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Simone Hérault, the French restaurateur who ran Oakland’s tiny, charming Chez Simone for 36 years, died earlier this year after complications from surgery. She was 85 years old.
Chez Simone has been closed since 2014, but it — and its iconic owner — still hold a special place in many patrons’ hearts. Simone devoted a good portion of her adult life to preparing French food for Oakland denizens in a unique, very French, very romantic and very particular way for many years. Chez Simone was, perhaps, a relic of another time. There’s no place like it in the East Bay, not anymore.
Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about Simone’s life, based on conversations with those who were close to her: She was born on Dec. 20, 1936, in Tours, France, the daughter of a housekeeper mother and a father, said to be a Norwegian, who was absent from her life.
When she was three years old, France surrendered to Germany and established the Vichy regime. Simone, a blue-eyed towhead, was hidden away because her mother thought she might be kidnapped by Germans. Suffering from typhoid fever as a child, Simone was sent to a sanitorium in the countryside where she subsisted on pomme de terre and le jus d’orange, and was nursed back to health by a priest whose kindness she never forgot.
Simone came to the Bay Area as a young woman to work as an au pair for a Piedmont family. She had attended the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, and later worked as a private chef for two prominent San Francisco families.
In 1978, when she was 42 years old, she opened Chez Simone at 4125 Piedmont Ave. That same year, my mother first brought me to Chez Simone. Tucked away at the top of the stairs at the back of Piedmont Lane, the cafe was a single room with a counter separating it from the kitchen and four or five tiny tables covered by blue and white gingham cloths. A local blacksmith had made her a beautiful, ornate iron sign reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, as well as the heavy, rustic candlesticks that were placed on each table.
Though I was only 10 years old at the time, I knew it was special. It was just the place to escape the bustle of the city. Fragrant purple wisteria hung from the wood veranda outside the door. Emerald-green tree ferns reached for sunlight from the quiet garden below. It was a place where time fell away, replaced by the cadences of the French countryside.
Over the years, I continued to visit Chez Simone. The bistro became my go-to for scallop-filled seafood crepes. I tended to bring special people to Chez Simone, people I trusted would understand the magic of the place. I think other regulars felt the same.
To Europeans, artists and eclectic types, the place felt like home. Every year on Bastille Day, she threw a big shindig. She’d buy a whole salmon, set up tables around the perimeter of the veranda, and serve a buffet feast. A good number of French expats would show up, and they’d form a line and march down Piedmont Lane to the Avenue with the French flag singing La Marseillaise.
Many nights, her closest patrons would drop by with a bottle of champagne to help Simone close shop. After an hour or two, Simone would invite them to make something to eat in the kitchen.
Standards like French onion soup, beef Burgundy, coq au vin, niçoise salad, coquille St. Jacques, quiche Lorraine, seafood crepes, clafoutis and chocolate mousse were on rotation. Simone was often the only person in the house, serving as waitress, chef, and hostess. Her Fr-anglish was so heavily accented it could be difficult to understand her.
Likewise, a hand-written menu on butcher block paper with spidery handwriting and a mixture of French and English was famously difficult to decipher. People would pass it around, shrug their shoulders, and wait for the server (or Simone) to explain what was on offer. And if Simone didn’t like you, or didn’t want to serve you, you knew.
For a certain kind of customer, however, this kind of abuse was catnip. It was Simone’s authenticity and refusal to play games that charmed. You were expected to be patient and polite, and if you failed to pay her the proper amount of deference, the consequences could be severe.
Those who loved Simone and her bistro understood this.
Despite her occasional snappishness, Simone cared deeply about her regulars. When a certain diner didn’t show up for her customary lunch, Simone would call her assisted living facility, Piedmont Gardens, to make sure she was okay. She could also be mischievous and flirtatious. With a gleam in her eye, she’d tell friend and patron Barry Wagner it was his “meanness that kept him skinny,” he said.
Simone cherished a stable of stray cats, hummingbirds and raccoons. Felines Kitty Boy, Mimi, and Flutelle lived on the roof and were fed well. Later, she adopted a one-eyed cat named Maggie, her last. Goldfinger, a South American parrot, was a regular guest, as well as Henri, the hummingbird. If you arrived at her restaurant with your dog, Simone made sure the dog ate first — and got beef Burgundy, no less, plus a baggy of bones to take home.
4125 Piedmont isn’t a restaurant anymore, its dining room flipped into retail and personal service space. Gone are the fresh flowers, French music, stray cats and delicious food. Gone, too, is the kind of restaurant that Chez Simone exemplified, at least in the Bay Area. Rents are too high. There’s no room for a classic, affordable neighborhood restaurant like Chez Simone any more, a place the French might refer to as a bistrot du coin.
According to a longtime patron and friend, Chez Simone was “a real French restaurant, without pretense… natural, not constructed.” So much of that was due to Simone, herself, and her utter lack of artifice. She was honest and direct, but never malicious. “Simone could alienate people with her bluntness,” that same patron and friend said. “Yet she had more devoted friends than anyone I know.”