From the moment Martin Lumet arrived in Washington from France, he knew he was destined to work at Georgetown's La Chaumière.
"When I arrived in the U.S., I actually landed with the owner of this restaurant," Lumet said.
The plan took a detour though, and Lumet spent nearly 15 years working as a busboy and waiter before transitioning to a career selling wine to restaurants, including La Chaumière. By then, the restaurant had long established a reputation and following for serving traditional, country-style French dishes in a classic setting.
After selling wine to the restaurant for 10 years, owner Gerard Pain asked Lumet to find someone to take over. Lumet was all too happy to oblige, volunteering himself for the job. Lumet made a deal to purchase the restaurant in 2006. It was a natural fit, and Lumet retained chef Patrick Orange, who began working at the restaurant in 1994 and is now a co-owner. The two had also worked together at the now-closed French restaurant La Colline on Capitol Hill.
"We knew each other very well. It was a good match. Him in charge of the kitchen. Me doing the front," Lumet said.
Georgetown has changed a lot since the 1970s, but the cozy spot has stuck to its blueprint, which eschews mimicking the fancy restaurants of Paris or Lyon. Lumet has made every effort to maintain this atmosphere under his watch.
"There's nothing that was changed. No menu, no prices, no concept was ever changed and that is very, very, important. We are too old in the making to make changes now," he said.
And making any changes, from a recipe to the lighting level, would likely be noticed by the regular diners that anchor business at La Chaumière."The day you change something they've been having for 25 years, they'll tell you," he said.
It's not all regulars and old tricks that keep La Chaumière afloat, however. There has been an influx of younger diners, and promotions like restaurant week and tools like Opentable are helping fill tables and attract a new audience.
It's also a valuable way to gauge customer experiences and keep up with reviews and know what's working and what's not. One of the main things that has worked is a commitment to classic cooking and menu favorites.
"The idea behind the menu of La Chaumière since 1976 is being a good representation in the countryside of France, Lumet said. "We serve certain things on our menu that you don't find anything else."
Unique and popular dishes include the pike quenelle, calf's liver and sweetbreads. There are also rustic options like boudin blanc and seasonal game like goose and pheasant.
More than anything, Lumet attributes his success to being constantly present and involved in the restaurant — not focused on new ventures or expansion. And he's especially not worried about trying to compete with buzzed-about restaurants like Le Diplomate or Chez Billy Sud.
"We've been La Chaumière for 39 years and nothing else has changed. We're not trying to adapt to anybody," he said. "There will be always a clientele for the style of La Chaumière."