Young and Hungry

L’Auberge Chez François Goes Casual

It hasn't even been six months since 91-year-old François Haeringer died, leaving behind the famous restaurant that the chef first launched in 1954 in downtown D.C. But since taking over L'Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, where the restaurant relocated in 1976, eldest son Jacques Haeringer has not wasted any time making changes to the Alsatian country inn.

For example: Yesterday, the son officially turned the large rear dining room into Jacques’ Brasserie at L’Auberge, a casual concept that will offer an a la carte menu featuring Alsatian dishes, including pork choucroute, pinot noir-brasied ribs, and tarte flambée, a kind of Alsatian pizza with crème fraiche, onions, and lardons. To understand the history of the formal, tasting-menu only Chez François is to understand how radical an informal a la carte menu is.

But that's not all. Jacques Haeringer has also decided to transform a downstairs space at L'Auberge, currently full of junk, into a bar and lounge. He envisions a space that can accommodate 25 to 30 people who will be able to enjoy a bottle of wine (or just a glass) from the restaurant's ample cellar. "We're the only restaurant in the world without a bar," Jacques Haeringer says with an ironic laugh.

It's tempting to paint the son's moves as a refutation of François Haeringer, who in his later years mounted a forceful defense against anyone and everyone who dared to tamper with his beloved restaurant. "All you young people have different opinions," François Haeringer told me last fall. "You want to change everything."

And yet Jacques Haeringer is too classy to frame his moves as a slap at his famously intractable father. In fact, the son has gone out of his way to describe them as homages to François Haeringer. The brasserie, he's quick to point out, is really a return to his father's original winstub concept, which is sort of the Alsatian version of a wine bar,  a casual place where you can grab a meal and a good glass of vino. He notes that some of the recipes come straight from his father's old handwritten notebook that dates back to World War II.

"We've gotten a little more pretentious," says Jacques Haeringer. "Maybe not pretentious...but I think we should go back to that [winstub approach]."

No one could blame Jacques Haeringer for wanting to make changes quick. At 61, the chef has been waiting for decades for his chance to put his stamp on L'Auberge Chez François, the place that bears his father's name. His time is now, and he's making bold moves while still paying homage to the man who started it all.

The son even has a sort of philosophy tied to it. After years of hearing the word, "No," from various sources, whether his father or some other chef who had a hand in molding his career, Jacques Haeringer is taking the opposite approach these days.

"I'm here to say, 'Yes,'" he says.