For nearly the last half century, La Chaumière in Georgetown has remained largely unchanged. “If it’s not broken, don’t change it,” says longtime owner Martin Lumet. He’s held fast to that guiding principle since he took over the country-style French restaurant in 2006, when its original owner, Gerard Pain, retired. Now, Lumet is retiring too, and has sold the business to new owners. But La Chaumière will continue to stay true to its roots.
“There will be absolutely no change whatsoever. Why would I do that? I would be shooting myself in the foot. I would be disappointing a following of people that have been coming here for so long,” says new owner Gil Fornaris, a native of Nice, France who’s overseen operations at chains like P.F. Chang’s, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and more recently, First Watch daytime cafes.
Fornaris went to culinary school and worked for Michelin-starred restaurants in France before coming to the US in 1978. He was a captain at fine-dining establishments such as Rive Gauche in Georgetown before transitioning his career into restaurant management and corporate chain operations. He’s partnered in La Chaumiere with fellow industry exec and longtime wine sales rep Mike Connelly, who he first met working for Ruth’s Chris. Lumet’s business partner and chef Patrick Moulet will continue to run the kitchen for the next four months, while the new owners search for a new classically trained French chef.
“Ruth’s Chris was very big on service and hospitality, food quality, obviously. There were a lot of similarities to what La Chaumiere is about. The only thing that is different is that it’s a big chain,” Fornaris says. “Going back to a restaurant like La Chaumiere allows me to run the restaurant better than I would have if I didn’t have that experience with the corporate world.”
La Chaumiere has long been one of Fornaris’s favorite French restaurants, and Lumet is a longtime friend. In fact, Fornaris would often help with service at the restaurant when Lumet went on vacation, so he’s already familiar with many of the staff and regulars. So when Lumet approached him about taking ownership, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“What really attracts me to La Chaumiere is that institutional aspect of the restaurant,” Fornaris says. “It’s really satisfying to be able to take over something like La Chaumiere and really not have to reinvent the wheel at all. Maybe I’ll find a couple little things that we can do better. But as far as a guest is concerned, they can be assured that what they’ve known for the past 40 years, they’re going to find with me at the helm.”
Meanwhile, Lumet says he was ready for a personal change—one that involves more fishing and time with his wife. “I’m kind of tired of doing this,” he says. “I’ve been here for 17 years now, and, you know, it’s not an easy business. It takes a toll on you and your family, so I don’t want to be doing that for the rest of my life.” He adds that “tedious” DC regulations—from changes to the minimum wage to patio permitting—were another factor in selling the restaurant. “It’s very, very difficult to deal with Washington, DC,” he says, and dealing with local regulatory agencies is “a full time job in an office.”
At the same time, French restaurants are having a renaissance across DC. The latest openings include Petite Cerise in Shaw, Le Clou in NoMa, and Josephine in Old Town Alexandria, among others. “It’s a cycle,” Lumet says, noting the French restaurant boom of the 1980s. “In the ’90s, everybody was opening an Italian restaurant. In the year 2000, everybody was opening a steakhouse. And after that, when 14th Street was redeveloped, it was all those small-plate, medium-plate, big-plate restaurants. And now it’s French again.”
La Chaumière, soon to be 48 years old, has remained standing through it all with a long list of famous diners from Julia Child to former President George H. W. Bush. Lumet says the secret to keeping the restaurant going was his single-minded devotion: “I always say it’s better to have one restaurant and take good care of it than have five and neglect four of them.”
Hat tip to Carol Ross Joynt, who first reported news of the ownership change. This story has been updated with an interview from Gil Fornaris.