What Makes a French Bistro Great for 30 Years?

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Hugh and Anne Claire Fregnan with daughter Savannah represent the next generations of Le Refuge. (Photo by Rob Cannon Photography.)
Hugh and Anne Claire Fregnan with daughter Savannah represent the next generations of Le Refuge.
(Photo by Rob Cannon Photography.)

By Holly Burnett

There are only five numbers stored in my iPhone – my parents, sister, niece, manicurist and Le Refuge, hence its importance. Established in 1983 by Jean Francois and his wife, Francoise, I first discovered it in 1988, and without apology, it is perhaps one of the most enduring and dependable relationships I have known. If the restaurant served breakfast, I would be there.  

On Washington Street across from Christ Church, the enchanting entrance, topped with a burgundy awning and flanked by a handwritten chalkboard listing today’s specials, is the quintessential country French bistro, a place you would stumble into from your Paris flat. Cascading seasonal trimmings welcome you inside to an intimate, casual café with iconic French culinary images stacking the walls – wine posters, wooden cheese wheels, vintage plates – creating an atmosphere of casual elegance and unpretentious, relaxed simplicity.

Inside the beautiful  French bistro.
Inside the beautiful French bistro.

Francois’ daughter, Anne Claire, alongside her husband Hugh Fregnan, are the new generation, orchestrating the front of the house with absolute aplomb, and dishes are delivered to the table as if in metered time.  There is no waiting.  You are immediately eating, drinking and sopping up, à la Julia Child, the succulent sauces with crusty French baguettes. Offering a full bar and extensive wine list, I tend to gravitate to the house cocktail of champagne, peach schnapps and a single plump raspberry, which I reserve until the last sip. Appetizers comprise the best dinner party in town. Take a group, order a bunch of hors d’oeuvres and circulate the plates. Try homemade country pate, escargots, crayfish tails in garlic butter, stuffed mushrooms or tender-crisp asparagus. Your palate will be enlightened with fresh, pure flavors that will forever change your definition of good food. It is no secret to my friends that I want Le Refuge to be my last meal before I depart this earth. If I am about to expire at Alexandria Hospital, I expect them to sneak it in!     

Main courses are just as engaging. Heralded for their bouillabaisse, frog legs, beef Wellington, salmon in crust and seasonal soft shell crabs, the veal Normande (veal scaloppini in a brandy cream sauce with mushrooms) is also a standout. Finish with a crème brûlée, profiteroles or peach melba, and you will be a happy person.

Le Refuge surpasses all expectations because when you return, again and again (and you will), everything will be just as good as the first time. Le Refuge is consistent – a constant in my life as I am sure it will become in yours. Add it to your speed dial. Make reservations for Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve now. Bon appétit!

Le Refuge serves lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday.  For hours and reservations, call (703) 548-4661 or visit www.lerefugealexandria.com.