It was mid-morning, almost seven hours before the first of the evening's 197 customers would arrive for an elegant dinner, but octogenarian restaurateur Francois Haeringer was indignant as he peered at the stove with the boiling pot of water filled with artichoke hearts.

"What is this?" he snapped incredulously at one of his cooks laboring in his cramped kitchen. "There's too much water in there!"

The cook dutifully emptied some of the water and Francois, a slightly built man with a pronounced nose and wispy white hair, moved on. Within the hour he would admonish another sous chef about the scraps of cut vegetables that had fallen on the floor, splash wine and spices into the mushroom sauce for the veal scallopini that 26 luncheon guests would soon be served, and help another cook brush tiny thyme leaves off their stems to add to a seafood thermidor hors d'oeuvre.

Attention to such minutiae is at the very existence of life at L'Auberge Chez Francois, the venerable Great Falls institution where Francois is the emperor and no one forgets it.

A day-long visit on a recent Thursday to L'Auberge Chez Francois provided a window into the business operation of a major restaurant, one that is widely acclaimed by critics and adored by many of its customers -- and one that has succeeded for decades in a business where so many fail. It is a world where much occurs with military, snap-to-it-right-now precision, yet one where the mistakes of human beings expose the fragility of the venture, making perfection as reachable as catching up to a mirage.

"A good business is made out of details," Francois said. "You never please everyone 100 percent, but you can please them 95 percent of the time. If someone tells you his business is perfect, that's nonsense. It doesn't exist."

Year after year, the customers keep coming back to Francois's restaurant, hidden among Great Falls' trees and rolling hills. So many are willing to pay $60 or $70 for a hearty meal inspired by the Alsatian countryside in France where Francois first learned to cook that for 15 years in a row Washingtonian readers have voted it their favorite restaurant.

"My principle is always the customers," he said. "The food cost to me is secondary. Elsewhere it's 25 to 30 percent [of the cost of a meal]. I am not looking at cost like everybody else. I look at the satisfaction of my customers."

His lack of cost-consciousness hasn't hurt his bottom line too badly. He said that last year the restaurant grossed $5 million, generating a $300,000 profit. That is a relatively modest 6 percent in earnings, more than the 4.1 percent median profit the National Restaurant Association says it found this year in a nationwide survey of 1,800 restaurants, but less than the 9.9 percent profit registered by the top quarter of profit-making establishments.

Father Knows Best, Always

Francois hasn't given up searching for perfection, never mind that in May he had a quadruple-heart-bypass operation and got a new valve as well. He shows up for work the six days a week the restaurant is open and sometimes for a private party on Monday, the day it is closed to the public.

Francois operates the restaurant with his three sons. They are Jacques, 49, who runs the kitchen during the dinner hours; Robert, 48; and Paul, 45, who variously oversee the dining rooms, greet guests, dust the glass covers for the desserts displayed near the entryway, handle the payroll and tend to a host of other chores.

It is a paternalistic domain, one dominated by Francois, who openly ponders what his sons might do with the restaurant if he were to retire. Meanwhile, his three sons marvel at the creation of their father, but, as established restaurateurs in their own right, also chafe under his thumb.

"When you have an army, you need a general," Francois said, making it clear who that general is. "My sons want to send me to Siberia or around the world to Bora Bora. I'm here every day. I try to keep my three sons in check."

Francois says that "sometimes I think I should have let go of the reins so they learn [the business]. I wish one of them would have been a doctor, one a lawyer and one a dentist. Sometimes I tell my wife [Marie-Antoinette], let's get out of here. Then I think, what the hell am I going to do?"

Jacques jokes that maybe the three brothers would try to build a high-rise condo on the restaurant site when they take it over, but more seriously says, "You wouldn't want to change it much because you've got a clientele."

Still, he says, "I'm passionate about it, but not like him. It's his life." A widower, Jacques added, "I'm always ready to run off with a rich woman."

Jacques can be as demanding as his father, but somehow without quite the bite. On this night he spotted some lobster tails whose looks he didn't like and quickly chided one of the sous chefs, "Come on, those are overcooked." He ordered the cook to dump the lobster in the trash and start over.

"If I send those out [to the customer], they'd probably send them back and I'd lose a customer."

Jacques orders the copious quantities of food that it takes to run L'Auberge, which might serve 175 to 200 customers on weeknights, 350 on Friday and Saturday nights and perhaps 400 on Sundays, sometimes more in summer when the garden court can be used. On this day, he spent $1,044 for seafood, $1,651 for various meats, $48 for bread, $285 for dairy products, $685 for produce, $4,000 for wine and $229 for duck livers.

The list included five pounds of mussels, 10 pounds of red snapper, four dozen lobsters, 32 pounds of sweet butter, 50 quail eggs, 20 pounds of veal tenders, 10 pounds of calf brains, a wheel of port salut cheese, two bags of Spanish onions and 30 pounds of string beans, amid countless other items.

The Right Ingredients for Success

A 1995 study by George Mason University economist Stephen S. Fuller concluded that $5.1 billion is spent annually in the Washington area on food outside the home. Moreover, 51 cents of every dollar spent on food was spent in a restaurant, the highest percentage in the United States. So how has Francois outlasted countless other haute cuisine restaurants here, not to mention numerous lesser establishments?

"Partly luck, partly good discipline, partly the food, partly prices," he said. "The atmosphere is nice in here. I probably make people feel at home. It's very difficult to explain my way of doing business."

He called over James Edwards, 44, a waiter for 14 years, and asked, "James, how do we do business?"

As if on cue, Edwards responded, "With great care, discipline and attention to detail."

All 80 employees at L'Auberge, be they outdoor maintenance workers, waiters, cooks or front desk hosts, seek out Francois every day to greet him when they arrive for work.

Does he require it?

"Always . . . discipline," he said as if it is inconceivable that it could be any other way.

Despite his demanding demeanor, he has a coterie of loyal employees who have been with him for years, such as Korean emigre Chun Oh, 61, who has cooked for Francois for 38 years. Francois describes Oh, his chief daytime cook, as "my right hand," and he is known affectionately at L'Auberge as Mr. Oh.

One Meal, One Price

While most restaurant patrons are accustomed to picking an entree and perhaps a salad or hors d'oeuvre, the menu at L'Auberge encompasses a bowl of soup (French onion is always available, mais oui) or hors d'oeuvre, a salad, a palate-cleansing sorbet, an entree, dessert and coffee for one price, although some items, such as dessert souffles and sauteed frog legs, cost extra. The current menu items range from $38 to $47.

So why the fixed prices?

"I never liked to price things separately," Francois said. "It was the way we did it in Alsace. You don't have to bother with how much is the pate. I don't overcharge my customers. A lot of people tell me it's not the way to run a business."

As it is, Francois' prices have steadily risen over the years. A 1954 menu posted at the restaurant shows that when he ran Chez Francois on lower Connecticut Avenue NW before moving to Great Falls 23 years ago, a filet mignon cost $4.25. Now it's $46.

But how do the Haeringers arrive at such pricing, which is substantial, of course, but by no means the most expensive in the Washington area?

"It's more from experience," Paul said. "Lobster is more expensive than trout. The labor cost is going to be the same."

"The most profitable is the trout because the trout is cheaper than the lobster," added Francois. "Between the trout and the most expensive item, you balance it. We don't make a hell of a lot of profit. My sons say it's bad business. They're never satisfied."

Final Preparations

After the sauces were prepared, the desserts baked and exquisitely decorated, and the tables readied for the first of two seatings, the 17 red-vested waiters gathered for the daily meeting with Francois about the night's menu, the first of the fall season and thus modified slightly to include wild game dishes.

"You are the ones who see the customers . . . you are the ones who know more than anyone else," he lectured, his right hand slashing the air. "I don't want any of you in front of the customers not knowing what the hell you're doing!"

He mentioned the saffron rice. "Do you know what saffron is?" he asked, pointing to one of his waiters. "An herb," the waiter responded, flunking this little test.

But rather than chastising the waiter, he patiently explained that actually saffron is, at $700 a pound, perhaps the most expensive spice in the world. It is the dried stigmas of crocus used to flavor food and color it an orange-yellow.

"Any other problems?" he asked.

Hearing none, he commanded, "Let's go, get moving!"

Moments later, just five minutes before the first guests arrived, he allowed, "I'm tired."

He checked on a few more details in the kitchen but left a short while later, knowing that he would get a call sometime between 9:30 and 10 with the final tally of diners for the evening and a report from Jacques if there were any problems.

In all, the night turned out a success, with 197 customers. The take was $13,950, an average of $70.81 per diner.

And many of those customers left comfortably satisfied, put in a good humor by wine and the artistry of Francois' Alsatian cooking.

"It was great as usual," concluded science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, who dined with three friends and ate the wild game plate.

"Then we ordered six desserts," he said, laughing a bit, but not at all bothered by the hint of excess.

Francois Food Fact No. 1

With all the rich and richly presented food at L'Auberge, what does Francois eat during the day?

For lunch, Francois Haeringer had what he described as "peasant food," something his mother used to make for him, a brothy concoction that is a mixture of equal parts boiled water and half-and-half cream.

"You wouldn't like it," he told a visitor.

Later, about 4:30 p.m., before the paying customers start arriving, Francois and his wife, Jacques and Robert sat down to more peasant food, this time boiled beef with a mix of vegetables cooked with it, washed down with wine.

"It's the only time of the day I don't fight with my sons," Francois stated.

Jacques, rolling his eyes at the very thought, asked, "You don't believe that, do you?"

Francois Food Fact No. 2

How odd is this? Francois likes Spam, the canned meat product that might generously be described as low cuisine.

Francois Food Fact No. 3

There's no salt on the tables at L'Auberge, just pepper, because Francois doesn't want diners indiscriminately adding salt, as some are wont to do, before they've tasted their food.

"We're artists," Francois said of his cooks, who he presumes have properly seasoned the night's dishes. "At least we're supposed to be."

Then if customers still want salt, "they can ask for it."