The lights are low, and there are more of them than usual, but familiar faces can be seen among a crowd of enthusiastic patrons. Some are at the new bar which is to the right as you walk through the door and decorated in brightly painted local art designed for this very watering hole. Some are waiting for a table, but the rest are seated at cozy booths, surrounded by elements of a room were these tables and seats sat before. Mirrors and old posters are on the wall, familiar prints and lighting fixtures featuring the image of a cow, a pig and a rooster cast a dim white light on the small parties. The room is buzzing. Everyone is dressed as if for a special occasion, and it certainly is one; smiles are big, a sense of welcome is thick in the air.
Sept. 24 was a big day for foodies in Amherst. It was a day that had no meaning before Chez Albert announced without notice, except to a select few ahead of time, that they were re-opening their doors in the highly anticipated debut of their new location, after two months closed.
Chez Albert opened in 2005 at its original location on 27 South Pleasant Street in the center of Amherst, MA. The dining room was small; at capacity, they could seat 24 guests. After six very successful years at this location, owner and Chef Paul Hathaway decided to make a move down the block to 178 North Pleasant Street.
Much of the original location’s charm came from the setup which placed each table in it’s own little corner. Tables had rustic copper surfaces and the room was barely illuminated by low lights, with old-fashioned Lautrec-style images on one wall, and a wall-length mirror on the other. The clear space that ran through the center of the dining room allowed Emmanuel Proust, the well-known waitor of the institution, to monitor each table carefully and ensure that everyone was having a good time. First, he offered a drink, and like an old friend, he seemed to have just the right recommendation for every pallet. Then came the fresh white bean dip and El Jardin bread for the table to rip apart and enjoy. Gasps could be heard as each guest scrutinized the menu, torn between the options and the choice to be made.
The new location has been in talks for quite some time. Guests were heartbroken to hear that the restaurant was going to be closed for an indefinite period of time in preparation for the re-opening. Collective concern started to grow that the project would take a while and the new spot wouldn’t be the same. But when hungry regulars poured in on opening night, they felt the same old feelings, and sighed with relief.
“We’ve been crazy on our feet all night, it’s been incredible,” said Proust on the night of the re-opening. Proust is a waiter who has been at Chez since it’s early days; his French accent is thick, and every night that he runs around the restaurant in a white button up shirt with thick glasses on his face and a few buttons undone at his collar. He seems to make time to tend closely to every table, and to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves.
Although Proust is the face that most remember from their dining experience at Chez Albert, Hathaway is the one behind it all. His menu of French classics and Chez classics, change seasonally, utilizing local produce and moving with what is fresh. The paté is always on the menu as is the escargot, and a few simple salads. But now, the kitchen and wait-staff have some catching up to do, with the capacity to fit 44 in the new dining room, the staff has almost double the volume of customers. The old spot required four cooks, and four waiters; the new spot, five and seven. “We’re not satisfied yet,” said Hathaway, after two weeks of success in the new location. “We’re looking to get caught up to speed.”
Hathaway intends to create a new bar menu, and bring in more options to stock the shelves. The bar counter itself features unique, bright art by Ebenezer Archer Kling (ebenezerarcherkling.com). Other new additions include custom copper lighting installations by Kamil Peters (kamilpeters.com) and plans to set up patio seating in the spring.
With all of the new additions and changes to the institution where lovers of French cuisine and fine dining call themselves regulars, the food and the feeling of welcome have not changed a bit. The new menu features nothing short of a mouth-watering ensemble, and the folks all agree, “It’s still the same old Chez.” The same cooks are in the kitchen, stirring up their beloved secrets, and the same smiling faces are there to greet you at the door. It’s “Good Simple Food Voila,” as the windows in the old location used to read. But Chez Albert is more than good food; it is a warm experience that a dedicated few have proven they will never cease to provide.
Cassina Brown is a guest columnist and can be reached at [email protected]