Best Restaurants 2010

Best Restaurants: The Unfussy French

By Kathryn Robinson With Judy Naegeli October 12, 2010 Published in the November 2010 issue of Seattle Met


AT ANY GIVEN four-top on any given evening in the perpetually slammed Luc, one diner might be sipping wine with dinner, a lovely trout amandine perhaps, while another sits sipping wine as dinner. A third may be demolishing Luc’s burger—a marvel of caramelized onions, tomato jam, arugula, and harissa aioli—while the fourth nibbles from a plate of artisan cheeses.

“Luc is inexpensive and accessible,” says Thierry Rautureau, proprietor of spendy Rover’s and the casual new bistro named for his working-class father. “And noncommittal. People can come for a pint of Guinness or a plate of line-caught salmon. They can use Luc however they want.”

That versatility puts Luc at the heart of a nation’s dernier cri: the rise of the unfussy French restaurant. Seattle’s had them before—Pike Place Market’s ambience-drenched Café Campagne; Jim Drohman and Joanne Herron’s double shot of urban Paris, Le Pichet and Café Presse —but in the last few years, an explosion of French creperies, brasseries, and bistros have emerged to fill the same role as the influx of Italian neighborhood pizzerias, trattorias, and ristorantes did two and a half decades ago: the new Come-as-You-Are-for-Whatever-You-Want.

As it happens, the French cafe uniquely accommodates the flexibility diners want when times get lean. “The vision for Bastille Café and Bar was of a place where diners could decide for themselves what they wanted to eat, no expectations,” explains Peter Lewis, the founder of Campagne who, as Seattle’s unofficial elder Francophile, helped out in the early days of the sumptuously outfitted Ballard Avenue bistro. “You want to come in with your laptop for coffee? Of course. Charcuterie and wine? A four-course meal? We can do that, too. This is the very nature of a French cafe.”

The “approachable French” genre allows for a ton of variety, agrees Brian Hutmacher, proprietor of this year’s Lower Queen Anne sensation Toulouse Petit. There, French cuisine influences the restaurant and a French Quarter theme colors the bar. The result—in a place open for breakfast, lunch, brunch, happy hour, and dinner till 2am—is breathtaking variety, with a 100-plus-item menu sprawling Cajun and French and Creole takes on everything from rich buttery fish plates to steaks in veal-shallot pan reductions; sweet herby salads loaded with beets and olives and potatoes, to fat burgers, lamb or beef, topped with red-onion marmalade or cave-aged Gruyere. And that’s just dinner.

Why is the American palate craving simple French fare? “We live in a time of straitened circumstances and French is the original comfort food,” Lewis muses. “Take away the French names and what’ve you got? Roast chicken, steak and potatoes, beef stew, grilled cheese.”


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