With two weeks left in the life of the Madison Valley’s French restaurant Rover’s, owner Thierry Rautureau is feeling busy, wistful….and a little surprised. “At least 30 percent of the people coming in are first-timers who say they’ve been wanting to come to Rover’s for 10 or 15 years,” he says.
He thinks it reveals something about restaurants that qualify as institutions: The more established the place, the more people take for granted that it will always be there.
Clearly Rover’s has been an institution: A special-occasion place that people regarded as a wallet-popper. My numerous meals over its 26-year run included a family birthday party for my mother, a lunch (remember when he opened for Friday lunches?) to celebrate a friend’s promotion, a wedding anniversary.
They also included plenty of more quotidian visits—but always marked by food so fine, they soared way above the ordinary. Rautureau’s food at Rover’s is sumptuous and refined, French but not oppressively so, extravagantly flavorful. It has also been, in many ways, game-changing.
Here are four legacies Rover’s leaves us:
- Pretty plates. Whenever I take in an eyeful of a beautifully plated dinner at, say, Restaurant Zoe, I think of Rover’s kitchen, which has long boasted some of the most gorgeous platings in town. (Sauce dots in particular will make me misty.)
- French Quarter. Rautureau’s was the only French game in the ‘hood when he took the helm of Rover’s (from LA hotshot Kevin McKenzie) in the Madison Valley in 1987. Twenty-six years later Madison Valley is a bona-fide arrondissement, with Voila! Bistrot, La Cote Café and Wine Bar, Belle Epicurean Bakery, and (Rover’s more casual sibling—mercifully remaining open) Luc. Merci, Thierry.
- Nord-Ouest Cuisine. In very real ways Rover’s French pedigree was secondary to its kitchen’s dedication to local and seasonal ingredients—a farm-to-table way of eating that had yet to become breaking news in the late ‘80s. Here also was the irony of the late Le Gourmand: Both houses, both renowned as foofy French joints, were in fact much more interested in celebrating Northwest bounty than enshrining Gallic traditions. Rautureau once told me his customers would sometimes leave boxes of fresh figs or leeks or other of their garden excess by Rover’s door, which he and his staff would incorporate into that night’s dinner. Rover’s might be an institution—but one that never forgot its roots.
- Spendy, not stuffy. Rover’s fancy-pants reputation never quite fit its owner’s vision for it. “I took the ‘Chef in the Hat’ persona because I wanted to demystify this pompous, aristocratic reputation,” Rautureau told me when I named his one of the Ten Best Restaurants of 2009. “I wanted Rover’s to be a three-Michelin-star restaurant without all the fuss, where the food is top notch but the ambiance is like you’re in my home.” While I’m not sure this succeeded reputation-wise—(which may be why so many are visiting for the first time right now)—it absolutely did in reality. A visit to Rover’s never felt stuffy, probably because it was almost always marked by a jolly interaction with the goofiest great chef in town. That creative tension—destination food, folksy welcome—has become the trend among upscale restaurants over the last decade, influencing properties from Sitka and Spruce to RN74 all the way up to Canlis, and it made Rover’s feel like the upmarket neighborhood restaurant it was in its soul.
If you want to experience all this for the last time—or the first—Rautureau says there are still reservations available until the 23rd, mostly mid-week.