Smoked trout with a lemon horseradish sauce at Le Grenier
Smoked trout with a lemon horseradish sauce at Le Grenier. Photos by Susan Safford

Consistent, classic French cuisine

By Karla Araujo - November 2, 2006

For the last two summers, I have enjoyed a unique vantage point from which to view the Vineyard's oldest chef-owned restaurant. My bedroom overlooked the entrance to Le Grenier on Main Street in downtown Vineyard Haven and my windows were, in fact, at eye level with the second floor dining room. On balmy evenings I would watch as the restaurant's loyal patrons would begin to arrive as early as 5:30 pm, gathering at the foot of the stairs, chattering about what they might order and how nice it was to all be together again.

Le Grenier, it seems, has become a restaurant of multi-generations. Since its inception 28 years ago, it has seen small children become parents who like to bring their own children to join their grandparents who have made Le Grenier their restaurant of choice for nearly three decades. I know an 11-year-old who glibly cites Le Grenier as his favorite restaurant on the Island, the steak au poivre his mainstay.

Jean Dupon
Owner and chef Jean Dupon.

As so many dining establishments have come and gone over the same period, what is it about Le Grenier that ensures its devoted following? Its menu has remained remarkably unchanged since I first dined there more than 10 years ago, the dining room is largely the same, with chef/owner Jean Dupon firmly at the helm. It has even weathered a tough location - the largely invisible second floor of an older building in a town that doesn't even allow alcoholic beverages to be sold. Le Grenier's menu boasts nearly 30 entrées (plus specials), 13 hors d'oeuvres, soups and salads - an ambitious nightly undertaking, to be sure. Yet night after night, 365 days a year, Jean Dupon opens his doors at 5:30 and serves his signature traditional French food with an emphasis on heartiness and simplicity to a clientele that seems to eschew the trendy alternatives that have sprung up from one end of the Island to the other in favor of this institution under the eaves.

As M. Dupon is kind enough to explain on his expansive menu, Le Grenier is French for attic, an apt name for the somewhat rustic rooms that look down on downtown Vineyard Haven's Main Street. In summer, the scene below is bustling but by the weeknight in October when I revisited the restaurant, cars and passersby below were infrequent and the dining room contained perhaps 10 other tables of diners in contrast to the full house that was typical in season. Our server, M. Dupon's stepson Neil, was gracious and welcoming, providing explanations about the menu options and recommendations when asked. He apologized for any delays (there were none) as his fellow server was out sick. Although he was the only server on the floor, he handled the customers and the actual serving of food with poise and charm. M. Dupon's assistant chef Kevin O'Neil, finishing his second season at Le Grenier, was in the kitchen that evening. M. Dupon was off-Island on a rare vacation.

I decided to start with the soupe du jour, vichyssoise, a traditional French potato and leek soup in a heavy cream and chicken stock base, served chilled. It was refreshing and surprisingly light with a blend of subtle flavors. My friend started with Escargots bourguignon, snails cooked in a garlic butter sauce, baked and served in a porcelain snail dish until hot and bubbly. Judging from their quick disappearance, I believed his pronouncement of "excellent." He also sampled the demi portion of Caesar salad, a generous portion of crisp greens garnished with anchovies and tossed with M. Dupon's legendary dressing. An aside: his wife is encouraging him to bottle the dressing but for those who can't wait and are willing to ask, he is always willing to share his recipes.

Heather Zvirbulis, Carly Holder, and Jacqueline Day
(From left) Heather Zvirbulis, Carly Holder, and Jacqueline Day enjoy a bachelorette party for Ms. Holder at Le Grenier in Vineyard Haven.

For our main courses, I chose the Tournedos Marchand de Vin, filet mignon with a red wine sauce. The tenderloin lived up to its name, moist and buttery-soft, cooked perfectly and served in a hearty brown sauce with mushrooms. Although I prefer filet without sauce, I decided to order it the way the French prepare it. It was rich and satisfying, a pleasing variation to my ordinary simple choice. My friend ordered Le Canard, roasted duck a l'orange. Also cooked just to tenderness, its sauce was sweet but not cloying. Our dinners were accompanied by dauphine potatoes, crisp deep-fat-fried potato balls, so delicious I was grateful we were served only two per entrée, as well as a rich creamed spinach.

By this point in the meal, it was painfully obvious that M. Dupon has not chosen to embrace the tenets of nouvelle cuisine. Au contraire, his portions are generous, sauces hearty and rich. His loyal following would not return due to the elegance of presentation but rather for the reassurance that they will never push away from the table without feeling full and satisfied. Le Grenier merges French tradition with the universal desire for comfort food. Before we even contemplated dessert, I was totally sated but how does one resist the list of six homemade desserts that beckons the hedonistic diner? With advice from Neil, our server, we opted for crème caramel, the classic French caramel custard, and Profiterole au Chocolat ou au Caramel, a puff pastry with vanilla ice cream served with chocolate or caramel sauce. The crème caramel was sweet and light, a not-too-guilty ending to a memorable meal. The Profiterole, not for the faint of heart, was simple and delicious, yet much more filling after an already large meal.

Michele Dupon
Michele Dupon waits tables at her father-in-law's restaurant. This busy woman also teaches first grade at the West Tisbury School.

M. Dupon, a native of Lyon, France, took over Le Grenier after it had been open for just one year. He quickly transformed it into one of the most popular destinations on the Vineyard and has, through a combination of determination, grueling hours and natural artistry, maintained a reputation for consistent, classic French cuisine. Now 63, he has decided for the first time to close on Wednesday and Thursday evenings during the quieter months. His wife, it seems, has finally put her foot down and requested the pleasure of his company. He politely scoffs at the concept of retirement but does admit to a one-hour nap on the floor during peak season. After all, he starts his day at Le Grenier at 6:30 am and locks up at midnight. We will allow himself a rest but certainly not retirement from his post as keeper of French culinary tradition on Martha's Vineyard.

Le Grenier is open seven days a week during summer; closed Wednesdays and Thursdays off-season. Dinner is served from 5:30 until 9 pm off-season; 10 pm in summer. Reservations are recommended year-round. All major credit cards are accepted. Hors'd'oeuvres range from $12 to $16, soups and salads from $6 to $10. Entrées range from $26 to $37. Le Grenier is located on Upper Main Street, Vineyard Haven, above the M.V. Bagel Authority. Phone: 508-693-4906.

Karla Araujo is a freelance writer and tennis instructor.