San Francisco wasn’t working out for Claude Lambert. In 1965, he’d fled to New York from the tiny town outside Orleans to which the French Ministry of Education had banished him, then fled New York as well (too cold) for San Francisco (warmer?). Here, though, he was working at a residence hotel, sleeping under the stairs, nowhere he could bring his wife and young daughter, who were still in France. Quebec, he thought, might be easier for a French speaker to settle in. Lambert changed his last traveler’s checks to buy a ticket, but when he was counting the bills outside the bank, a thief grabbed the money out of his hand.
That last indignity is the reason Lambert came to own, by the most circuitous route possible, the Cornell Hotel on Bush Street — and how a man escaping his home country in search of adventure ended up running the hotel’s Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc, the Frenchiest French bistro in San Francisco.
Have you been to the 46-year-old Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc? I know I hadn’t before last month. Travel review site TripAdvisor ranks it as the fifth best restaurant in all of San Francisco, but The Chronicle has never reviewed it, and the dining room is hidden in the hotel’s basement behind a thick wooden door. What we’ve all been missing, I discovered, is a Gallic fantasy that grows more baroque with every year, and a 78-year-old chef cooking cuisine bourgeoise the likes of which has almost disappeared from the city. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Back to 1966: Claude Lambert found himself broke, managing a grotty residence hotel on Bush Street, when a local French businessman named Claude Reboul learned of his teaching degree. (Technically, in fact, Lambert was on leave of absence from his civil-servant job in France.) The next year, the two started their own bilingual school with the backing of the French Ministry of Education. Lambert quickly moved on to the Alliance Francaise, where he taught for another 20 years, but the school grew into the Lycée Francais de San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Lambert had moved his wife, Micheline, and young daughter into a bedroom in the hotel, which was then inhabited by older folks whose rent and meals were subsidized by the city. “There were only 18 customers left,” Lambert says now. “Everything was black. There were mice, rats. When my wife was going into the kitchen, all the roaches were flying everywhere.” Anything not chained to the wall was stolen.
The couple bought jugs of ammonia and began scrubbing, and didn’t stop for decades. Micheline ran the hotel during the day, while Claude taught at the Alliance Francaise and then returned home to cook for the pensioners. He picked up a copy of “La Cuisine de Tante Marie,” the French “Joy of Cooking,” and prepared dishes like veal Marengo and coq au vin.
By 1972, the restaurant was clean enough, and Claude’s cooking confident enough, that they opened the dining hall up to neighbors. The Lamberts named their restaurant after Joan of Arc, the patron saint of their hometown of Orleans. For the most part, Claude served no more than 15 non-residents a night— a prix-fixe dinner cost $2.50 — but in 1976 or 1977 KPIX’s “Phantom Diner,” Sydney Walker, raved about the place in one of his television segments. The ensuing rush overwhelmed Lambert. He shut Jeanne d’Arc for six months until the public forgot about the place.
By the early 2000s, all the original residents had moved out and, after 15 years’ worth of legal battles with the city, the Lamberts had transitioned Cornell into a proper tourist hotel. They bought the building in the late 1970s, and returned from their annual trips back to Orleans with French antiques as well as busts, paintings and stained glass windows depicting Joan of Arc. Claude had retired from the Alliance Francaise in 1986 with a French government pension. He gave up his cooking duties, too, in 1995, when he hired Pierre “Titu” Palomes. The Basque cook, who trained in Toulouse and Paris, had run the Restaurant de France in North Beach for a spell and then the kitchen of a private club.
With a professional chef came a new sense of Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc as a proper business. One other portentous change happened around that time: The Lamberts had long traded free rent with artists for painting work, but in 2004 they hired Bruce Henderson as a part-time staff member. For three days a week, he painted filigree onto the ceilings of all the bedrooms, then turned his brushes on the restaurant’s walls.
He hasn’t stopped yet.
A visitor to Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc on a Saturday night, 46 years into its run, may find there is almost too much to look at.
A bestiary copied from medieval illustrated manuscripts — boars, dragons, hose-and-tunic-clad humans — capers from the hotel lobby down the stairs. A natural response to one’s first glimpse of the golden-hued dining room is to gape, and not stop gaping, until the second course arrives. Are those cracks painted on the brick walls? Wait, no, the bricks themselves are painted! The cornices on the ceiling frame skyscapes befitting a Loire Valley castle. Joan of Arc is everywhere.
If you need to defend your Beef Bourguignon from marauding Anglo-Burgundians, you could grab one of the swords leaning against the corner near your seat and a helmet from the table near the entrance. Some may look longingly at the armory after the roving violinist plays “Happy Birthday” for the fifth time that night.
Jeanne d’Arc is one of the rare restaurants that makes a San Franciscan feel like he or she has left the 7x7 and, when it comes to the menu, the 21st century as well. For $54 per person, Chef Palomes, who keeps a vat of veal bones boiling on the stove at all times for his sauces, starts diners with a soup of the day, then a salad or a simple appetizer (he personally recommends the charcuterie, which he prepares himself). Palomes’s Lapin Chasseur (braised rabbit) and short ribs are favorite mains among regular customers, and Palomes is one of the rare cooks in San Francisco who still braises sweetbreads, mostly to make his boss happy. There may be other desserts on the menu, but every diner — or at least all the ones who post their photos online — ends with a tall, quivering soufflé served with a cruet of Grande Marnier cream sauce to pour into its center.
The dishes fall in the spectrum between competent and excellent, but it’s hard not to finish the fourth course without a rush of admiration for the Lamberts’ loving, personal, extremely committed vision. “I would say we are different because we did not want to know how the other (restaurants) were doing,” Lambert says. “We were ourselves.”
Lambert won’t say how old he is, though when I float the possibility that he’s in his 70s, he laughs. Chef Palomes, at the age of 78, continues to work five 12-hour days a week. The kitchen assistant, Phuong Tran, has worked for the hotel for 38 years. The oldest waiter is 80. All the staff, and some of the returning hotel guests, refer to Lambert as “Papa.” “They are not employees,” he in turn says. “I’ll protect them to the last.”
Yelp, for all its flaws, captures locals’ sentiments. To peruse TripAdvisor’s 2018 list of San Francisco’s top restaurants is to see a mirror view of the city, the one seen from the seats of cable cars and over sourdough bowls of crab chowder. The site’s top 10 includes local favorites like Kokkari and Molinari Delicatessen but also tiny cafes on the Wharf, an oyster bar in the Castro that seemed like such a well-kept secret, and Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc — currently the top French restaurant in the city.
Legrand and Lambert have watched Jeanne d’Arc’s rankings spike this year with perplexed amusement. Lambert pooh-poohs the top-10 spot, while Legrand reassures him: It doesn’t matter if he don’t think his restaurant is the best. It’s what all those people are saying.
After five decades of Gallicizing one tiny nook of the city — not to mention founding bilingual schools, hosting Francophone groups, supporting Notre Dame de Victoires and other French organizations and teaching at the Alliance Francaise — the government of France rewarded him for his efforts with the National Order of Merit in September 2018. For the celebration last month, dozens of people flew in from France. The Lamberts shut down Jeanne d’Arc to throw a massive party.
In the aftermath of the lifetime honor, Claude and Micheline Lambert even took a vacation. Now he’s back at the hotel, greeting customers and responding to every TripAdvisor review. “The first 50 years, we spent our lives doing this place,” he says. His wife is ready to step away. “But me, no, I can’t.”