It's a difficult thing, letting go. But, after 31 years, Jean Claude Berger knew it was time to leave his restaurant. The biggest sign was also the most poignant: On more than one occasion, people came in to get food for a dying relative whose last request was a meal from Le Rendez-vous.
"That tells you something," says Berger. "I thought, I better do something to bring some new blood."
So in March, Berger turned things over to his son, Gordon.
Well, sort of.
Though Jean Claude says it's time for his son to make his own mark on the fine French restaurant, he's still weighing in - quite vocally, sometimes - on the changes that have transformed Le Rendez-vous from a pricey, formal restaurant to Le Rendez-vous Bistro and Restaurant.
It still has a formal dining room serving French classics, but the front of the restaurant has been transformed into a budget-friendly, casual bistro with a bar and happy hour. Some tweaks, like a more modern take on the sweetbreads (seared, with the sauce on the side) were acceptable. Others, like striking the filet au poivre vert from the menu, weren't. Look at Le Rendez-vous's main menu, and you'll see that the steak, in all its green peppercorn glory, is there, smack in the center.
Ask Gordon what his title is these days and he says "manager/owner." But, he adds with a smile, his dad could revoke that at any time.
"It's a delicate balance," says Gordon, 32.
The freshly minted restaurateur was just a year old when his father opened Le Rendez-vous on East Fort Lowell Road, near Alvernon Way. Though it was the sticks - there were lots of farms and trailers, Jean Claude remembers - business was good.
Jean Claude, who'd escaped the brutal Chicago winters for the sunny desert, logged time at Westward Look and Tucson Country Club before striking out on his own. The affluent country club clientele followed him and spread the word about his sumptuous French fare, which included tableside service like deboning sole and slicing chateaubriand.
Le Rendez-vous was a family affair. Jean Claude's father was the sommelier and wore a small cup on a chain around his neck. He didn't speak English, so he'd point to the wines he thought people should drink, Gordon recalls.
"I joke with my dad that I'll make him sommelier," he says.
Of course Gordon spent a fair amount of time at Le Rendez-vous, going back and forth between the kitchen and the house at the back of the property where his grandparents lived. His first job, at age 5, was collecting nails from the dirt parking lot. He earned a penny for each nail - and he managed to find a lot.
"He cheated on me," insists Jean Claude, who coyly admits to being born between 1935 and 1945. "He got nails from some place."
Gordon moved from the parking lot to washing dishes. He continued to work at the restaurant while he studied math at the University of Arizona. Still, it wasn't a given that he'd take over one day.
"For such a long time, he wasn't sure I was ready for this," Gordon says.
So in 2007, feeling like he needed experience outside Le Rendez-vous, Gordon took off for France. For three years, he cooked in kitchens from Brittany to Paris and Lyon. By the time he returned, it was clear that starched-napkin fine dining, with its even starchier prices, was on the way out.
Gordon had plenty of ideas about updating and attracting younger clientele, but felt he needed an outsider to make the transition easier.
"I kind of feel like we needed some sort of psychiatrist to help," he says.
Instead, the Bergers brought in a consultant, Frederic Watson of Shark Hospitality Solutions, which has offices in Arizona and Washington.
The formal dining room was freshened up - the carpet was ripped out in favor of stained concrete and banquettes were swapped for table seating. New artwork added a more contemporary feel.
In the airy front room, with its red canopied ceiling, a chalkboard offers $5 wines and revolving specialties from new chef, Ryan Doran, 22. It's a challenge for the staff of 15 to make longtime patrons happy and bring in new customers. But, Gordon has a few months' worth of comment cards, stacked and ready to offer as proof that things are going well. His dad, though, can see that just fine for himself.
The elder Berger, who continues to make pâté for the restaurant as well as run a bed-and-breakfast here and in Mexico, recently dined at Le Rendez-vous. The meal included escargots, salad, a rack of lamb and - to finish things off - crêpes suzette.
His review: "It was excellent."
Tucson's Fine Dining Scene
Bottom line, Tucson is a pretty low-key town.
That, along with the economy, of course, explains our dining scene, which definitely skews to the casual side.
Restaurants like Ventana Room at Loews Ventana Canyon - and more recently Janos - that specialized in upscale fine dining, have closed. Longer gone than those: Scordato's, Iron Mask and The Tack Room.
We still have Anthony's in the Catalinas, which boasts dinner entrees well into the $30 range and more than 1,700 wines that cost from $25-$15,000 a bottle, according to its website. But, in an interview last year when his wife pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns, owner Anthony Martino said business was "way down."
Tucson diners, it seems, aren't as into restaurants where the waiters may be better dressed than they are.
"People just don't have as much money to spend on a lunch, dinner," says longtime Tucsonan Rocco DiGrazia, who owns Rocco's Little Chicago and is president of Tucson Originals, the organization of locally owned eateries. "There's just not enough birthdays, anniversaries, graduations to keep these restaurants going."
At the same time, says DiGrazia, more casual restaurants have upped the ante.
"A lot of bistros are serving pretty darn good food," he says, citing Renee's Organic Oven as an example. The small, casual eatery specializes in organic fare, something once reserved for only high-end places, he says.
"I think everybody's moving toward a middle," he says.
Le Rendez-Vous Bistro & Restaurant
3844 E. Fort Lowell Road, 323-7373; rendezvoustucson.com
The formal dining room still serves Le Rendez-vous classics, like Beef Wellington. Entrees are in the $30 range.
The bistro offers small plates for $5.50 along with revolving specials that average $9. Plus, Le Rendez-vous has happy hour deals, too.