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I tried to stay out of this fight. Really, I did. Way back in January, I made a promise to keep my nose out of politics and stick to food. I managed to give the whole Freedom fries/Freedom toast controversy a pass, because, frankly, it seemed too insipid to even comment on. I saw the boycott of all things French as a ridiculous, but temporary, phenomenon and trusted that the mercifully short American attention span would make it no more than a minor stumble in the greater fiscal scheme.
4900 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Region: East Denver
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But then I heard from Chantal Martini -- owner, along with her husband, Jean, of The Savoy (535 3rd Street in Berthoud) -- that their covers have been down over 50 percent since the start of the war in Iraq.
"Business has been down dramatically," says Chantal, her heavy accent sending her tripping over words. "I'm French, okay? My husband is French. The restaurant is French. But I've been in this country for over thirty years! I'm American first. My weekend? I used to refuse people. I had to turn them away. Now it's 50 percent, 40 sometimes." She blames this almost entirely on the anti-French sentiment still lingering in the back of the American consciousness -- and she might be right.
Yes, the economy is still slumping along miserably. Yes, fine dining is down almost across the board. And no, not a lot of people are willing to drive all the way to Berthoud for anykind of dinner, French or otherwise. And yet the timing and depth of the Savoy's drop in business are rather suspicious.
So I checked some of the other French-friendly joints in and around town to see if they'd been feeling the bite. According to Corky Douglass, the venerable Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue) has seen a noticeable dip in weekend business, with reservations being cancelled and seats going unfilled. "This is not an empirical equation, only a calculated guess," he says, "but I get the feeling that there is this sense out there. Normally, our weekends are the strongest time for us, but Saturdays were perceptibly slower." Things have picked up since the end of the Washington-Paris hostilities, he adds, but still -- he'd felt the chill in his numbers, and in the customers who weren't coming through the door.
La Chaumiere (12311 North Saint Vrain Drive in Pinewood Springs) is even farther off the beaten path than the Savoy, but chef/owner Vince Williams (who bought the space from its original owners, Heinz and Elisabeth Fricker, three years ago) doesn't seem to be taking the same kind of hits. Granted, his winter business is slow to begin with, but he blames any and all of the restaurant community's troubles on the bottom line. "The economy is still in the shit," he says. "Naturally, everyone is going to be down a bit. I have friends on the East Coast who are French. They're down 60 percent, some of them, but I don't see it here."
Even so, he's had to pull back on his wine list, because customers have been less interested in the French grapes. Once weighted 90/10 in favor of French over California vintages, he's now at a more even 50/50 split.
But changing the wine list wouldn't stem the tide at the Savoy. "Some people try to help," Chantal explains. "My regulars, they try to bring people in, but you know.... Up in Berthoud, we're completely lost. The people who don't come, don't come." She pauses, carefully choosing her next line. "This is...not stupid, but ridiculous. I don't want to be rude, but I don't know what else to say."
That's okay, Chantal -- I do. And I have no problem being rude to anyone who thinks that he's really sticking it to the French by not eating out at American restaurants. Seriously, do you really imagine that French president Jacques Chirac is going to shed one tear if you pigheaded dolts succeed in running a decade-old business in Berthoud, Colorado, out of town? Is it a victory to see empty seats at a place like Tante Louise, where the most French thing about it is the name? Are you so blind that you think renaming your fries (which, by the way, aren't French -- they're Belgian) is going to accomplish anything other than getting you made fun of behind your back? Yes, I know, it is your right as a red-blooded, knuckle-headed American to vote with your feet and make those mean little Frenchmen pay for disagreeing with Bush the Youngerby getting drunk on good old-fashioned Kentucky bourbon rather than a fine Bordeaux and refusing to patronize French restaurants for fear that one of your fanatical right-wing friends might see you walking in and tell everyone else at the Klan meeting that you're soft on Hussein -- but come on. You're embarrassing yourself, and you're embarrassing the rest of us.
That said, I hope I'm preaching to the choir. I have to think that anyone interested enough in food to be reading this column is probably just as ashamed as I am of those people consciously avoiding restaurants like the Savoy just because they're French, but if I'm wrong, and there is someone out there guilty of such a blatant act of xenophobic imbecility, write me here at firstname.lastname@example.org and try to explain the specific focus of the political statement that you're trying to make by driving an American business owned by American citizens with American employees out of business just to get back at the French. And it's okay if you have to write your letter in crayon. I'll understand.
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