Amidst the hustle and bustle of Sixth Street, with its never-ending chain of bars, live music pounding from open windows, and bright neon signs, is a restaurant that is quiet, cozy and feels like home. Our home. For that’s exactly what Chez Nous, the name of this French bistro off Sixth Street, translates to: “our home”, or “our place.”
How can such a cozy family restaurant operate in the Dirty Sixth district? Let’s rewind back to the late 70’s when three friends, Sybil Reinhart-Regimbeau, Robert Paprota, and Pascal Regimbeau, arrived in the capital of Texas from Paris, with hopes of introducing unsuspecting Austinites to the cuisine of their homeland.
Introducing Austinites to Authentic French Cuisine
Back then, Austin–and Sixth Street in particular–were vastly different. “Thirty-five years ago it was a sleepy little town. No traffic. Very little going on at night, apart from Sixth Street. At that point, it was the only lively part of Austin,” shared Cameron Barber, Chez Nous’ manager.
Not only was Austin a sleepy little town, but its culinary scene wasn’t as developed as it is now. The gastronomic paradise we know today, with celebrity chefs and hundreds of dining options from around the world, wouldn’t arrive for a few more decades.
In 1961, Julia Child introduced American women to French dining in her timeless cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Although Americans were slowly becoming familiar with French food, the general perception was still stereotypical, and often included loads of cream and butter.
Most of the restaurants in Austin at the time served either BBQ or Tex-Mex. “As abstract as Texas might seem to a foreigner, French food was even more abstract to Texans. They had no idea what to expect,” said Barber.
“I feel that Chez Nous educated people about what French food was, especially in the first years. That it’s more about the quality, the care, and the approach than about any specific preconceived ideas or commitment to extravagancy that people associate with French cooking.”
-Cameron Barber, Chez Nous manager
So What Is French Cooking?
For many people, myself included, French food is associated with pastries, bread, cheese and wine. But when I try to think of a single main dish, nothing but the famous Beef Bourguignon from Julia Child’s book comes to mind.
Barber explained to me that simplicity and respect to ingredients are the key components of French cooking. As an example, he used a butcher chart. An English butcher chart has five to seven main cuts of beef, and a few smaller ones, adding up to about 10 total. An American butcher chart has a little more than 20 cuts of beef. A French one has 50. Every little piece is accounted for and allowed to speak for itself in the completed dish.
This example shows how much care, knowledge, and love for ingredients the French have. When it comes to pastries, French chefs create dozens of variations from the same three ingredients–flour, butter, and eggs–using various ratios and techniques.
French Technique, Local Ingredients at Chez Nous
The idea behind Chez Nous is to convey care and love for food by blending together the best French techniques with local ingredients. Thirty-five years ago, importing certain foods was the only option for a French restaurant. But with Austin’s growing culinary landscape, it has become easier to source almost all the necessary ingredients from Texas producers.
Chez Nous’ a la carte menu features classic French dishes like escalopes de veau panées (breaded veal scallopini) and entrecôte béarnaise (grilled ribeye steak), and modern dishes created by Chef Christopher Concannon, like saucisse aux lentilles (housemade pork and garlic sausage).
If you’re preparing for your first visit and are unsure how to navigate the unfamiliar world of French cuisine, rely on the chef and order a three-course prix fixe menu ($32.50).
But most important of all, don’t be intimidated by the seemingly unpronounceable French names, like escargots de bourgogne, côtes d’agneau manon, or even the name of the restaurant itself (Chez Nous is pronounced “shay-noo”).
“Even people who aren’t used to French cooking are often pleasantly surprised by how accessible it is, how similar it is to what they are used to, but approached differently,” said Barber, who is a Texas native and has been a part of the Chez Nous team for the past 17 years.
In over three decades, Chez Nous has gone from being a novelty to a beloved restaurant for expats and Texans alike. “As opposed to being something foreign and external to the culture of Texas, we’ve become really intertwined in the fabric of Austin.”
510 Neches St. – Website
@theAustinot wants to know:
What’s your favorite French dish?