Unrated during the pandemic
As my party makes its way to the entrance, the crunch of gravel beneath our feet blends with the music of people happy to finally be celebrating special occasions that these days extend to complete vaccinations. If anything seems off, it’s the stream of fellow diners dressed for dinner in suits and dresses, which look quaint in an ongoing pandemic.
Otherwise, my arrival unfolds as it has for all the times I’ve visited the dining destination, which this month celebrates its 45th anniversary. Just as Francois Haeringer did before he died, son Jacques stands outside the restaurant in crisp chef’s whites, chatting up customers.
This being spring, waiters in red jackets with gold buttons dart in and out of the kitchen to ferry drinks from the bar and dishes from the kitchen to those of us wishing to dine alfresco.
L’Auberge Chez Francois emerged in March from what Haeringer calls “hibernation,” but in reality was six weeks spent sprucing up the Alsatian-inspired retreat. “The only thing on the list I didn’t get done was a tummy tuck,” jokes the owner, 71, whose staff did much of the painting, staining and landscaping on the bucolic, six-acre property. One of the many lessons of the pandemic is the need for more outdoor seating. The owner responded with an expanded stone terrace covered by a tent, which is where my posse gathered last month for a socially distanced stroll down memory lane.
With a notable exception, the menu is pretty much what I remember writing about a decade ago, and 10 years before that. It’s a time capsule outfitted with chateaubriand for two and baked Alaska. For as long as I can remember, L’Auberge Chez Francois has specialized in French classics spread across four courses interspersed with treats from the kitchen for a set price.
The service doesn’t just ring a bell, it sounds a gong. Dinner continues to be delivered by people who clearly enjoy what they’re doing and look out for customers’ interests.
“Remember, if you can’t finish a bottle, Virginia allows you to take unfinished wine home,” a server informs us. After he rattles off a list of possible flavors for a souffle, he adds, “maybe I can ask if they can make a lemon souffle if you want.”
In a testament to their employer, all but one of 80 staff members returned to their jobs after the winter pause, says Haeringer.
The biggest change on the menu reflects an industry forced to remind itself that restaurants are a business, says Haeringer. Prices are up 10 percent or so from before the pandemic, partly to make up for the loss of half the seating. The chef has resisted adding hospitality charges to checks, as many restaurants have done to address safety costs and higher food prices.
Routines were upended last year. L’Auberge Chez Francois demonstrates their value, as when garlic toast and herbed cottage cheese appear on the table, just as they have always kicked off a meal. We expect something to happen, and it does! Close behind the bread service, another vanishing restaurant practice, is a little taste of soup, tonight a light split pea soup that acknowledges a cool evening.
From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to first courses, which for me comes down to either Burgundy snails bathed in garlic butter and parsley or a seafood salad from Poseidon’s pantry: chilled crab, shrimp, scallops, lobster and salmon lightly bound in rémoulade. A crisp-edged chive crepe comes with a filling of mushroom duxelles and a side dollop of tomato concasse for tang and shade.
The lone disappointment is a savory tart topped with a fan of dense apple slices, a blob of half-melted Roquefort and a single raspberry. It tastes the way it looks: amateur.
Doilies hold the appetizers in place on their plates. Of course they do.
L’Auberge Chez Francois saves flights of fancy for special events, such as wine dinners. Give or take a seasonal garnish or ingredient, its regular menu is all about tradition and consistency.
“If you want culinary adventure,” says Haeringer, “there’s a place for that” — just not his place. While the pandemic has sent a few dishes packing — the many parts for choucroute haven’t been easy to come by, says Haeringer, who has temporarily removed the classic — most of the standbys are standing by.
Here’s the place to feast on fish: crisp trout strewn with slivered almonds or, finer still, Dover sole sweetened with sauteed lobster. Rack of lamb is straightforward. When it comes to meat, my preference is for thin slices of veal paved with country ham and finished with sweet crab. The kitchen springs for rich flourishes. A neat row of sliced mushrooms, sprinkled with capers, dresses the sole, which, like other entrees, is framed with a pretty garden of alternating carrots, Brussels sprouts and potatoes.
This is not a rushed meal. As always, dinner, which includes a choice of salads, is punctuated by a sorbet at halftime. Per custom, dessert — anything involving meringue is good — is trailed by excellent chocolate truffles. If you need to stretch your legs, there’s the green expanse to check out and restrooms to visit. The latter bring you to a basement hallway that doubles as a gallery paying homage to a restaurant that originally opened as Chez Francois in Washington in 1954. (Francois Haeringer relocated to Great Falls in 1976 and remained a presence in the kitchen until his death, at 91, in 2010. The more casual Jacques’ Brasserie was added to the equation the next year.)
A seat on the terrace is weather-dependent and without heaters, details shared by a friendly receptionist who sounds as if you’re the only party she’s calling to confirm a reservation. (To those who have complained about the chill, this cold-weather fan suggests dressing in layers.) A table in the great outdoors shows off the cheery red shutters of the white facade, the windows of which frame some of the action within the timbered, honey-lit main dining room. I envy the insiders only until the sun begins to set and the sky goes from pink to blue to periwinkle.
“Business has been great!” says Haeringer, when I later ask him on the phone. “It turns out it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Same old, same old? I’ll take it — gladly — at L’Auberge Chez Francois.
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L’Auberge Chez Francois 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls. 703-759-3800. laubergechezfrancois.com. Open for takeout, indoor and outdoor dining for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday; for dinner 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Four-course dinner $92 to $97 per person. No delivery. Accessibility: The single-level terrace is easy to navigate; ADA-compliant restrooms are available inside and on two floors.