The first time I met Georges and Claudie d’Arras was in the early 2000s at their restaurant Le Bistro du Beaujolais. At the time, anti-French sentiment in the States was soaring after that country issued statements of non-support for the Iraq invasion. Just days before, Ohio’s own Bob Ney went so far as to rename french fries and french toast on the menu of the House of Representatives cafeteria to “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” (What did they call them in prison, Bob?)
As Kim and I enjoyed plates of garlicky sweetbreads with lardons of bacon, flaky sautéed skate wing and buttery cod in parchment paper, the ever-ebullient Georges explained how he and his wife, a humble couple from Lyon, ended up in Westlake running what had been up to that moment a very popular French bistro.
The couple arrived in the United States on the Fourth of July, of all dates, just a few years prior and quickly achieved their goal of opening a restaurant that prepared the same sort of unpretentious French country food that they enjoyed back home. While Georges served as host, sommelier and bon vivant in chief, Claudie worked her magic in the kitchen making the seasonal fare.
But it wasn’t going to last, Georges predicted, as he carefully opened and decanted a bottle of wine plucked from his 100-percent French cellar.
“Our business is off by 85 percent,” he confessed in his heavy French accent.
The restaurant closed later that year.
So imagine my delight upon learning of its rebirth, just two years later, at a new address. Better still, the restaurant’s new home was an absolutely perfect 1830s farmhouse in picturesque Olmsted Falls, a monumental upgrade from the bland office park setting of the original. We rushed there as soon as we could and were thrilled to see a packed house. While the setting had changed, dishes like the onion tart, escargot and coq au vin had not.
Unlike many of the trendy bistros that were popping up at the time, this one had room to spare. Tables and over-sized armchairs were spaced far apart – socially distant before socially distant was even a thing. When we asked Georges if there were fewer seats than at the previous location, he said that there were – by design.
“I wanted to return to the old style of dining,” d’Arras told us that night, “where I have the luxury to spend time with all my customers.”
I don’t want to say that Georges is the last of a dying breed, but his kind is quickly becoming extinct. He is a garrulous host, his wild gray hair swaying as he glides from table to table, opening wine, handing out corks, snapping pictures of canoodling couples.
Later that same evening, when Kim and I realized that we literally were the last guests in the restaurant, we apologized and asked if we should pack it in. d’Arras looked almost pained at the mention of it.
“I would never bring someone the check unless they asked for it, just like in France,” he said. “Take your time and let me know when you would like it.”
I’m ashamed to say that that meal, more than 10 years back, was our last at the restaurant. The couple has returned to France for personal reasons, the business has been shuttered and right now, its contents are being auctioned off to the highest bidder.
“We just have to take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and try to close this chapter of Cleveland after 21 years,” Georges said when I called him. “It’s very difficult to leave Cleveland.”
Another legend gone. Another irreplaceable piece of Cleveland history in the rear view mirror.
Consider yourself lucky if you had the chance to enjoy a meal there or attend any of the annual Beaujolais Nouveau parties. I know I do.