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Le Refuge -- 25 Years Of True French Cuisine

Colonial Old Town becomes a French bistro entering Le Refuge.

The year was 1983. His wife was pregnant with their second child. They had just returned from a trip to their native France, and he decides to purchase a French restaurant in Old Town Alexandria.

Twenty five years later that pregnancy, Anne-Cleire Chaufour, is now helping her father, Jean-Francois Chaufour, run one of the most successful French restaurants in the Washington Metropolitan area while his wife, Francoise, not only serves as the bookkeeper but also the chef when Chef Raphael is on vacation.

Its name is Le Refuge. It is located at 127 N. Washington St. It is the ultimate French restaurant -- not only for its cuisine but also for its atmosphere and ambiance.

Their son Alexander Chaufour, 27, is the sous chef at Ruth Christ's Steak House. To them, the restaurant business is definitely a family affair.

Prior to Chaufour acquiring Le Refuge, it had been a French restaurant named L'Estaminet. "We changed the name to Le Refuge because we felt it was more suited to what we wanted to convey in our atmosphere," Chaufour said.

That atmosphere has been described by long-time devoted customers as "authentic French bistro," particularly those from Europe who travel to the Washington area on a regular basis make it a must to visit Le Refuge. That is also how regular local patrons see it.

"We have friends from California who, when they travel here, the first thing they want to do is have dinner at Le Refuge. I've also taken visitors from Europe there and they say this is truly a French Bistro," said Alex Kaznoff of Burke.

"My wife, Katherine, and I have been coming here for years. It's one of our favorite restaurants in the Washington area," he said.

"The regular menu is outstanding. And, their specialty menus during the holidays are really excellent. The cuisine is also complemented by a wine list that is excellent, not only in choice but also in price," Kaznoff said.

"We have been going there for over a decade and I have recommended it to many people over the years. It is reasonably priced and well worth it," he said.

Chaufour acknowledged, "To keep a restaurant operating successfully for 25 years you have to do it right. This is a very competitive business."

A resident of Springfield, Chaufour came to the Washington region is 1976 and worked in various restaurants prior to acquiring Le Refuge in 1983. "It's been very successful and the business has always been steady," Chaufour said.

"That is until the last three months. It seems like people are not eating out as much because of the overall economic situation. But, we have seen a slight improvement just recently," he said.

CONFINED TO A single room, the restaurant seats 52. There have been a few extra seats added on the sidewalk for the summer months. "I really wanted to keep it small and intimate. If you have a big party you have to go elsewhere," Chaufour said.

"You need a reservation on the weekends. But, on weekdays we take walk ins," he said. LeRefuge is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and closed on Sunday. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Dinner is served from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Both the menu and wine list offer a wide array of selections. Some favorite menu offerings include rack of lamb, beef Wellington, frogs legs, and bouillabaisse. Seasonal favorites include venison, soft shell crabs, and, in the winter, cassoulet, a lamb stew with beans. There are usually daily specials at both lunch and dinner.

The seven page wine list is composed primarily of French selections with a few California reds interspersed. Most are priced from $20 to $40 per bottle.

Lunch prices range from $11.95 to $16.95. Dinner selections begin at $18.95 and go to $31.95. A wide array of hors d'oeuvres is priced from $5.95 to $8.95.

Reflecting on the last quarter century, Chaufour said, "I hope to go for another 25 years. We have many regulars and they all seem to really appreciate the way we operate as well as our food."

That was buttressed by Kaznoff. "This is probably not only my favorite French restaurant in the Washington area, but also my overall favorite restaurant. And, with the holidays coming it's even more of a treat," he said.