In Pittsburgh, the closing of well-known French restaurants marked the waning influence of formal French cuisine. The demise of Le Pommier in a 2011 fire underscored this, following the closing of Laforet in Highland Park, Chez Gerard in Fayette County, Ma Provence in Squirrel Hill and Palate Bistro, Downtown.
Two years later, there are signs of a resurgence, minus formal dishes and the notorious French attitude. Instead, French restaurants are embracing smaller plates and a creative use of ingredients paired with French technique. From Pittsburgh to Portland, Ore., French dining has loosened up.
Bridge Ten Brasserie on the South Side was the first sign of rebirth. Although it opened to tepid reviews last fall, it changed chefs to Matthew Christie in the winter and has been well-received.
And over in West End Village, Tartine opened in June, serving breakfast and lunch prepared by chef Michael Rado. He returned to Pittsburgh four years ago after working with luminaries Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas and Daniel Boulud of Daniel restaurant in New York.
In East Liberty, Paris 66 has showed its ambition by bringing on an accomplished young chef from the south of France in July. Owners Fred and Lori Rongier have also forged ahead with an expected opening Friday of a patisserie in Squirrel Hill, Gaby et Jules Patisseries et Macarons.
The unbuttoning of the French dining experience is also true in the motherland, observed chef Matthew Aita of Le Philosophe in New York. "I mean, look at Paris right now," he told food website Eater in March. "The young guys who have Michelin experience are now doing bistros with affordable food." Le Philosophe has been lauded as part of the new movement of restaurants modernizing French bistro food.
"In the past 10 or 15 years, the French have had to compete with the Americans," said Frenchman Yves Carreau, head of Pittsburgh's Big Y Group, which includes Seviche, Sonoma, Perle and Nola on the Square, all Downtown.
Mr. Carreau said Pittsburgh would be reticent to support traditional French restaurants now, even though they succeeded in the past. Finding the staff that had been properly trained and apprenticed for six years, as is customary, would alone be a drawback.
Owner of Bridge Ten Brasserie, as well as wine columnist and radio host for KQV, Dave DeSimone notes that people's standards for French cuisine have indeed relaxed.
"There is a market for this kind of dining in Pittsburgh," Mr. DeSimone said. "This is what people want."
French for "brewery," a brasserie is a more casual restaurant with a menu to accommodate a range of appetites. The classics such as mussels, coq au vin and steak au poivre are best-sellers, although Mr. DeSimone also steers diners to hanger steak salad, bone marrow or steak tartare assembled tableside.
But French dining isn't all about the food. There's a respect for French wine and a touting of French spirits, from pastis to Chartreuse to absinthe. "Le classique" pastis is served in a carafe with a glass of ice to allow diners to see as it turns cloudy when cold. The more esoteric and potent French absinthe is sold for $20.
Mr. DeSimone emphasizes wine -- his passion -- from a predominantly French list, offering flights that highlight grapes and regions of France. Two glasses and an amuse-bouche is $10.
Over in the West End Village, Tartine chef Rado continues to work at the breakfast and lunch spot as he prepares to open Butcher on Butler in the former Foster Meat space at 5143 Butler St. in Lawrenceville in the next month or so.
At Tartine, diners choose among quiche, sandwiches such as croque monsieur, Nicoise salad and vichyssoise soup. The menu is French in spirit, if not the letter.
More serious French fare is making an appearance at Paris 66 with the menu from the young Franck Lacaille, whose experience includes employment at Chateau Isabeau de Naujan in Bordeaux and La Louche de Louis XIV, a traditional French restaurant in a 19th-century manor in Provence. The Rongiers hired the chef with the hopes of stepping up the offerings.
Mr. Lacaille's influence has taken shape since late July, when a menu dominated by crepes and simple fare had been edged out by escargot, foie gras torchon or crevettes flambe a l'anis (shrimp, garlic, star anise and pastis) for the first course. Classics such as a wondrous boeuf Bourguignon or foie de veau persillade (calf's liver, garlic, parsley and balsamic) are making their way among the entrees.
Although the classic beef stew and a special of fried smelt were satisfying, it's clear Mr. Lacaille is still amending the menu that includes lackluster fries served with good mussels and baguettes that do not show off finer ingredients. Nevertheless, finely brunoise-cut carrots or perfectly tourne-cut potatoes illustrate the knife skills of a trained chef with an attention to detail that is often lost among casual restaurants.
Over in Squirrel Hill, the Rongiers are putting the finishing touches on their Forbes Avenue patisserie, Gaby et Jules, so named for the grandfathers of Mr. Rongier and pastry chef David Piquard. Mr. Piquard trained at Fauchon and Laduree, two well-known patisseries in France.
With a selection of pastries, macarons and chocolate, perhaps the Rongiers will show that the way for the French to win Pittsburghers' affection is in a bite of something sweet.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.