Marcel’s Is Closing—and It’s the End of an Era

The 25 year-old French restaurant stood out for its staunch devotion to retro elegance.

French favorite Marcel's makes lobster bisque even more decadent by capping it with butter pastry. Photograph by Scott Suchman .

DC is in the midst of a French-restaurant boom. But yesterday marked the end of an era in Gallic dining here. Marcel’s, the lace-curtained French/Belgian dining room in the West End, announced that it will close on May 12 after 25 years. On its web site, it cited failed lease negotiations with the business’s new landlord as the reason.  

Chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier’s restaurant, a fixture on our 100 Best Restaurants list for decades, has been a stronghold of antique elegance, complete with cloches, floral china, and a coppery open kitchen filled with cooks in tall toques. While the menu format shifted over the years—at times letting diners DIY their own tasting menus, then offering an a la carte option—the essence of the place didn’t change much at all. That’s admirable, given that Marcel’s crowd seemed to age along with it, and that special occasion restaurants nowadays might come with a side of bedazzled handcuffs or Jay-Z. At Marcel’s, the extras included live piano, or a luxury roundtrip ride to the Kennedy Center. There’s nothing like it here anymore. 

Robert Wiedmaier in lounge at Marcel's. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Robert Wiedmaier in lounge at Marcel’s. Photograph by Scott Suchman .

A quarter-century run is nothing to sniff at. Think about how different things were in the late ‘90s, when chefs like Michel Richard, Gerard Pangaud, and Yannick Cam ruled the Sauternes-soaked second wave French dining scene (the first wave started with the 1961 arrival of Rene Verdon, JFK’s White House chef). Back then, Robert Wiedmaier ran the kitchen at Aquarelle at the Watergate, which took over the space vacated by Jean Louis Palladin. When he opened Marcel’s in 1999, the place fit right in. The boudin blanc, Washingtonian critic Robert Shoffner wrote in his review that year, “is so light and delicious it almost redefines sausage.” Get it while you still can—it never left the menu. Now, diners are more apt to think of restaurants like the cash-printing Le Diplomate or the cozy, straight-outta-Paris Lutece when they think of going out to a nice French dinner.  

It’s been a tough year for Wiedmaier—in March, he closed his more casual Brasserie Beck after 17 years. The good news is that the veteran talent isn’t going anywhere. He still owns Mussel Bar in Ballston and Keystone Korner, a jazz bar in Baltimore, and he’ll reopen the Bethesda branch of Mussel Bar in June. And for Marcel’s fans, there’s hope: he told the Washington Post a “Petit Marcel’s” may be in our future.  

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.