Before coming to America from his native France, Gerard Pain had no culinary training. Yet, through perseverance and thousands of orders of cassoulet and salmon en croute, he built his restaurant, La Chaumiere, into a D.C. dining landmark that became a favorite of many members of the capital’s elite.
Mr. Pain — whose name means “bread” in French — founded three restaurants in Washington, but he was best known for the homey bistro at the eastern edge of Georgetown that he founded in 1976. La Chaumiere, renowned for its reliably simple food and its large fireplace, was named one of the city’s 100 best restaurants by Washingtonian magazine for 30 consecutive years.
Mr. Pain was 73 when he died March 14 at his home in Charlottesville. He had a series of strokes, his daughter Geraldine Pain said.
When Mr. Pain came to America in 1963, he and his wife had two suitcases between them and spoke not a word of English. He found a job at a French restaurant, then spent eight years in the kitchen of the old National Lawyers Club.
In 1971, he bought a bistro in Cleveland Park and launched his first restaurant, L’Escargot.
He devised the menu, decorated the interior and did much of the cooking himself. Mr. Pain later bought a burned-out discotheque at 28th and M streets NW and, in that unpromising space, recreated a thick slice of the French world of his youth. He operated both restaurants for a few years before selling L’Escargot to concentrate on La Chaumiere, which means “thatched cottage” in French.
“It’s very reminiscent of the homey, cozy, stucco country houses that he grew up with,” Geraldine Pain said in an interview. “That fireplace he envisioned — he built it and put it in.”
Mr. Pain installed ceiling beams reclaimed from a Virginia barn and decorated the walls with horse collars, jugs and farming tools. La Chaumiere’s menu consisted of a melange of classic French dishes, as well as a few New World items — including crabcakes — made with a Gallic flair.
“The recipes were all his,” his daughter said. “They were what he grew up with and ate in his youth.”
Critics were charmed from the beginning.
“What a pleasure it is to see a restaurant continually improve,” Phyllis Richman wrote for The Washington Post in 1978, “and one should visit La Chaumiere on occasion for that reason alone.”
Food writer Julia Child dined at La Chaumiere; Nancy Reagan became a regular; and journalist Joseph Alsop regularly downed two carafes of red wine at lunch. President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush were greeted by diners with a standing ovation in 1990.
“The Dalai Lama came in his orange robes one day,” Geraldine Pain told the Washington Times in 1994. “That turned a lot of heads. I remember we had to send extra orders of sauteed spinach to his table.”
Gerard Pain was born April 27, 1938, in La Guerche-sur-l’Aubois, a rural town in central France. He grew up in the country and served in the French army in Algeria, then came to the United States, his daughter said, simply because he thought he would have greater opportunities than in his homeland.
In 1998, Mr. Pain opened Max’s, a steakhouse near the White House, which closed after three years. But he was always identified with La Chaumiere, where his wife did the bookkeeping and his daughters often helped out. Geraldine Pain worked alongside her father as La Chaumiere’s manager for more than 16 years.
Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Marie-Therese Rousset Pain of Charlottesville; two daughters, Geraldine Pain of McLean and Stephanie Baglio of Charlottesville; a brother; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Pain raised horses in Darnestown before moving in the 1990s to central Virginia, where he had a cattle farm in Madison County. He also enjoyed antique cars, which he raced in road rallies.
In 1994, he hired chef Patrick Orange, who is still serving up the same dishes that Mr. Pain created from his boyhood memories. Until he sold La Chaumiere to Orange in 2007, Mr. Pain remained a fixture at the restaurant, greeting guests with a flourish and often kissing women on the hand.
“He liked entertaining friends with good food and French Bordeaux wine,” Geraldine Pain said of her father. “He could never shake the accent and certain mannerisms that just resonated, ‘I am French.’ ”