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Help, Need to find a Julia Child throwback!

It's my mother-in-law's 84th birthday soon, she's not well, and she'd like dinner in a quiet, old-fashioned French restaurant in the Boston area.

By "French," she means the food Julia Child made in her heyday, or "traditional" French dishes served in the1950s to '80s at places like Maison Robert. To her, anything else is not authentic. (For the record, she had Julia and Paul to dinner at her house after hearing that people were too intimidated to invite them. She'd taught herself to cook from Julia's books.)

It also needs to be a quiet place; we can eat very early.... She has been to Petit Robert, Sandrine's (Alsatian, big mistake), Brasserie Jo (also Alsatian but more to her taste), La Voile, and Pierrot, among others, and she wasn't too happy with any of them. I hope there's some retro jewel out there that I'm missing, that will be quiet if we go early in the evening. Thanks!

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  1. Locke-Ober perhaps? http://www.lockeober.com/about_cp.htm
    The Improper Bostonian just published an article about them. They sound old-school for sure and their website boasts that they are Boston's "leading French restaurant."

    1. How about L'Espalier?

      That's a wonderful anecdote about inviting Julia Child to dinner.

      1. Gaslight is good. I especially like that place because parking is so easy.

        1. Thanks for the advice! I checked the menus at L'Espalier and Locke-Ober and I don't think they'll suit her. While Locke-Ober does offer all the traditional sauces, she rarely eats steak, and the rest of the menu is not as old-fashioned as it used to be. L'Espalier is also more up-to-date. I love Gaslight, but I'm beginning to think Pierrot is as traditional as we're going to get, with Coquilles St. Jacques, Boeuf Bourguignon, and so on.

          One of the family trophies is Paul Child's lovely thank-you note after that dinner.

          3 Replies
          1. re: squaquerone

            Only caveat with Gaslight: it can get uncomfortably loud in that space.

            1. re: nightsky

              I like eating outside at Gaslight because it is quieter. Unfortunately she doesn't like to eat outside...

            2. re: squaquerone

              i think that pierrot is very accomodating and very traditional.

            3. Sandrine's has several classic items, but also the dreaded fruity creme brulee. It's probably a no, unless she likes Alsatian food, which seem the most traditional items on the menu. There is a Groupon on for the next 30 min. http://www.groupon.com/deals/sandrine...

              9 Replies
              1. re: jennymoon

                Great idea, but... we were almost asked to leave Sandrine's a few years ago because she complained so much to our server about everything that the chef came to our table to argue with her.

                1. re: squaquerone

                  So, I usually stay away from traditional French restaurants since I am vegetarian. That is a disclaimer because I haven't actually been to Les Zygomates. The menu looks not at all innovative though!

                  1. re: jennymoon

                    I can't have cream or alcohol, so I'm generally doomed in French restaurants, too! And one of us is vegetarian. Thank goodness for salad and baguettes. Les Zygomates does have a few old-fashioned dishes. Food for thought — thank you!

                    1. re: squaquerone

                      The only really traditional dish at Les Zyg, is the steak frites which the OP's mom doesn't eat. Also, it's a bit bustling in there, in the bistro style.

                  2. re: squaquerone

                    You could try the Taj Hotel (the old Ritz). Looks like the Cafe is now Indian, but they still have a more traditional French Room. (I knew of an older woman who used to eat at the old Ritz cafe and who sounded just like your mother in law.) Or Clio at the Eliot. Hotel chefs can be amazingly accommodating as they tend to be used to fulfilling the off-menu wishes of more demanding/difficult guests. If you call ahead and explain the situation you might find one who is more than willing to show off his/her classical French training.

                    1. re: nightsky

                      That's a great idea; thank you (and everyone!) for your suggestions. We should take her to tea at the Taj in the French Room sometime soon. She'd love that. Too bad they don't serve dinner!

                      1. re: squaquerone

                        im sorry i dont know Boston and I know even less of classic french food ....But why not hire a chef trained in the classics to come in and cook for her and your family ...Yes it will cost a little more but you will get a menu tailored to her tastes ....You could make it a very special evening ...

                        1. re: luv2putt

                          That is a spectacular idea for down the road, and I thank you for it! Unfortunately, I've been procrastinating over this birthday dinner and it is later this week, so I don't think we could pull it off in time. But what a fantastic way to keep her entertained and satisfied, assuming we find a chef with the right personality. I will definitely look into this for the future, assuming she's able to stay in her house, which has a Julia Child-era kitchen with a French mural and all. (My own kitchen is the size of a breadbox.)

                          1. re: squaquerone

                            As long as you're checking menus, look at those for Pigalle or Bistro du Midi.

                2. My suggestion would be that you call one of the chefs who cooked for Julia and ask if they could prepare an all Julia menu for this special occasion. I'm thinking that someone like Gordon Hamersley might be willing to make some of Ms Child's favorites for your MIL to make a dream come true. Especially if you ordered simplifications from the current Hamersley's Bistro menu.

                  For example the roast chicken just as it comes was probably a Julia favorite. The duck confit would please her. The duck meatballs are simple and very Julia. Terrines with toast would be good.


                  An appeal to Jackie Robert could also work. I once attended a lunch he prepared for food writers and Chef Huber Keller and his wife. On that occasion Chef Robert cooked recipes from Keller's book and did them to perfection. He certainly has the skills and background to do strict French if asked.


                  3 Replies
                  1. re: BostonZest

                    Hi Penny, It's APB.... did you guess? I love your ideas and I'm going to run them by her to see if she'd enjoy this down the road for a larger family gathering instead of our birthday foursome.

                    1. re: squaquerone

                      Pigalle is a very god idea. And their staff and accessible and accommodating, if you wanted to some "set up" beforehand.

                      1. re: squaquerone

                        I didn't guess. Now I'll know! Pigalle is also a great idea with a special menu.

                    2. Your MIL could be my late father. Same generation, same attention to detail. Sometimes the set-downs were embarrassing and I'd sneak an extra tip to all the staff, and sometimes they were well-deserved. Things are not what they once were, for better or for worse.

                      Can you throw MIL in the car and go to Providence? Pot au Feu restaurant is very proud of having been a French restaurant of the Julia Child age and even have a photo of her with the owner on their home page. They keep to the classics and don't add any funny business. It's an easy 45 minute drive.


                      4 Replies
                        1. re: Scruffy The Cat

                          Wow, that sounds perfect and i'm sure the menu would please her! I just wish Providence were a little closer; she was carsick on our last two road trips. But I'm delighted to know that Pot au Feu exists and I'll see what the others in our party think about it. Thank you so much!

                          1. re: squaquerone

                            Should Le Lyonnais in Acton get a mention in this context? It's over 40 years old and run by the same Frenchman who opened it. I'm not sure it's very popular on this board, but that isn't to say it's not suitable for your particular needs. I have no opinion on the food, having had just an adequate crepe there, once.

                            1. re: chickendhansak

                              Sorry for double-suggesting, I didn't see this!

                          1. Now I am terribly curious, what did she serve Julia and Paul for dinner?

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Kat

                              You know, I've heard parts of the story at least 30 times (having arrived relatively late on the family scene, a mere 17 years ago) but she doesn't often discuss the menu so I'm hazy on the details, as is my husband. The original menu cards are somewhere, though. I believe it included Coquilles St. Jacques served properly in scallop shells. I'm guessing Duck a l'Orange, another JC specialty of hers. And there was probably an alcoholic, flaming drink called "Café Surprise" for dessert. She liked to "casually" concoct this over a high open flame while carrying on lively conversation.

                              1. re: squaquerone

                                Sometimes good preparation lays the groundwork for spontaneity. You're MIL sounds like a gem in her own way, and seems to deserve the coddling, so kudos.

                                1. re: squaquerone

                                  Your MIL sounds like a fascinating lady. I hope your dinner goes well, wherever you choose.

                                  1. re: Kat

                                    fascinating? gem? sounds like a huge pain, who has no capacity to "go with the flow". sorry. i would go with the personal chef idea, pay well and get the chef out of there early.

                              2. I'm assuming Aquitane and Bistro du Midi have been considered and rejected?

                                If you can travel a bit further afield, are not so attached to having a certain quality of 'fine dining,' and want retro-
                                1. In Acton, if it is still open, you have Le Lyonnais. This seems to offer the closest options to what your mother in law is looking to taste. I used to drive past it, but do not now, hence, unsure if it is still kicking. Never went in myself, but heard surprisingly lovely things. I don't think their menu has changed substantially in 40 years, which may be just the thing for you!

                                2. Over summers visiting Martha's VIneyard, friends have been threatening to drag me, a vegan, to Le Grenier. Obviously, this means its cuisine is vintage French, where bits of animal are tucked into even the most unassuming side dishes, which are not to be altered. http://www.legrenierrestaurant.com/me... While this is obviously on a (lower) level than your other options, I'm considering the whole package- how nice would a birthday vineyard mini vacation be?

                                15 Replies
                                1. re: gwendolynmarie

                                  Thanks for your post. We're rejecting Aquitane as too noisy... no matter how early we go, to either one. And Bistro du Midi is probably too contemporary for her. She would love Le Lyonnais, I think, but we have to stick closer to Boston on the night in question. I'm hoping she'll like Pierrot, and I'll keep Le Lyonnais and Pot au Feu in mind for future jaunts.

                                  1. re: squaquerone

                                    I've never been to Pierrot, but looking at the menu it looks remarkably traditional French bistro.....Croque Monsieur and all! Best of luck, and be sure to post back and let us know how it all went.

                                    1. re: Science Chick

                                      I definitely will! Thank you all again.

                                      1. re: squaquerone

                                        If you choose Pierrot, and Ma' has any mobilty issues, you may want to give them a heads up. Although it's been a few years, I remember that room getting a bit on the "tight squeeze" side on busy evenings; it's not a huge room, and the tables are fairly close together (and a minor step or two up into the dining room from the street). I remember both food and service being better than I expected.

                                        1. re: BrettLove

                                          Thank you for your thoughtful suggestion! She still plays tennis (her problems are mental, not physical) and she's tiny, so she'll be fine in that respect, at least. I just hope she enjoys the evening. I'll post a report here.

                                          1. re: squaquerone

                                            Well, the best-laid plans.... a raucous party of 26 people crowded tiny Pierrot tonight shortly after we arrived, so the four of us had to shout to be heard at the "quiet little table" I'd requested. The din came close to ruining the evening for us all. It never occurred to me that this could happen. Next time, I'll make detailed inquiries before expecting a peaceful dinner in a small, low-key dining room on a weeknight.

                                            My mother-in-law was very happy until it became too loud to think, and even then she soldiered on cheerfully, digging her flashlight out of her purse to read the menu and changing to a higher chair so her chin wasn't so close to the table (she's tiny). She didn't trouble the staff at all, and was remarkably philosophical about the noise and the food.

                                            The food: I started with split-pea soup that was so salty I can still taste it hours later. As I ate it, I thought I must be mistaken; using that much salt seemed impossible in a professional kitchen. But I believe I really did have brine with peas. The only vegetarian entree was mushroom risotto; I had that. After the soup, I couldn't taste it. I was sorry to miss the truffle oil. I brought half of it home, will see what it's like tomorrow. I also had a tart tatin that seemed very good.

                                            MIL had a large plate of coquilles St. Jacques, which she liked well enough, and crème brûlée with lavender flowers (and a birthday candle, the service was pleasant and attentive despite the huge party) that she declared "weird" several times. I'd tried to talk her out of ordering it, but she couldn't hear me. When it finally registered that there was lavender in the recipe, she said that was a bad idea, but it didn't account for the specifically weird flavor she was tasting. But she didn't complain to the staff, and ate every bite. The menfolk were pleased with their meals, especially the steak frites.

                                            I believe MIL had a happy evening and was proud that she could converse pretty continuously with us despite the ridiculously loud atmosphere. I believe we should try a French dinner again soon, at Le Lyonnais, perhaps. It was too loud to bring up the idea of inviting a chef to her house.

                                            By the way, MIL doesn't remember everything she served to Paul and Julia Child but she can look it up, having kept amazing records of her dinner parties, from her shopping lists and timetables to notes on the conversation around the table. She didn't serve a single JC recipe, which I think was brilliant of her. She started with several Armenian appetizers (favorite family recipes). She thinks she served a French chicken dish with cherries. Then an omelette soufflé flambé was ignited at the table for dessert. And we know that Julia was deeply impressed with her Ronson Table Chef and got herself one soon after.

                                            Thank you all again for your thoughtful suggestions and interest in this birthday meal! They were so useful for tonight and will be very helpful in future, too!

                                            1. re: squaquerone

                                              I've been looking forward to this report, and you didn't disappoint. Brava to MIL (and modern psychiatry) for soldiering through the ruckus AND the lavender! Jeers to Pierrot for not telling you your quiet little table would border a frat party.

                                              1. re: squaquerone

                                                Thanks for letting us know what happened!

                                                1. re: squaquerone

                                                  Glad to hear it worked out, despite the noise!

                                                  1. re: squaquerone

                                                    There was a French restaurant on Main Street, not too far from Toscaninni's, but the name escapes me. I recall that my sister had her graduation dinner there, and was thrilled that Julia and Paul were sitting across the room! If someone remembers that place, I'm sure the name will ring a bell for me.....

                                                    1. re: squaquerone

                                                      I don't know about Kirkland Street. But, there was a place on Shepard Street (where Chez Henri is now) and one at the intersection of Concord and Huron (where Trattoria Pulcinella is now). I think they were Chez Jean and Chez Nous.

                                                      1. re: squaquerone

                                                        I remember a place in the space now occupied by Dali which was called "Peasant Stock" - french country style menu (not formal) I was much younger then and I remember it being a great date place but certainly not a quiet fcrmal french dining room.

                                                        1. re: Northender

                                                          wow! peasant stock! man, i have not thought of that place in years. with chef burlingham at the stove and those marimekko dresses she would frequently ware. dont think she ever followed a recipe but she could cook for 50. roasted marrow bones, onion soups, cassoulet. long time ago.

                                                      2. re: squaquerone

                                                        It's late now, but I got the Craigie On Main email today and they're having a Julia Child 100th Anniversary special the week of August 7-15.

                                                        1. re: secretlyironic

                                                          Thanks for letting us know! I'll definitely check that out. We still owe her a good French meal.

                                          2. This was a delightful thread. It's good to read about the successes of modern pharmacology for a change. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but in the future maybe you'll even be able to include your MIL in the planning process.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: KWagle

                                              Thanks! I surely can include her because she's more adaptable these days... well, not when it comes to classical French food, but in most other ways!

                                              We walked past Pierrot around 7 last night and noticed only about three occupied tables on a Saturday night. Such bad luck we had!

                                            2. What a wonderful thread this is. Thanks for posting the original and the multiple replies. Your story about dinner with Julia and Paul Child is an absolute gem. I am a great fan of traditional French cuisine, a la Julia Child. Best to to your family, and regards to your mother in-law.