The entrance to La Normandie Taverne and Chop House peeks from an indented brick wall that continues to the prominent black awning of its big sister upstairs, the Maisonette. While the ascending entrance to the chandeliered, white tablecloth world of the Maisonette makes you feel like high society, the descending staircase to the heavy wooden door of La Normandie makes you feel like you're entering a subterranean secret.
Inside, burgundy and gold drapery and walls, rustic woodwork and a massive brass-framed fireplace in the center of the dining rooms, which seat 168, all conspire to win you over to the subdued tavernly charm. And a heels-kicked-back crowd in the bar makes you feel immediately initiated to the secret.
The challenge for a place like La Normandie, which opened in 1931 and moved to its current Sixth Street location in 1966 along with the Maisonette, is to keep tradition alive without being buried alive by it. The menu features classic preparations of steak, chops and seafood, with some contemporary twists. Most notable in the restaurant's efforts to welcome a new generation of regulars is a solid lineup of live music on Tuesday through Friday nights, 7:3011:30 p.m., accompanied by appetizer specials in the bar, 811 p.m.
Musical guests are longtime local performers, highlighted by veteran rockers The Goshorn Brothers, who bring in the biggest crowd on Thursday nights. Danny Frazier, formerly of Frazier River, fills the house with acoustic Country/Rock on Tuesdays. The Bottomfeeders perform acoustic Rock on Wednesdays. And Kenny Cowden completes the lineup with acoustic Folk/Rock on Fridays.
A med student in his final year, an old friend, was somehow available for dinner on Friday. For me, he'll always be "Poogs," a nickname from our years as college diving teammates. As he makes the transition to "Dr. Poogs," I always drill him for the latest juicy details of his hospital rotations, his most recent being in gastro-enterology.
Our deliciously tasteless dinner conversation spoke well of our meal on the gastro-intestinal level: If there had been any chance of indigestion, I'd have had it after his stories.
We arrived at 8 p.m. for our reservations but had to wait 15 minutes for our table. The hostess suggested seats in the bar, where a smiling Cowden was midway through a rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." He took requests from rowdy bargoers shouting "Bruce, Bruce!" or "Play the Cleveland song!" — an original that had more than one enthusiastic fan singing along.
Poogs and I started our evening with bottles of his favorite old-school local brew, Christian Moerlein ($3.65). The bar was the liveliest place to be, and we considered staying there for dinner. But when the hostess led us to a prime fireside table, there was no turning back.
We started with tasty Snow Crab Claws ($9), five claws served with mustard and cocktail sauces. For entrées, we chose Roasted Atlantic Salmon ($19) and Surf and Turf ($29), which paired a 4-oz. filet mignon with Maine lobster tail. While the food might not be particularly innovative, ours was expertly cooked and easily consumed.
The salmon boasted a horseradish cream sauce, more creamy than sinus clearing. Steak and lobster were served with a candle-heated basin of black truffle butter, a nice, versatile dipping sauce for both items. Poogs wasn't familiar with the flavor of truffles, so I quickly briefed him on the exotic mushroom's long-debated aphrodisiacal qualities. Some say it's only a myth, but my own moans at that sweaty, musty smell beg to differ. I suggested he test it out with a goodnight kiss for the girlfriend who'd so kindly loaned him to me for dinner.
Entrées include sautéed vegetables and choice of potatoes or rice. In our case, whipped potatoes were heavy and encased in a solidified, heat-lamp crust.
Salad or soup is also included. Poogs liked the Tossed Salad, despite his quasi-professional estimates of the amount of fat in its heavy portion of cream-based garlic dressing. My Greek Salad consisted of vinaigrette-tossed Romaine adorned with black olives, vegetables and Gorgonzola cheese; feta would have been more appropriate, as Gorgonzola is Italian.
Most of the servers seemed as if they'd been there for years. Ours was efficient and friendly, if no longer bubbling over with enthusiasm.
La Normandie shares a pastry chef with the Maisonette, but our calorie intake forbade us from trying the famed white and dark Chocolate Mousse. Instead, we returned to the bar to enjoy more music and finish our wine, St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.95) and Louis Latour Pinot Noir ($7.75).
If I say the food is "la norm," I'll quickly qualify that with advice that if you're looking for things that never change — classic food, cozy atmosphere, a built-in crowd and live music you can sing along to — you won't find anything better below sidewalk level in the city. ©
La Normandie Taverne
Go: 118 E. Sixth St., Downtown
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Prices: Moderate to Expensive
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, seafood, pasta and salad entrees