When le Castel des Prés opened in 1954, it literally resembled a small castle or château out in the open meadows a short distance from Trois-Rivières. It still had that country-estate charm when Claude Gauthier purchased it in 1979.
By Julie Gedeon
“After completing my hotelier training and getting some restaurant experience in Montréal, I was ready to start my own place,” he recalls.
He opened Chez Claude, offering classic French cuisine that was well worth the drive into what was then still very much the countryside. He and his wife, Marie-Claude Gilbert, ran the restaurant together, as well as the rest of le Castel des Prés as a motel.
When the couple saw numerous other new motels and hotels spring up in and around Trois-Rivières, they knew it was time for a change. “We would have had to do huge renovations to the building to offer the same amenities as those places,” Gauthier says. “Instead, we decided to renovate to our true strengths as restaurateurs.”
The mansard roof and dormer windows maintain le Castel’s yesteryear ambience, but the interior spaces reflect the clean, simple lines of a modern French restaurant. Light wall colours with occasional framed artwork combine with plants, wooden bistro chairs and square tables draped with crisp white linens for a relaxed, airy chic. The cuisine is bistronomy, going a step beyond regular bistro fare with dishes like roasted sea trout with herbs, or lamb shank braised with tomatoes and onions.
After visiting France’s Bordeaux region, the couple decided to open Québec’s first wine bar in 1986 and called it l’Etiquette (for the distinguishing label on a nice bottle of wine). “I saw a dispensary machine in Bordeaux that was specifically made to serve wine samples, preserving the wine for a long time by replacing the air in the opened bottles with nitrogen,” Gauthier says. “So I contacted the manufacturer to build us one, too.”
It was a gamble. “Restaurants had wine menus back then, but wine had not yet become such a fundamental part of a good restaurant meal,” Gauthier says. “But when people heard about this first wine bar, they came out to try it and really liked it.
“Even now, our customers appreciate being able to enjoy a really good glass of wine without having to purchase an entire bottle,” he adds. “The dispensary keeps five quality whites and 10 fine reds always ready to be served by the glass.”
Tips for crowd-pleasing:
Offer a set menu. Offering fewer choices rather than à la carte selections makes it easier for the kitchen to prepare the meals for everyone in the group to eat at the same time.
Take orders ahead of time. At corporate meetings, distribute good-quality photocopies of the group menu during the mid-morning coffee break so that everyone can indicate what she or he wants to eat right on the paper, along with a choice of beverage. This will enable the kitchen to prepare everything for the requested serving time.
Get customers involved. At le Castel des Prés, there is an espresso/cappuccino machine in all of the smaller meeting rooms that people can use to serve themselves. This not only enables customers to prepare coffee when and how they want it, but saves servers a lot of time.