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From the Archives: 'Scuse Our French

San Diego's French cuisine was more classy than casual in 1976


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“That photo of the lobster and the wine and the cheese feels, in current context, almost like a cartoon. But back then it was very serious and very au courant.” —Troy Johnson

It wasn’t so long ago that French cuisine was considered the raison d’être. In our November 1976 issue, restaurant critic Tom Gable rated 13 local French restaurants. “The basic premise here is that a French restaurant or bistro is built around the food, firstly,” he wrote, “but it should also be a total artistic experience, complete with color, composition, sensitivity, warmth, the basic strokes of good preparation plus enough genius to sometimes make it meaningful and great.”

None of the places reviewed exist today. In the place of Chez Francoise in Bird Rock now stands Beaumont’s. La Chaumine is PB Cantina. La Maison des Pescadoux on Bacon Street is now The 3rd Corner Wineshop and Bistro (so, a little French).

Le Pavillon, which was in Town and Country Hotel in Mission Valley, has given way to Charlie’s, which serves Texas-style barbecue. “Le Fontainebleu” (sic—we left out an a) at The Westgate Hotel is the closest match—the restaurant on property now is The Westgate Room, where Sunday brunch is held. Executive Chef Fabrice Hardel, who was born in Normandy, keeps some traditionally French items on the menu, like steak frites and crème brûlée.

“French dining was the flashlight that led cities like San Diego out of the undelicious dark,” says our present-day food critic, Troy Johnson, looking over the vintage article. “To the French, fine cuisine is oxygen. No one wanted to mess up an homage to the French. So as you can see by the tuxedos and the Dover sole and the bone-white china and the use of words like ‘elegant’ and ‘masterpieces,’ we took the flattery of imitation to extremes.”

So, what changed? “We were a little precious back then, and that self-seriousness, while well intended, was a barrier for a lot of people. Many of us didn’t have the manners or loftiness to sit at that table. That’s why I love what the French bistro scene has become: more relaxed, casual, and approachable, without losing that diligent approach to the craft of food and drink and service. Places like Cafe Chloe and Bistro du Marché and Bleu Bohème and Au Revoir have taken the craft of the past with the comfort of the now.”

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