Bon appetit, Beverly Hills

COSTA MESA — Yvan Humbert, who owned Le Biarritz, a onetime popular French restaurant on Old Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa, is coming out of retirement.

At 74, he's decided to roll the dice and invest in another French restaurant, Maison Maurice on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

While the verdict is still out as to how well the restaurant will fair, if Humbert's track record is any indication, the restaurant should be successful.

"If you're looking for a special place to dine, we can provide it for you," said Humbert, a French transplant who moved to Costa Mesa in 1976. "We can provide it for you. It's really special. The food is fantastic. I know that Beverly Hills isn't exactly the closest restaurant around, but it will be worth the trip. Trust me."

For 23 years, Humbert owned and operated Le Biarritz before hanging up the chef apron and leasing it to a new restaurant, the Chicken Coop.

But for years the joint was one of the most popular French restaurants in town. In fact, it was the only French restaurant in town.

Humbert moved to Los Angeles in 1961 in his mid-20s and worked as a busboy, then as a waiter, then a bartender for decades before he decided to branch off and run his own French restaurant. He ran his own establishment from the early 1970s through the early 1990s. He worked 12-hour days, six days a week for 10 years straight with only one week off a year.

Never married, and with no children until the age of 65, Humbert has been to 70 countries over the course of his lifetime, saying "sun, traveling and money" were always the three top interests that kept him busy.

"I never drank, I never smoked, I never gambled, and I always ate at the restaurants where I worked," said Humbert, as he delved into greater detail of his frugality.

With enough money in his savings account, he learned how to take six-month breaks every three years to visit the world. Then he eventually wound up back in Southern California, where he'd get right back at it again, whether it was waiting tables or serving drinks in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

His top three favorite locales are New Zealand, Thailand and Brazil.

"If you work hard in America, you can do whatever you want," said Humbert, who bought his four-bedroom house on Costa Mesa's West Side in 1976 for $123,000.

"That's what's great about the United States," he added. "If you work hard, you're not going to fail, and I think it's still true today."

Humbert, who is married with two children by his Moroccan wife, Fatima — whom he met while traveling in Morocco less than a decade ago – said he did not grow up wealthy in the small village of Vosges, in the northeast part of the country bordering Germany.

In fact, he grew up poor; he was raised by only his mother, and his father, he added, never gave the family a Franc.

He also witnessed the invasion of the Germans during World War II, having had to take shelter in the cellar of his grandmother's home on a nearby farm while dozens of bombs were dropped on all sides of them, demolishing parts of the farm's structures.

He knew what it was like to be hungry, he said, both before and following the war.

"If my grandparents didn't have a farm, we would have starved to death," said Humbert.

While America is great in that it still has spending power and consumerization, he said you have to be selective about what you eat.

"The food is filled with chemicals here," he said. "In France, everything is natural. The chickens and the cattle aren't injected with steroids, but it also costs three times as much to buy a chicken or to buy a hamburger."

Now it's back to the grind for Humbert, with at least an hour commute each way to Beverly Hills. He plans to visit the restaurant at least three times a week.

If you're interested in meeting Humbert, the address to Maison Maurice is 8620 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

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