It used to be that the nicer restaurants hoped to entice their customers to return, at best, a few times a year. This, of course, was in the dark ages prior to the food revolution, when going out to eat was a special, dress-up occasion, with meals that inclined toward the formal—and prices to match. Nowadays, restaurants tend to be insistently informal venues that want your business not a few times a year but a few times a week. It’s hard to find a fine-dining spot that doesn’t boast either a bar menu or a cafe menu, and the tapasization of restaurant meals continues apace.
Bistro des Celestins is the latest example of a restaurant that has radically remade itself in the hopes of remaining viable in a highly fickle, competitive market. How radically? In mid-June, a white banner announcing a change of name went up in the front window of the Lee Highway restaurant previously known as La Cote d’Or. The old place, so popular with the retired diplomatic and military personnel who reside in Arlington, appeared to have gone out of business or changed ownership.
As it happens, La Cote d’Or hasn’t gone anywhere, unless, that is, you count right next door. Owners Lynne and Raymond Campet, who moved the restaurant from Capitol Hill to Arlington in 1992, made another major decision this spring when they opted to split their operation in two, consigning La Cote d’Or to the private room in the back while dropping prices and installing a bistro menu in the front.
“The motivation,” Lynne Campet explains, “was that we had had this private dining room…and while it was quite popular with people who were looking to have wedding receptions or private parties, it was busy only three days a week.”
But that wasn’t all the motivation.
“Young professionals,” she says, after further prodding, “like to go out to eat a lot….Our clientele has changed from the older clientele to a younger clientele. Making the change allows them to have something elegant in La Cote, a special-occasion kind of place, and have something casual…where they can wear jeans on a Friday night and not have to go downtown.”
Gone are the white tablecloths and the fresh flowers that contributed to the quiet elegance of the old place—but not, evidently, the aging crowd of Cote loyalists. I didn’t see a lot of bluejeans on any of my recent visits, yet I did notice an awful lot of white hair.
The new menu is smaller and simpler, with prices that are very much in line with a T.G.I. Friday’s or a Bennigan’s: Nothing tops $14.
For that price, you can’t expect a lot of risk or innovation on the part of the kitchen, not even so much as a riff here or a tweak there. The cooking amounts to a rendition of cover versions of greatest hits from the French-bistro canon: escargot, pâté, crepes, onion soup, steak tartare, mussels, steak frites, profiteroles.
All are faithfully rendered. The snails are properly garlicky, the pâté is suitably rich, the crepes are reassuringly sheer, and a bowl of onion soup (though its broth is a bit thin) produces the requisite filaments of cheese. Soups, in fact, are a strong suit: A potage of leek and potato is delicate and soothing. Gazpacho, a recent special, is straightforward and refreshing, a reminder that this chilled tomato classic need not be overly tricked out to be good.
For the most part, Bistro des Celestins succeeds best as a place to while away the afternoon or evening with a procession of first courses, plus maybe a salad, a glass or two of wine—me, I’d skip the agreeably priced half-carafes of house wine and splurge for the better stuff—and dessert.
Two of the better ways to begin are with the appetizer of smoked salmon and the warm goat-cheese salad. The former surrounds four thick slices of fish with little mounds of spicy capers, slivered olives, diced onions, and chopped egg; if only the kitchen didn’t stint on the brioche—two small half-slices? The latter is pretty, with its ribbony curl of shaved cucumber fronting a small, well-dressed salad, and the goat cheese is piled thick atop the crusts of bread.
Main courses are iffier. I like the lamb steak, thin but tender; the mussels (although not particularly plump) come in a good, creamy broth; and the wild-mushroom omelet is light and soft. But the steak tartare lacks the bite that raw meat needs, the frogs’ legs come across merely as a vehicle to convey garlic and butter, and the selections of fish are largely without personality—a grilled swordfish, in particular, is undone by a wan red-wine sauce.
If not everything sings, the atmosphere is compensation. You’re unlikely to sup in such a wonderfully civilized setting at such bargain prices elsewhere; La Madeleine might have the same château-style moldings and the same hanging long-handled copper pots, but it doesn’t have the antique wooden server station decked out with rooster figurines—and it doesn’t have half the charm. If you were going to drop by any place a couple of times a week, you could do a lot worse by your wallet—and your state of mind—than this.
Bistro des Celestins, 6876 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 534-8059. —Todd Kliman
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