Owner’s Spirit Still Watching Over LaCote D’Or

RAYMOND CAMPET and wife Lynne at one of La Cote D’Or’s many Bastille Day celebrations. (Photo: La Cote D’Or/Facebook)
RAYMOND CAMPET and wife Lynne at one of La Cote D’Or’s many Bastille Day celebrations. (Photo: La Cote D’Or/Facebook)

It’s still a great restaurant but La Cote D’Or won’t be the same without Raymond Campet.

Campet, 65, who founded the Falls Church French restaurant with his wife Lynne in 1992, died May 26 of cancer that was undetected until shortly before his death.

Campet, a native of Vichy France, prided himself on never seeing a doctor, and it was only after working out at a fitness center to cure what he thought was bursitis, that his pain persisted and his wife convinced him to see her doctor.

Tragically, a blood test revealed inoperable cancer that had spread throughout his body and led to kidney failure. As his wife told one of my friends, it was too late for dialysis or aggressive chemo therapy. “It was an awful Catch 22,” my friend said.

La Cote D’Or has been one of my favorite restaurants since the Campets sold their interest in a popular Capitol Hill restaurant they had run since 1979 and prepared to sell their Falls Church home and move to Florida where Raymond had accepted a job as manager of a resort hotel.

But when they were offered $150,000 less than their asking price because an economic slowdown had depressed real estate prices, they decided to stay put and find another restaurant to run. That’s when they pulled off Interstate 66 while on their way to a Capital Hill reception, and saw a “for lease” sign on a recently closed Italian restaurant across from the Falls Church Fire Department.

The next day they returned to inspect the property and two weeks later, signed a lease. Utilizing contacts he made as maitre’d at the French Embassy and as manager of La Brasserie and another French restaurant in Georgetown, Campet persuaded suppliers to renovate the space in two weeks instead of six.

Naming their restaurant after the Burgundy region where Campet’s mother was born, the couple designed a logo depicting a red rooster and blue fish, ordered fresh flowers and opened on Nov. 6, 1992.

On the first night, next door neighbors arrived for dinner with 40 people, and since then, the seven-day-a-week restaurant has seldom lacked enthusiastic customers, me among them. In addition to excellent cuisine, I enjoyed testing my rudimentary French on the personable Martin, who still spoke with a strong French accent.

(I learned to say ‘Bonsoir’ when arriving for dinner, ‘Bonne nuit’ when leaving.)

Diners could view spectacular sunsets to the west from the main dining room and bar and adjacent sunroom alongWestmoreland Street, the dividing line between Arlington and Falls Church. Raymond added a breakfast space and separate dining room for private parties in 1996 but recently closed them.

The restaurant was initially a family operation, with Raymond overseeing the kitchen and finding the best fresh produce and Lynne running the front, while their three children also helped out, before deciding they didn’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

“The restaurant business is like being in the Army,” Raymond said at the time, “It’s discipline. You’ve got to be ready for the show every day.”

In 2002, ten years after La Cote d’Or opened, I reviewed it for The Hill, the Capitol Hill newspaper I was editing at the time, and praised it in a full-page review that Raymond framed and kept in his office. The menu included classic French fare, including escargot, Dover sole meuniere, rack of lamb Bordelaise, steak frite and tarte tatin, but also dishes that reflected his Basque heritage such as sea bream named after his father’s hometown in the Pyrenees.

Although the wine list was dominated by French wines, my wife and I enjoyed a bottle of the Raymond Amberhill chardonnay, one of four Napa Valley wines on the list. Campet admitted it was a bit of a gimmick because the wine bears his name, but it’s as good as any of its French cousins. Sadly but inevitably, prices for both food and wine have increased by about a third in recent years.

As Raymond’s obituary noted, he took great pleasure in directing an annual waiters’ race on Bastille Day, giving the winner a trip to Paris, while the Campets hosted many benefit dinners for schools, churches and charities.

I’ve been back many times since my first visit, sometimes for a drink at the bar and chat with some of its 30 employes, many from El Salvador who have worked there for 20 years, and sometimes it was to treat out-of-town guests or attend anniversary celebrations. Like most dining out guides and online reviewers, I almost always came away proclaiming “Magnifique!”

La Cote d’Or was closed last Wednesday because of Raymond’s funeral at St. James Catholic Church. But I took my wife for dinner on Thursday and offered condolences to Lynne, a Washington native who met Martin while on vacation in Paris.

She assured us she intends to continue operating one of the Washington area’s finest French restaurants, knowing that Raymond “is watching us overall.”