ENTIRELY too much attention is paid to French restaurants thinks one group of Washington restaurant partisans; another thinks they are the only restaurants deserving serious attention. Both attitudes show that, whether they are revered or disdained, French restaurants have an inescapable impact on Washington dining. Until the last years, dining out grandly in Washington meant dining in a French restaurant.
For the diners who consider French restaurants the only real restaurants, this dining guide will serve as the ultimate Washington feast. For those, who shudder and grit their teeth with each new review of a French restaurant, here is the ultimate catharsis, a chance to vent all of the teeth-gnashing at one swoop. For this dining guide of sixty-four reviews is - I hope - an Introduction to all of Washington's French restaurants, with even a Baltimore entry. The reason for my lack of certainty is that new ones open faster than I can keep up with them - more than a dozen have opened in the past year, one just two days before this guide had to go to press.
It is not a French name that makes a French restaurant. The definition may be arbitrary, but I chose to include in this survey all restaurants where there was French menu or a French chef cooking French food.
Even the most orthodox French restaurants might seem peculiarly American to a visiting Frenchman. One no longer expects French waiters to speak French - I have had better luck, on occasion, with Spanish or Greek when I had difficulty ordering - nor does one expect the menu to read in proper French. And although the menu may read like an Escoffier index, the dishes are sometimes the chef's own invention with a classical name. Even more often, they are shorthand versions of the classics.
But nobody really expects French restaurants in America to duplicate the originals. Not with the difficulty of finding trained help, the indifference of expense-account diners and the struggle to maintain steady supplies of high-quality-fresh ingredients.
What is remarkable is the extensive of those restaurants. We now have French cafes, bistros and inns, even a wine bar. We have French restaurants that open late and early; we have some as grand as any in this country, and some as cheap as fast-food restaurants - in fact, some that are fast-food restaurants. We have grown so cosmopolitan that we have good French restaurants and bad French restaurants, some that could vie with any institutional cooking in America in terms of indifference, use of cans and packages, artificial ingredients and downright inferior cooking. There are French restaurants that blithely charge $6 for a plate of asparagus and those that baldly mark up their wines to three times the price they paid for them and cow their patrons into feeling themselves lucky to be served at all. At the other end, we have Le Lion d'Or using fresh truffles and fresh foie gras in its sauces, competing with any culinary excellence between the Atlantic and the Pacific. We now have Le Gaulois, serving highly skilled cuisine at everyday prices. We have Alexander's III, with its extraordinary rooftop views of the city. The Virginia suburbs offer French dining to match nearly any downtown, serving with the gracious character we associate with the South.
After a half year of extensive research here and in France, I invite you to sample the variety and pleasures of Washington's French restaurants. As for me, make mine beansprouts, plain.