This is how it happened. It was a Friday and, my friend Amy from Lemonbird Preserves messaged me saying that Anita, our food styling, ice cream-making friend, had gotten reservations at the French Laundry for 6 people the following Tuesday. One couple had cancelled, and would we be interested in joining them? “Yes. F@*$, yes,” I thought! Beside myself with glee, I messaged M. Cheesemonger to tell him to drop everything because we were going to the French Laundry the following week.
It’s no joke getting a table at the French Laundry, the famed Michelin three-star restaurant owned by renowned Chef Thomas Keller widely considered one of the best in the world. Even though you can expect to spend upwards of $500+ per person for a tasting menu, with wine, reservations are quickly snatched up as they become available. I liken the thought of dining at the French Laundry to snagging front row tickets to a David Bowie concert (sigh, I am still sad he’s gone)—a nice idea, but unlikely to happen. Except, this time, it was happening!
After deciding what to wear, debating which camera to bring, and doing a double workout the morning of our reservation (I would leave NO CRUMBS BEHIND), we were ready. Apparently, the restaurant is quite strict with reservations, so I wanted to make sure we got there extra early! As in, at 3:30pm, for a 5pm reservation. I’m telling you, the area traffic can take you by surprise, and I absolutely wanted to be ready for this dinner!
Luckily, the town of Yountville is charming, and the restaurant’s culinary garden is just across the street from the diminutive front of the French Laundry itself. With so much time to kill, M. Cheesemonger and I strolled around downtown a bit, and then M. Cheesemonger cut me loose to explore the garden. The grounds are beautifully arranged in a grid; there are chickens and a beehive on top of produce. I recommend arriving early to explore it.
Because we had arrived so early, when our reservation time did come up, we were the first ones there. Alex, the service manager, came out to greet us and chat. I told him about Miss Cheesemonger, especially since he noticed my clunky camera. Later, at the end of the meal, he shared with amusement that he had seen me at 3:30 running around the garden in my nice orange dress. So much for being stealthy! These French Laundry folks are observant, something I quickly learned during the course of our meal.
When we finally were able to enter the French Laundryverse be seated, we took in the sights—the space is rather small, not unlike a French country restaurant would be with narrow windows, narrow passageways, and low-ish ceilings. The restaurant’s signature blue is featured in the carpet, drapes, menu, and custom Limoges plates. The numerous wait staff, all wearing crisp, tailored suits, were like a silent, choreographed murmuration of starlings that elegantly congregated and dispersed to serve various tables, and guide befuddled guests around the space. At each seat, a large, loosely folded napkin bore a clothespin declaring The French Laundry. The laundry theme is beautifully carried throughout the restaurant in the lampshades and that ubiquitous clothespin logo.
M. Cheesemonger and I had agreed in advance that he would order the chef’s tasting menu, and I would order the tasting of vegetables. I wanted to try everything on the menu! We ordered a wine tasting for everyone as well.
Before the meal began, we were served small cornets of salmon and cream for the chef’s menu folks and beets and cream for the vegetable folks. They were shaped like pins, I thought, like the clothespin logo of the restaurant, and wrapped in crisply folded, embossed napkins. M. Cheesemonger offered me a taste of his salmon cornet. I bit off the top, then realized that I had eaten all the salmon, leaving none for him. “Oh no! I’m so sorry!” I cried between chews. Following that were small housemade “Ritz” crackers stuffed with pimento cheese. That small nod to comfort foods at the start of the meal gently eased us into the dining experience.
As our first course came out, our tablemates asked what the vegetable course was. “I don’t know,” I replied, as I stared into the depths of a tiny bowl, where 6 cubes of vegetables lay. I couldn’t recall. Our server piped up with “It’s a deconstructed soup with no liquid.” “Oh,” I responded, completely buying it. BUT HE WAS KIDDING. He came over to pour the brightest, smoothest orange carrot soup of my life into the bowl. And then 9 more courses followed.
For me, the extra point that nudges a restaurant toward greatness is the service. Of course, the food has to be excellent as well. I’ve been to a couple other Michelin starred restaurants, and even though the food was delicious all those times, the game changer was always service. Luckily, ours was excellent. Our server and the service manager engaged with us throughout the 3.5-hour meal, offering suggestions, explaining wines and dishes, and gently joking. I love an easygoing, playful attitude among staff. It shows me that people are content, that they are eager to make diners feel at ease, and it requires true engagement on their part. After all, with humor, timing, and attention are everything. Our server even asked the table before service if there was anything we couldn’t eat. Celery has been my lifelong archenemy, and it was the main focus of one dish. I brought it up, and the kitchen altered that one course, removing the celery. As each course was served, servers circled our table to serve ladies first, then gentlemen, then lifted the covers off our plates in unison so that we could collectively gasp at the revealed treasures. After each course was complete, servers silently cleared everything away, often without us being aware.
At the close of our meal, we were invited to visit the kitchen. With the recent renovations upgrading and developing 2,000 square feet of workspace, I was so delighted to see this sleek jewel box of a kitchen in action. The surfaces were white, crystalline, and spotless. People moved briskly and purposefully through the space. Our kind server (I feel so bad I never caught his name!) even took a photo of us all in the kitchen with my camera! There is a concrete foundation just outside the kitchen marking the French Laundry’s original kitchen. My, how things have grown since the restaurant’s beginnings in 1994. For what it’s worth, the building did actually operate as a French laundry in the early 20th century.
As we left, we were sent off with a little gift bag, which included a menu, shortbread cookies, chocolate covered nuts, and a box of chocolates. It made the evening feel complete, and yes we felt special.
Is a meal at the French Laundry worth the high price? Several people have asked me if I thought the meal was worth it. Well, what are your metrics? If your goal is simply to have a tasty meal, you can definitely find one for less somewhere else. If you want the French Laundry experience in the French Laundry microcosm, yes, then you have to be willing to pay the price. I keep imagining it as a microcosm in my mind because it is such a carefully controlled environment. All of the restaurant’s ingredients are meticulously sourced—so much that we even receive a booklet outlining all of the restaurant’s suppliers. Everyone working in the restaurant knows his or her role, and has clearly practiced it many, many times to bring us a seamless, inviting, and highly curated experience. Each detail has been meticulously attended to. Is that worth it to you? For us, it was worth it. You will need to decide for yourself what you value.
And what did I think of the food? Well, that’s the point of the whole dining experience. The French Laundry is not a place where you should merely sit back and passively take in the food and drink. Everything is prepared, arranged, and presented with care in a way that forces you to consider your food, its origins, its essence. The Hawaiian hearts of peach palm “bavarois” was a lesson in elegance and restraint. That dish’s single leaf of garden spinach was a revelation in what it meant to be spinach—to be the perfect spinach. I had never before thought of kiwis to be particularly elevated until I tasted them in the most wondrous floral broth at dessert. Each dish presented us with ingredients we are familiar with, but with all of their best features distilled amplified. If you have the chance to dine at the French Laundry, I will likely ask you the same question—what did you think of the food?
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