The Rive Gauche in Georgetown is among the best dining out values in Washington. The terms has to be defined precisely and clearly. It is not the best eating out value. That would be Sholl's Cafeteria, the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, or any number of other modest places which serve adequate quantities of perfectly good food at a tenth the price.
dining Out is operative here, and it means as occasion, an event that transcends a run-of-the-mill meal. Nobody dines at the Rive Gauche or restaurants like it because they are hungry, or because their nutritional balance needs carbohydrate, protein, or vitamin D.
Some may frequent these palaces of gastronomy because of a wish to see or be seen. When you have reached old-shoe middle age, as we have, solid pleasure is the criterion. We wouldn't know an ambassador or a cabinet member if we saw one, or care. They wouldn't know us either. Our only goal is a pleasant evening, not vicarious elbow rubbing with people who show up in gossip columns.
Thus the ground rules for the event that follows: it is not a restaurant critique. It abandons entirely to others a judgment of whether les Coquilles St. Jacques Ciboulette (steamed scallops) on a given evening were indeed the best scallops procurable in the market that day, and had been treated with suitable classic reverence by the chef. For my purposes, it suffices that a very tasty plate of scallops appeared on the table.
More precise ground rules: On a recent Saturday evening, a party of three went to the Rive Gauche at 9 o'clock. I had discussed the menu beforehand with Michel Laudier, the restaurant's owner and chef de cuisine. He would cook and serve dinner for three, keeping the total tab under $50 per person, including a drink each before dinner, wine, tax and tip. The three included me, my wife, and an old friend from Chicago. David Haid.
The details of the dinner were left entirely to Chef Laudier with two exceptions. Soft shell crabs are difficult to procure in the Midwest, so I asked for them for David. After we arrived, I noticed a nearby table being served succulent fresh asparagus, which my wife dotes on. I asked the captain to substitute asparagus for whatever vegetable M. Laudier had selected. It was done. Indeed, a sterling virtue of a firstclass restaurant is that it will do literally anything you ask within its wide capabilities without a shrug or a frown but with a smile. At the prices they command, they sure as hell ought to.
At the Rive Gauche we had three courses plus salad and two fine wines. Nobody was sloshed afterward, but we each had a faint, pleasurable buzz. We were filled but not surfeited with delicious food. There had been minor lapses in service that had amounted to nothing, really. Otherwise, dishes appeared with precision, not fussiness, there was never a crumb on the tablecloth or an ashtray with a squashed cigarette stub, and the fine china, silver and crystal glittered.
"So what?" you may ask. "So everything," I reply. It's details like these that make a superlative dining evening.
We arrived on the dot for our reservation (which you always should do, phoning if you are delayed or must cancel) and dined at our own leisurely pace, spending about 2 1/2 hours at table. Call it conspicous consumption if you like. It is. I call it consumption approaching perfection, which is what makes it worth while -- now and then.
Why did I choose the Rive Gauche? For several reasons. It is the elder among Washington's finer haute cuisine establishments. It has moved from its historic Wisconsin and M Street location up the street to the ground floor of the Georgetown Inn, which offers effortless parking. I know Chef Laudier. Rive Gauche long had a reputation for being the most supercilious, snobbish and expensive of the city's restaurants, whose arrogant French staff fleeced unwary diners, made them grovel, by God take what they got, shut up, and of course pay up. That attitude had changed, I was told.
I now can certify it has. I won't claim that a party arriving in blue jeans and sweatshirts, weaving with bellsfull of gin or beer, raucous and sneering, even with a reservation would be allowed in the Rive Gauche or any other first-class restaurant. Nor should they be.
Some other thoughts if you believe (to borrow from someone else's line) that dining well is the best revenge:
When thinking of value, consider: Those who dine seriously often go to some trouble to find sources for exotic ingredients, such as hazelnuts, fresh herbs out of season, truffles or game. Cooking with them at home well enough to justify their quality and price involves considerable time and skill. eA fine restaurant does all this for you. If you were to cost it out, including your time, you'd be in the red doing it yourself -- even assuming you could.
Approach a good dinner in a fine restaurant as you would any other investment. Inform yourself; plan ahead. A superlative chef (philosopher of the kitchen is a better term) is a creative persons, who enjoys working with his patrons as much as he enjoys working with shallots and truffles. Involve him (or one of his staff) in the dinner you propose to enjoy. As a banker watches interest rates, as a gardener watches weather, these professionals watch food. They respond to a discriminating diner who discusses what is freshest and what is best, either in advance (preferable) or when seated.
Insist on perfection, but not arrogantly or loudly. What's meant to be hot should be put before you hot . What's meant to be cold, cold . Seasonings should be enhancing but not overpowering. Generally, what's served should be fresh, not frozen, and you should be warned if otherwise is the case. If a dish fails to measure up (in your estimation, not the restaurant's) politely send it back saying exactly why. That rarely happens in a first-class restaurant. If it does and you say so, nobody will tell you your mother wore combat boots.
Give over an evening to a good dinner. Trade bites of food back and forth.
(That's why three or four are an ideal dining company).
First off, learn the given names of the maitre d', your captain and your waiter (they usually tell you). Thereafter, deal with them as partners in an uplifting experience.
Be comfortable. Males who wear belts instead of braces to a fine dinner risk abdominal compression. Ditto ladies who wear tight girdles. Burping at table is frowned upon, some would say, unfortunately. But sprawl a little; dally a lot. Dine at your own pace.
Keep your druthers on a sensible leash. The evening we were at the Rive Gauche, one neighboring table commanded Coca-Cola with dinner. Another washed theirs down with domestic beer. No accounting for taste, but those people were in the wrong place. It was askin to wondering how the National Gallery's garbage is disposed of while viewing the Rembrandts.
There are several restaurants in this area where one may duplicate our experience at the Rive Gauche. Whichever you choose, telephone or visit ahead. If you approach the preliminiaries carefully and seriously, you have a better chance of dining as you should -- relaxed, assured and prepared to enjoy.
Saturday -- unless there is no alternative -- is not the best evening to go. Restaurants are crowded, noise levels perhaps a decibel or two higher, and kitchens are rushed.