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Go west, Jean-Francois

Times Staff Writer

There seem to be more French people around Los Angeles these days. In some parts of town you can hear French being spoken on the street. We’re living in a sort of French moment.

But it’s not L.A.'s first French moment. There’s a corner of downtown where you find streets named Vignes, Ducommun and Bauchet. They’re tokens of a time when more Angelenos spoke French than English -- when our mayors had names like Marchessault and Beaudry.

In the middle of the 19th century, French Americans were regular sparkplugs around here. They built our first hospital and water system. They marketed our produce, made our best wine and baked a lot of our bread. And they ran our restaurants ... Old West-type French restaurants, to be sure, in adobe buildings.

There was even a neighborhood known as Frenchtown, which flourished into the 1920s. If things had gone differently, California cuisine might have been far more French than it is.

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Not that the early places were serving haute cuisine. More likely it was country food like omelets, onion soup, coq au vin and cassoulet. Probably they also served fried chicken, ham and eggs and so on, like the handful of American-style restaurants in town.

The first Frenchmen in Los Angeles had been soldiers. In 1828, Mexico permitted some former members of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard to settle here as payment for their service to the Mexican revolution.

Three years later, Jean-Louis Vignes planted a 104-acre vineyard between present-day Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and the 110 Freeway. As a native of Bordeaux, he immediately imported Cabernet Sauvignon and other French grape varieties (at the time, Napa and Sonoma were still empty ranchland).

Vignes’ El Aliso Winery -- named for the ancient sycamore tree (aliso) on his property -- eventually became one of the largest in the world, producing 150,000 bottles a year, including the first California “Champagne.” As if that weren’t enough, Vignes also planted the first orange grove in Los Angeles.

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The golden age of French Los Angeles was the 1850s and 1860s, when more people moved here from France than from any other country. The center of their social life -- the beginnings of Frenchtown -- was Vignes’ house, around where City Hall stands today.

Los Angeles had at least two French restaurants in the 1850s, the French American Restaurant (also called the Restaurant Francais) and the Restaurant du Commerce. Think about that -- two French restaurants in a town with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants! It was because 600 or so of them were French.

We aren’t sure of the name of the first French restaurant owner. We do know that in 1858, Frederic Guiol and Louis Vieille were running a restaurant around where Parker Center stands today. "[Guiol] also had a hotel on Aliso Street,” says his great-grandson, Lucien Guiol, who lives in Mission Viejo. “When the French people would come to town and sell their animals, they’d stay there. He served food to the people who stayed there.”

It was a time cut out for people who could hustle, and most of these pioneers had more than one line of work. Guiol traded in livestock and was a partner in a mining company. Eugene Germain was a grocer and restaurateur, as well as founder of Germain Seed Co.

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By 1860, the census listed six Angelenos with French surnames as restaurant keepers. They included Emile Bordenave, who had just opened the Louisiana Coffee Saloon & Restaurant on Jan. 7, 1860 (he was from Bearn, France, not Louisiana, and served French, not Cajun, food), and Jennie Salandie, who was also a butcher. There were two French grocers in town, a confectioner and at least five families of bakers.

Most of the French American immigrants came from the remote and impoverished south of France, from eastern Provence or the Pyrenees Mountains. A number were Basques. Dominique (or Domingo) Bastanchury became one of the biggest ranchers in the state, raising cattle and sheep, while owning substantial vineyards and the largest orange grove in the world. Some were from Alsace, like Andre Briswalter, who made so much money selling vegetables door to door that he ended up owning most of present-day Playa del Rey.

Serious cuisine

In the 1870s, the railroads connected Los Angeles with the rest of the country. The city’s population doubled in just a few years as a result, and then quintupled during the 1880s. Under this avalanche of newcomers, the French Americans became a smaller and smaller percentage of the city.

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At the same time, their restaurants became more serious. At the Pico House, downtown L.A.'s first luxury hotel, the restaurant, which had menus printed in French, was run by “French Charlie” Laugier in the 1870s.

In 1873, two years before Santa Monica was officially founded, Eugene Aune opened the first restaurant there. He grew his own artichokes and other vegetables, and his specialties were local fish and razor clams, which would be followed by a roast and salad, with an omelet or souffle for dessert.

Three years later, two Frenchmen and a German partner opened the Oriental Cafe downtown, across the street from the Pico House (despite the name, it was called the “most European” restaurant in town). Soon after, one of the partners helped his nephew, Victor Dol (who was from the same town in southeastern France as Aune), to open the Commercial Restaurant, north of the corner of Spring and Temple.

Dol was a trained chef who had apprenticed in Paris. With its secluded brick patio and decorative fountain, his restaurant would be the city’s gourmet haunt for more than a decade. In 1889, he opened an even grander restaurant he named Maison Doree, proudly advertising it as “L.A.'s Delmonico” and boasting that he imported his own Brie and received daily shipments of live sole, turbot and sea trout.

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In 1912, the Los Angeles County Pioneer Society eulogized Dol: “The first oasis in this self-made desert of atrocious food was the Commercial Restaurant.... To a town used to dirt floors and barefoot cooks, the Commercial, reached through an inner court with a fountain in the center, seemed almost unbelievable.” (We don’t have to take literally the claim that all preceding restaurants were “atrocious” -- the pioneer society had its own reasons for being fond of a brother member, who was also a generous benefactor.)

By the 1880s, there were French restaurants in a number of small Southland towns, including Pasadena, Pomona and Inglewood. In 1883, a man named John Irelay filed a legal complaint that his wife had left him for the owner of a French restaurant in San Pedro.

In the 1890s, there were at least six French restaurants in still-thriving Frenchtown, on Main, Aliso and Commercial streets, and they were all complaining about a tax that required them to pay eight times more for a restaurant license than restaurants that didn’t serve wine.

On June 27, 1899, in the Mojave Desert gold rush town of Randsburg, a man shot the owner of the Mineral Saloon in the face. The bullet passed through his cheek and the front window of the bar -- and ended up in a French restaurant across the street. (Come to think of it, “frontier” is a French word.)

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Frenchtown still survived. In 1909, Louis Sentous Jr., the son of a pioneer L.A. meatpacker, wrote: “Down in the old section of the city, along lower Los Angeles, Aliso, San Pedro, Alameda and Vignes streets, where stray only the feet of the knowing or the curious, are found the many old French shops and wine cellars. They seem another part of the city when one steps inside their doors.”

But Frenchtown’s days were numbered. Even before the new City Hall, and later the freeways, ate up its land, the plague of Prohibition had descended upon it. On Dec. 28, 1919, The Times reported that the restaurants of Frenchtown and neighboring Little Italy, which had been favored by “bohemians” (sophisticates) and “the brotherhood of hot birds and cold bottles” (gourmets), were all closing.

Robert Prechaco, owner of an Italian restaurant, told the reporter, “Our patrons were people who liked French and Italian dinners. It takes a long while to serve such meals, and people want something to do between courses, so such a service calls for light wines and beers to fill in. If these cannot be had, the public wants to eat quickly and be done with it, so the most of our patrons have taken to the chop houses and cafeterias.”

“With the French and Italian meals,” the writer lamented, “a characteristic feature of California life has gone.” The Times called them “typical of a picturesque phase of Western life.”

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French restaurants had been an integral part of our city since the dusty pueblo days of the Old West, but now the link to the past -- except for Taix French Restaurant and Philippe’s, the French dip sandwich place, both of which have left their original Frenchtown locations -- was broken.

It would be decades before French food fought its way back into favor.


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