A trip to L'Auberge Chez Francois is really a trip back in time. The Great Falls, Virginia restaurant is considered by many to be destination dining in D.C. and has a 60-year legacy serving classic dishes in the French provincial and Alsatian styles.
Even the patrons have grown accustomed to their orders, chef Jacques Haeringer says. Menu items like Dover sole, Chateaubriand and bouillabaisse are mainstays that aren't going anywhere soon.
To truly call L'Auberge Chez Francois a time-tested classic (like Haeringer says it is), it's first important to understand the challenges they've been up against.
In 1976, the restaurant took their first big risk moving to the distant suburbs of Virginia. Haeringer's father, François Haeringer, was told no one would make the hour-long drive for French fare.
Even today the restaurant is up against the odds. There's a new crop of French restaurants in D.C., some with very recognizable names like Stephen Starr's Le Diplomate or Daniel Boulud's DBGB Kitchen.
But Haeringer seems to shrug it off — and his critics too. He follows a pretty simple mantra — "What would Dad do?" That mindset guides the service and the food at L'Auberge Chez Francois.
To dig deeper into Haeringer's mindset, Eater asked about his role in the kitchen, his father's legacy and where he sees the restaurant going in the future.
How long have you headed the kitchen?
I was the chef de cuisine, and Dad was the executive chef from day one, which would be April 20, 1976. Dad had the final word running the kitchen. And then he passed away in 2010, and I became executive chef. We were always working together.
What was it like to work with your father, François Haeringer?
It [had] its strengths, and its weaknesses [laughs]. The strength is, and you see it now, you have the opportunity without feeling entitled to be challenged. Plus, me and my brothers were part owners, so it was a little more than just Dad.
He was still the majority partner, but we were all in there trying to do the best that we could. As he got older they weren't just business decisions, they were family decisions. We always worked together. Just like a family, we had our ups and our downs here, but we managed to work together, and I think that was the strength of the business. In the long run, we always knew who the boss was, but we could challenge Dad a bit too.
Since 2010 you've been running the restaurant. Are your brothers still involved?
One brother is still here, and the other brother retired.
So you've been in the kitchen for how long?
My father opened 60 years ago when I was four, and I started working summers when I was 11 years-old.
So is your father's legacy still a part of the restaurant?
A huge part of it, absolutely. He was the one who had the balls to come out and leave Washington for Great Falls. His attorney said he was crazy, that he was putting all his eggs in one basket and was going to be broke. Look, this is a high attrition business, as we know. Well, the naysayers were wrong. Dad was right. We were busy from the get-go, and it worked.
He had the vision to come out here and do it. I found out — not really the hard way — that people will forget the magazines and the critics and all of this review stuff. They have their place and that's fine, but people will want what they want. I try to change the menu, and I do change the menu on a seasonal basis, but people want the dishes that they want...It's human nature, and I think the critics will tell you there's almost something wrong with that, but they don't put money in our pockets. They have a different agenda. A business can be helped or hurt by a review, but I don't think they can make or break you. We've always done well here and maybe less-favorably for the critics, but that's just they way it is. The classics are the classics because they've stood the test of time. Our business is about keeping consistency number one.
Talk about the consistency of French cooking. Especially with new French restaurants popping up in D.C., do you think there's been a shift in the culinary approach?
French used to be more popular, then it went through a phase where it wasn't as popular, and now it's back again. Now it's everywhere. I think it's going through a revival, but we've stuck to the classics. The provincial and Alsatian classics, and now they're coming back. Somehow when the critics write about it, we're old hat, but the new places are doing the same dishes and suddenly it seems like a rediscovery. We tend to ignore the fads.
What are the classic dishes?
There's the Chateaubriand, Dover sole, the sauerkraut from Alsace, the filet mignon, the bouillabaisse. Then, there's fresh local fish and produce.
Did you ever take something off the menu, only to find that there was immediately pushback?
We had Dover sole all year-round in the old days, but in July and August — well, the French are on vacation. How are you going to get a sole? You would have them sent over, but it was spottier. In the off-season, I just got rid of the dish. I didn't want to do frozen either. And, when it's off the menu, the complaints would come. We are definitely a bit more seasonal, but the core menu has got to stay. I've never seen a restaurant with longevity that didn't do it that way. We've also added to our options recently. Our brasserie, which we opened about three years ago downstairs, offers more a-la-carte options.
What are your hopes for the future of the restaurant?
Our hope here is to maintain the quality and the service because that's the key. People have to get in their car and want to come here. We're doing more special events. I don't do farm-to-table. I do garden-to-table. The goal here is to grow the business and by doing different events and cooking demonstrations. Those events are helping to draw in regulars and an industry crowd. We also want to continue business at the brasserie as well. Dad always said we have to give people more choices. We've given people greater choices, and the main goal is to maintain the level of quality and expand upon our service.
What do you make of the restaurant industry today?
It's good competition. People are making it big now, and they're making a lot of money doing it. I guess I'm too old school for that. I'm focused here. But, we continue to build out. We've had four major expansions since we opened.
But, I consider myself one of the old guys. I had lunch with Robert Wiedmaier, and he told me, ‘Look we're one of the old guys now.' But, I think it's great that there's all this vibrancy in the community. New places are coming into the market. Some of them will make it, and a lot of them won't. The scariest part is that you have to spend $3 or $4 million now just to see if a concept will work.
Do you have classic restaurants that you turn to again and again?
Oh yeah, I like Passion Fish a lot. They have a great set of restaurants. Seasonal Pantry is phenomenal. And, I go see Patrick [O'Connell] at the Inn [at Little Washington]. There's a tremendous number of good places. I don't get to them as much as I should. Because geez when I come home from work, I don't say ‘Let me go out to a restaurant!' [laughter].
So what's in your mind is the definition of a classic dish or restaurant?
It's the dishes that remain popular through time, and they're still as popular. And, I don't care what you say. Even if the dishes are classic, you have to be consistent every time.