri.
For some, the farewells began early and lasted into the evening. Sandro Kereselidze of Art Soiree arrived with 20 friends for brunch, and stayed though dinner. As he was leaving, he confessed his group had consumed approximately 30 bottles of Champagne.
“I’ve been coming for 20 years, and this is my second home,” said Kereselidze. “Everything has a beginning and an end. Gerard Cabrol has had a fantastic run. Now it’s on to a new chapter.”
First-timer Phillip Semitekolos, the assistant manager of hot newcomer Masseria, came to see what he called “an institution.”
“I wanted to pay my respects,” he said. “Other restaurants owe a lot to Cabrol.”
Cabrol sat at a window table, surrounded by well-wishers sipping red wine and Tattinger Champagne.
“I’m sad. It’s been my life. It’s not easy to decide to stop,” said Cabrol. “It’s too difficult to run a place today. For the past five years all the business went to Chinatown, the Verizon Center. Georgetown is not the same. It is only busy on weekends.”
The neighborhood has endured the loss of several institutions in recent years—place like the Guards and Cafe La Ruche—while an influx of trendy new restaurants like the luxurious Fiola Mare, Chez Billy Sud, and the Sovereign have many diners proclaiming that a Georgetown restaurant renaissance is underway. Still to the many regulars of Bistro Français—whose loyalty stretches beyond years into decades—the loss is irreplaceable.
Dr. Justin Frank, a regular for 40 years, dined at the restaurant three times over the final week. When his son learned of Cabrol’s plans to close, he flew in from Los Angeles for a final bite of steak tartare.
“I will miss the welcome, and the warm feeling that I am completely at home,” Frank said. “And, of course, the kidneys and the frites.”
Cabrol cooked every meal since the opening, excluding Sundays. When the restaurant started to lose money over the last couple of years, he regretfully decided to close and embrace retirement—relax, run marathons, sail. His wife will take over the cooking at home. According to Cabrol, commercial rates are soaring in Georgetown, ranging from $20,000 to $35,000 per month, making it difficult for independent restaurant owners to survive. A hip, Philadelphia-based men’s shoe store will replace the bistro, UBIQ—short for “ubiquitous.”
“That,” Carbol chuckled, Champagne flute in hand, “is my retirement.”