Verneuil sur Avre is a traditional French town in Haute Normandie. The main square is a beautiful display of historic split-beamed buildings whose windows overflow with flower boxes; the Saturday morning open air market offers fresh local products and good conversation; the many restaurants serve tempting fare which rivals what you’d find in Michelin-starred establishments. [...]
Yet there it is: Tom’s American Cantine. The American restaurant opened up at the entrance to Verneuil, right on the RN12 as you come down from Paris. When we first drove by the renovated building with its flashy red neon sign, we thought we were dreaming. The kids squealed, “Mom! An American restaurant!” That can’t be possible, I thought. Not this far away from Paris. Not in Normandy, a region so conservative I can’t even find soy sauce in the supermarket. But we watched week after week, as the chrome counters were brought in, the Naugahyde booths installed, and the formica tabletops were put into place. Tom’s American Cantine was indeed going to show the Normans another way to eat.
I had a chance to sit down with Tom Chartier and his architect, the highly-esteemed Gerard Cholet, to talk about the birth of this project. What possessed Tom to take this 1960s’ era building–originally built as a service station but more recently served cafeteria food to an older clientele–and transform it into the most authentic-looking diner I’ve seen outside of America?
Shelby: Why an American restaurant? Why here?
Tom: [smiling] It’s a back-to-my-roots story. I’m half-French, on my mother’s side. She was born in Detroit, met my [French] father in Germany, they fell in love, married and settled in France. So I grew up with this American presence in my life, even though culturally I feel very French.
S: Have you lived in the States?
Tom: Oh sure. I spent summers in Fort Lauderdale with my grandparents. When I was 17 I went and pumped gas in a small town in Illinois for three months. Then I came back to France for my studies, but left for L.A. where I lived for five years.
S: L.A.! That must have been heaven for a French guy.
Tom: It wasn’t my thing. I was working for a fashion designer and it wasn’t my calling. I had a horrible time remembering details about our stock, the colors, the clothes. It’s funny. Once I started in the restaurant industry, I suddenly had an excellent memory! I knew I had found my line of work…I can open up an industrial fridge and memorize its contents in a second. But clothes? No way.
S: I’m fascinated with the authenticity of this place. You can tell this is a labor of love.
Gerard Cholot: It is. I’ve spent years antiquing for clients in the States. Part of what I do is “mise en scene”, setting up a certain atmosphere for clients…Louis Vuitton, Thoumieux [a famous Parisian restaurant which Cholot recently redid]. Tom and I go way back and when he talked to me about his vision for this place, I could clearly imagine what he was seeing.
S: There’s no way you could’ve found these furnishings here, in France.
GC: That’s right. The tables, the lighting fixtures, the chairs and stools…these all came over from the States in a container. But the booths were done here… this craftsmanship was done in France. The black and white photographs I picked up in the States as well.
S: And the American condiments? The yellow mustard, the relish? Those can’t be easy to find in Normandy!
Tom: Restaurant supply houses. They ship anywhere now.
S: Let’s go back to your dream, Tom. You’ve got a well-known restaurant– Chartier– that does a fantastic business in the Paris region. Why take a chance on this place, here?
Tom: It would’ve been too easy to open another American restaurant in Paris. No challenge. You slap up a couple of university logos, football team flags, serve some tex-mex, and you fill the place in Paris, no problem. Situating Tom’s American Cantine out here…I’m doing this to learn something. I wouldn’t have learned a thing by doing this the easy way.
S: What are some are the things you’ve learned so far?
Tom: My first challenge was how to adapt American food to French tastes.
Look, we are dealing with the same three basics: pork, chicken, and meat. The French do these one way; Americans another. I wanted to remain true to the American way but still appeal to the French palate. The French like a three-course meal so I make sure the portions don’t overwhelm—you can order half-size servings of everything—and that way you can order a starter, a main, and a dessert. We’ve got French fries on the menu, sure, but I’m going to be offering a fresh vegetable mix, too. There’s less cinnamon in the carrot cake because the French don’t like that spice as present in their desserts as Americans do.
S: How did you know this building was for sale?
Tom: I didn’t. I’d been coming to this area for a long time with the family; we would rent the same house for vacation every year in one of the nearby villages. We really wanted to buy the house but the owner didn’t want to sell. So I started going into Verneuil every Saturday, going to the market and getting to know the old-timers. I mean the really old residents of Verneuil…the ones who know who is selling what and what will be coming on the market.
So we found a second home in Pullay [a small town outside of Verneuil]. And we would pass this cafeteria on the N12 every time we drove out here. I would always look at this building and think, “I’d love to buy that and make it into something else.”
S: I’d always drive by it and think “What an eyesore!” With that horrible pink paint!
Tom: [laughs]Yes. So I got called the owner and asked if he would consider selling the place. It wasn’t listed for sale, but it turns out they’d been looking to sell for three years.
S: What did that feel like for you…to have been fantasizing about maybe opening up another restaurant—one that many might have considered a folly—and suddenly the door opens and you have the opportunity to walk right in?
Tom: Vertigo! Pure vertigo! Two days of it ! Just like when I found out I was going to be a father for the first time!
S: You were getting what you wished for. And now you had to act.
Tom: Yes. The thing is, 20 years ago something like this wouldn’t have been possible. This kind of restaurant out in Normandy…no one would’ve understood the reference. But with the internet, and all the American movies and television…Tom’s American Cantine isn’t really some kind of unknown. I can see it when people walk in…they smile because they “recognize” the cultural references.
S: These “boomerang pattern” formica tabletops are from my childhood.
Tom: I love it when Americans come in and their faces light up.
S: Did you hit any snags when putting this all together?
Tom: A few. I think that I concentrated so much on the big picture — the look of the place — that I didn’t see a couple of logistical things which I have to fix. The way the room is set up is fatiguing for the serving staff — there are a couple of stairs which need to be taken out so the flow is better. And the coffee machine needs to be turned around so they can make coffee without having to go all the way around the counter.
Also, French people aren’t used to sitting at a counter and interacting so directly with the cooks.
S: Yes, they are so discreet, especially when it comes to dining. I could see why that would be uncomfortable for the average French person…to eat in front of the “help” as it were.
S: This is your fourth restaurant. Is it your last?
Tom: I don’t think it is my last restaurant, no. But certainly my last adventure!
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