La Chaumière at 40: ‘Trendy While Conservative’

The main dining area of La Chaumière, celebrating 40 years at 2813 M St. NW. Photo by Robert Devaney.

“Inaugurations are good for business,” says Martin Lumet, co-owner, with chef Patrick Orange, of La Chaumière, the refined and rustic French restaurant now celebrating 40 years in Georgetown.

While Lumet knows change is coming to the White House, he is well aware that his patrons — whether politicians, administration officials or neighbors — come to the M Street classic because it does not change.

La Chaumière aims to be “trendy while conservative,” Lumet says. When he recently redid the place, it stayed still the same. “Consistency is important,” he says, even to the point of using the same garlic. “You want your customers to be happy.”

Opened in 1976 by Gerard Pain (who died in 2012), the restaurant — its name means “cottage” — has a cozy ambiance, with a working fireplace near the center of the room and walls hung with farm tools and sketches of country life. Diners are in another and quiet world, right on Georgetown’s busiest street. With 130 seats, the place is surprising large.

Lumet, who arrived in the U.S. in 1982, purchased La Chaumière with Orange in 2006. The two had met while working at La Colline, a Capitol Hill favorite for decades. A few years after the purchase, Lumet renegotiated the property lease, securing La Chaumière for years to come.

Orange — an alum of Hotel Plaza Athénée — has been at La Chaumière for 23 years. He finally went back to visit Paris last month after 10 years. “I am more American than French,” he says (with a French accent).

The restaurant’s key to success is of course the food, especially chef Orange’s creations with fish — such as pike and Dover sole — and game, including wild boar and rabbit, as in Hare à la Royale. On the menu in a couple of weeks: alpaca, fresh from West Virginia, where Lumet owns property.

Other specialties are duck, calf’s liver, tripe stew, boudin blanc, sea scallops and cheese soufflé. And when they run out of cassoulet, they break hearts. As for dessert, Lumet is a fan of the flourless chocolate cake.

Steadfast patrons complete the scene at La Chaumière. Some are legends themselves, including Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz, Chuck Hagel, Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld. From showbiz have come Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Claire Danes, Clint Eastwood and Roger Waters. Naturally, many neighbors dine there, notably Hugh Jacobsen, often seen during lunch.

Indeed, this is a place both for celebration dinners and tête-à-têtes. But one conversation we all missed. One night, after the last meal was served, Helen Thomas scolded Gen. David Petraeus, who was sitting with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, about the war in Iraq. No one else was in the restaurant. Nevertheless, the incident made it into a book by Bob Woodward, who lives up the street.

With Marielle Minges, general manager, and Paul Zucconi, formerly of La Colline, Lumet keeps the business organized — and works to “keep people talking,” he says, about the French country cottage in good, old Georgetown.

La Chaumière co-owners, Martin Lumet and chef Patrick Orange. Photo by Robert Devaney.
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