Food & Drink

Daniel Pont bids adieu to restaurants

Owner and chef Daniel Pont stands in front of his downtown cafe, La Bonne Soupe, in October 2005. Pont sold the cafe in 2011.
Owner and chef Daniel Pont stands in front of his downtown cafe, La Bonne Soupe, in October 2005. Pont sold the cafe in 2011. Sacramento Bee file

Daniel Pont, who for seven years presided over downtown Sacramento’s La Bonne Soupe with such skill and low-key French flair that he became one of the region’s top restaurant celebrities and a bona fide tourist attraction, has decided enough is enough.

At Chez Daniel, the bistro he opened in Folsom after selling La Bonne Soupe in late 2011, his feet were too sore too often. His back would ache from standing at the stove or bending repeatedly to reach into the oven. The hours were long and Pont, who will turn 77 in August, was exhausted.

“I was afraid at the end. Too much work,” the chef said in a recent interview. “When you get a certain age, you know you’re not the same anymore. You’re not as good as you used to be. It’s sad, very sad. It’s sad that I had to sell my restaurant because of my age. My doctor said I was crazy.

“I was a victim of how I ran my restaurant. I wanted to control everything.”

Pont recently sold Chez Daniel to another chef, Steven Long, and cooked his final meal on a recent, poignant Saturday night, at once dazzling and saddening his regular customers.

“Where else can you get authentic French food of that quality? It was my favorite restaurant by a long shot,” said Dennis Johnston of Rancho Murieta, who dined there often with his wife. “I have eaten at all the top restaurants in Sacramento, and we eat often in San Francisco. Chez Daniel was the best. I think this is the end of an era. Daniel is the last old-school French chef that I know of.”

“I’m ambivalent about it,” said Roseanne Chamberlain, who lives in Land Park. “He has worked a long and splendid career and has every right to get off his feet and kick back. We have enjoyed many dinners there, and I feel no place comes close to achieving that elegant bubble of perfection.”

Chamberlain said her favorite Pont dish was the braised rabbit. Pausing for a moment, she added: “The sauces were just so good.”

As a chef and restaurateur, Pont’s demeanor was as noteworthy as his palate. Clad in a white chef’s coat, check pants and black Danish clogs, he was a courtly gentleman who greeted every customer. And his way with flavors was considered so refined that he could elevate even a simple vegetable soup into something many insisted was the best they’d ever tasted.

He also could be stubborn and proud to a fault. In its heyday, La Bonne Soupe’s lunchtime lines routinely stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. The waits could be two hours or more. Pont cooked the food. He ladled the soup. He applied each tiny cornichon to each and every sandwich. He rang you up, took your money, bagged your lunch and somehow made you feel lucky to be a part of it all.

Yet he refused to hire any help, insisting he could not find anyone suitable. The running joke was that La Bonne Soupe catered to the weekday lunch crowd – but you had to take the day off work to eat there.

At Chez Daniel, he would show customers the door if they arrived for dinner dressed in shorts or a T-shirt. They could go home and change into something more acceptable or find another restaurant altogether. Yes, he enforced a dress code, possibly the only Sacramento-area restaurant to do so. His four-course dinners were a set price, usually $30, and there was generally only one dessert offering. Some found that baffling. Many considered it part of Pont’s charm.

“I like my chefs with a bit of an edge,” Johnston said.

Born in Lyon, France, Pont began working as a teenager at his uncle’s restaurant, learning classic French technique.

“Then I was the French military, and it was very lonely. I used to correspond with girls from around the world – Venezuela, Brazil, Canada,” he said. “I met a Canadian lady. Her picture looked very cute. She said, ‘We need people like you in Quebec.’”

Pont took menial restaurant jobs in French-speaking Canada for two years, before heading to the U.S., moving often. He worked in restaurants in Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas and San Francisco, honing his craft and sticking to what he knew – French cuisine. In 1974, he opened his own place, Chez Daniel, in Alameda. He opened and sold two other similar restaurants in the Bay Area. In the 1990s, he became an American citizen, though his accent never left him.

In 2004, he moved to Sacramento to be closer to his daughter, Natalie. He and his wife, Asta, bought a house in a senior living community in Natomas, and Pont thought he was through with restaurants.

“But my wife was not too happy with me in the house,” he said with a smile. “When we moved to the new house, we had to put the pictures on the wall. But every time I did so, she would say, ‘No, darling. Not there.’ After the third time, I sat down and said, ‘I think I should go back to work.’”

Outwardly, there was little to suggest La Bonne Soupe would attract the kind of attention it did. The cramped eatery was on a hardscrabble block next to a bail bonds office, and the menu was nothing more than soup and sandwiches.

“It was slow for two days. The first day, I had three customers. The second day, less than 10,” Pont said. “The third day, the owner of the building called and said, ‘Tom Sullivan (then with KFBK FM) said on the radio that he went to your place and it was the best onion soup he ever had.’ The next day, there was a line down the street, and it was that way for seven years.”

Pont’s tiny lunchtime joint became the stuff of legend, attracting national recognition from Zagat and Yelp, among others. When Zagat began publishing a restaurant guide for Sacramento, La Bonne Soupe had the highest ranking in the “Top Food” and “Best Buy” categories. Tourists would often stop outside to take pictures. Despite the long lines and all the acclaim, Pont never seemed flustered, never quickened his pace and never hired a staff.

“I concentrated. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake,” he said, recalling those days. “Maybe I looked calm, but I was nervous inside. It was very stressful to see everyone in line. I didn’t want to sacrifice quality just for money. And it worked.”

In 2009, an embarrassing episode with a county health inspector forced La Bonne Soupe to close for two weeks until Pont could hire an exterminator. One night, Pont was cleaning and disinfecting his restaurant by himself when he became overcome by the cleaning compounds and collapsed. He landed in the hospital. Distraught and humiliated, he vowed to close his eatery and move to Las Vegas. Customers rallied to his defense. When he opened, the lines were as long as ever.

Pont’s move to Folsom meant a different style and pace, but he knew the hours were punishing his body. And even at his age, Pont refused to make life easier for himself. He had one waiter and someone to do dishes. But he answered the phone, cooked the food and made a point of stepping out of the kitchen to greet customers – or send them home to change.

Now he has put away his tools, hung up his chef’s coat. He vows to spend more time relaxing at the community pool. And all those recipes for soups and sandwiches, for rabbit and rack of lamb, will likely die with him.

Asked about his secret for making soup, which will likely be his lasting legacy in Sacramento, Pont simply shrugged.

“There is no secret. You just have to know how to cook,” he said. “I made soup since I was 10 years old. You have to have a clean palate in this business, and you have to know how a good soup tastes. I was born with soup. I was raised with soup.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob