After 38 years, the last Friday night had finally arrived for Robaire's. Dapper and elegantly dressed as always, proprietor Robert Robaire was finding it hard to talk.
"I just can't do it any more," he said. "All week long, they have been calling me. 'Oh, Monsieur Robaire, how can you close?' I have had people in here crying every night."
It was a little hard to take in, this wave of adulation. Certainly there had been a time when you'd have expected it, but that was when Robaire's was the only French restaurant in Los Angeles. In those days the little room on La Brea Boulevard, brightly painted to suggest a street on the Left Bank, was the height of poulet roti, sole meuniere and tournedos Rossini elegance.
"See that table up there on the balcony?" said Robaire, pointing. "That was Louis Armstrong's table. He came in for a cassoulet dinner before his show every time he was in town. One time he told me, 'Listen when I sing tonight, you'll have a surprise.' When I watched television that night, the first song he sang was, 'Come to the cassoulet, old friend, come to the cassoulet. '
"Back then, they were standing in line to get in, and not just on Friday and Saturday nights."
The heyday of Robaire's came to an end in the '70s, when other French restaurants started opening in Los Angeles. No longer was it unusual to find escargots and frog legs on a menu. In fact, no longer was it even desirable. Many diners who had learned about elegant dining at Robaire's turned to exploring the newer, more seductive delights now available in a city that was growing up culinarily.
But if diners forgot Robaire's, the community of French chefs, to whom he is known as "Papouche," never did.
"Even considering the difference in our ages, he is very easy to talk to," says Silvio Di Mori, the French-Italian owner of Tuttobene. "He's like a godfather for everybody. He will never give you bad advice and you can talk to him about anything."
"Mr. Robaire was almost the French ambassador for Los Angeles," says Citrus' Michel Richard. "If you were living in France and thinking about moving to Los Angeles, Mr. Robaire was always the one you called. And then if you needed help once you got here--with money, or staff, or anything--he was always there for you."
Indeed, even after Richard established his reputation as a pastry-maker, it was at a series of private dinners in the upstairs dining room at Robaire's that he began to showcase his skills as an all-around chef.
And when Richard's best friend, Andre Coffyn, was murdered just before Bastille Day last year, it was Robert Robaire who organized the fraternity of French chefs known as the Club des Salopards (roughly translatable as the Dirty Dozen), in part to provide a support network for him.
"Mr. Robaire realized we had to do something, so he got the group of us who had worked on Bastille Day to stay together," says Pierre Pelech, owner of Pierre's Los Feliz. "You know how it is with wives and children and restaurants, it can be three or four or even six months that go by before you see each other. Now we have a fraternity and a reason to come by and say hello to each other. For Mr. Robaire, friendship is something that is very important."
Within the club, Robaire is known primarily as an enthusiastic, if somewhat meticulous, storyteller. "He makes notes of all the jokes he knows," says Pelech, "and when he wants to tell a story, he'll go into the corner and look at his notes. He is a very sweet man and a very gentle man."
Robaire came to the United States in 1950 after having cooked for U.S. Army officers during World War II in his native Tunisia. "They told me people would pay a lot of money to eat the things I cooked," he says. "Of course, this was wartime and they were just happy to be able to eat fresh meat and vegetables."
He opened first in Whittier, but was run out of town when the churchgoing populace found he was putting wine in the coq au vin and boeuf Bourguignonne. He took care to open his next restaurant near Hollywood.
When he opened Robaire's in January, 1952, he had to sell coffee and doughnuts for breakfast and lunch to make enough money to be able to sell French food at night. Ordering from his first hand-printed menu, a really high roller would have been able to spend maybe $40 on dinner for two--and that would include onion soup (30 cents), tournedos with garlic butter ($3.95) and Alaska flambe ($1.25), washed down with bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne ($10), Chateau Haut Brion ($6.50) and Chateau d'Yquem ($8.50).
The same menu today would cost more than $150 without the Champagne and Sauternes (they're no longer on the wine list). And you'd have to substitute a souffle au chocolat for the Alaska flambe (the Fire Department got nervous about flaming desserts).
"I was maitre d', chef and bus boy then," Robaire recalls, "and when I got done at night I did the dishes and swept up. I had to serve 200 dishes to make $20. But then I had 200 plates to wash."
The tide turned in 1954, when a former silent film star named Fifi Dorsay mentioned the little restaurant on the television show "This Is Your Life." "It was heard coast to coast," Robaire remembers. "All of a sudden I had 50 to 60 people standing in line to eat."
In 1955, he bought the building, expanded into an adjoining store and added a full bar. "From 1955 to 1975, the place was never empty," he says.
But then Jean Bertranou opened Le Petit Cafe, which begat La Chaumiere, which begat Le St. Germaine, Le Dome and L'Ermitage, and suddenly it seemed that la cite was full of French restaurants.
"That's when people wanted more haute cuisine," recalled Robaire that final Friday night. "Bertranou was fantastic. But I think people forgot about us. We never changed our menu. They thought we were like a museum. They forgot me completely; but that's OK, I had 38 great years.
"My business has been good up to the last day. I never lost money on that place and I left it with a lot of pride. I didn't leave because business was bad but because it was time. I still would like to be working, but not responsible. I want always to be a part of the family of restaurateurs and chefs."
6 large shrimp, cooked halfway (sauteed or poached), shelled and each cut into 3 pieces
1 tablespoon julienned pimiento
3 tablespoons hollandaise sauce
1 slice sourdough round loaf, toasted
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
Mix shrimp and pimiento and 2 tablespoons hollandaise sauce in bowl. Spoon into bread slice and top with remaining tablespoon hollandaise sauce. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top.
Bake at 350 degrees 5 minutes. For best results, broil 30 seconds just before serving. Divide into quarters. Makes 4 servings.