Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Chef Damien Watel is searching for a new home for Chez Vatel Bistro, the landmark French restaurant in Olmos Park that has served lovers of continental cuisine in a cozy, neighborhood setting since 1999.
Watel’s family of loyal clients have expressed angst at the prospect of life without Bistro Vatel, the restaurant’s original name, for what could be a considerable period of time unless the chef locates a suitable venue soon, preferably in the 78212 0r 78209 zip codes.
“Our customers are like family members, and while we would like the new venue to attract a new generation of customers, we don’t want to stop serving the people who have been with us all these years,” Watel said.
Packing up and moving the years of goodwill, friendship, and memories will be a challenge, but it can be done. Other landmark restaurants like Liberty Bar and Paesano’s have relocated and thrived.
Negotiations for several prospective venues for Chez Vatel Bistro have fallen short over the last few months. Property owners with an available space north or south of Hildebrand Avenue should call 210-828-3141.
Bistro Vatel became Chez Vatel Bistro for legal reasons explained later in this story. Everyone interviewed for this story still calls it Bistro Vatel.
Cheers: Everyone Knows Your Name
“The customers make this place special for all of us who work here. It’s a mistake to think of Bistro Vatel as just a restaurant,” said Pascal Vincent, who was raised in Bandol in southeastern France and has worked at Vatel for 11 years. “I always say Bistro Vatel is like the television show ‘Cheers’ – everybody knows your name. This restaurant was never a concept. It’s a neighborhood bistro. You are in our house, you are our guest, you are family.”
The four members of the wait staff I interviewed for this story have a combined 62 years of service at Bistro Vatel. For them, service is a profession and a career, not a succession of jobs at different restaurants. It’s a European sensibility that permeates everything about the bistro.
“There are two reasons for that longevity,” Vincent said. “One is that we make good money. Our patrons tip very well. Second, Damien is a great boss. We know what we are doing out here, and he trusts us to do our work.”
“I’ve had more than 1,000 lunches and dinners at Bistro Vatel, and one reason is the consistency of execution by Damien in the kitchen and the staff out front, and the other is that you can eat there 10 times in one month and not see the same thing on the menu,” said Court Huber, the retired director of the Executive MBA Program at UT-Austin and now the director of the Baylor Scott & White Executive Education Program in Austin.
Huber lives in Alamo Heights, and while he is best known locally for his pristine collection of nearly 30,000 vinyl record albums, he also is one of a number of loyal Vatel patrons who maintain wine cellars deep in French Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne. Like others, he brings his own wine to Vatel.
Perhaps no Vatel patron is more famous for his wine lunches and dinners than English-born artist Harold Wood, a naturalized U.S. citizen who arrived in San Antonio in 1978 with his wife Barbara, a single suitcase, little money, and a commission from the Dee Howard Company to paint the interior of a Boeing 707. Decades later, Wood sold his own company AVIART for tens of millions of dollars. Wood’s cellar, wine knowledge and palate, and personality are legend.
Wood, for one, relishes the idea of a new venue.
“I liken it to the art of painting: a new palette a new subject, a new beginning, it’s exciting to head down a new path, bringing together all that went before as it is the same artist’s brush,” Wood said. “I am excited to see the new bistro, so let’s celebrate Damian and his wonderful staff, and anticipate the new Chez Bistro.”
A who’s who of French winemakers have made Watel’s bistro a stop on their U.S. promotional tours.
“There have been many incredible wine dinners, but my favorite remains the Pétrus dinner with Christian Moueix, arguably the most famous wine maker in the world,” Watel said. “I am proud to have hosted so many personalities, local and foreign, from Salman Rushdie to the Gypsy Kings, food and wine lovers of all sorts, the famous and infamous, the wealthy and the not so wealthy. Along the way, we have made many friends and they have become like family.”
“Family” is a recurring word in conversations with employees and diners.
“The boss is good people, and the people I work with are like family,” Juan Najera, who joined the staff in 2003, said in Spanish. “There’s not another place like this in San Antonio.”
Every customer seems to be on a first-name basis with members of the long-serving staff. It’s not unusual, for example, for Vincent to sit down with diners near the end of a meal and share a glass of wine. Watel routinely emerges from the small kitchen to mingle with diners, as does his wife, Lisa Astorga-Watel, the chef-owner of the intimate, 10-table bistro Bite in Southtown, who often helps during lunch.
Amid the walls crowded with posters and original artwork, several shelves serve as trophy displays, crowded with rows of empty bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the finest Grand Crux property in Burgundy, alongside Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Mouton, Pétrus, and other first-growth and rare Bordeaux. These wines are not on the bistro list. They were brought in by diners, often shared with others who happen to be present and with staff. Each bottle is a memory of a visiting French vintner or other memorable celebration with family and friends.
Bite opened at 1012 S. Presa St. in the Lavaca neighborhood in 2012. With Bistro Vatel in hiatus after June 18, Chef Damien and his crew will introduce lunch service there starting June 27.
“It saddens me to think we will be leaving our customers for a while,” said Nancy Richardson, who began working at Bistro Vatel in 2000, months after it opened. She, like her colleagues, described the typically itinerant life she experienced in the food service industry before Bistro Vatel. She and others there tick off the names of the many closed restaurants where they previously worked. None of them want to return to that world.
“We are a team, a well-oiled machine. Damien lets us do our job, and none of us want to work anywhere else,” said Ray Martinez, an alumnus of Bruce Auden’s Polo’s in the Fairmount Hotel, the short-lived Powerhouse Cafe at Quarry Market, and L’Etoile. “I’ve been with Damien since he opened. I answered an ad in the newspaper even before he opened.”
If the food and service standards remain high at Bistro Vatel, the same cannot be said for the building. Bistro Vatel has suffered under an indifferent landlord.
The fading strip center on Olmos Drive will stand vacant save for a dry cleaning service after Watel closes his doors. Folc restaurant anchored the other end of the strip center until an electrical fire in November 2016 forced the popular eatery to close. Owners Luis Colón and Daniel Eisenhauer are now suing Carolea LLC for more than $1 million in damages, blaming the fire on faulty wiring.
Carolea is owned by Kenneth Trigg Dealey, 70, of Dallas. Dealey, who has imported and planted olive trees in South Texas to produce olive oil, is a cousin of the Dealey family that owns the Dallas Morning News.
Watel’s scheduled closure on June 18 is part of a legal settlement with Dealey, who locked out Watel in late February, shutting down the restaurant for one day before a district judge issued a temporary restraining order against Dealey.
“This building is in terrible condition, especially the electrical wiring, but also the plumbing and many other aspects, and the landlord won’t spend a penny to fix anything,” Watel said in a March interview with the Rivard Report.
The restaurant lost power more than 30 times last year. Dealey and his San Antonio attorney, Judith Gray, did not respond to requests for an interview, but in legal filings they have denied the allegations cited in the two separate court cases.
San Antonio’s culinary scene has evolved considerably since Watel, a native of Lille, France, first opened on Olmos Drive near the roundabout on McCullough Avenue. Over the last decade, leading chefs have launched new venues clustered in Southtown and the Pearl in the urban core. Others have chosen the wealthy suburbs in the far northwest reaches of the city along Loop 1604 West and around the Shops at La Cantera and the Dominion, venues convenient to Interstate 10-West traffic.
Through it all, Bistro Vatel has been a low-key, timeless beacon for diners with an appreciation for French cuisine and an expectation of excellence and consistency with every meal. It’s an aging customer base, not necessarily the diners comfortable in the louder, younger, more bustling new destination eateries with vibrant cocktail programs and bar scenes.
Watel knows his new venue will have to bridge both worlds, a place that is comfortable and welcoming to longtime patrons, yet attractive to younger newcomers who dine out frequently. That means he’ll have to expand from a bistro with a good wine list where customers are welcome to bring bottles from their own cellars to a venue with full cocktail service and a bar.
His base of loyal, longtime diners say they will follow him once he finds a new location.
“We had family in town for Thanksgiving Eve dinner, and just as we started to cook there was a big boom outside,” said Marilou Long, co-CEO of Crossvault Capital Management. “The transformer had blown, and the electricity went out. The stove is gas, but we didn’t want to try to cook in the dark. We called Bistro, and they set us up at a big table in the second room. Bistro Vatel means family and friends to me, and that includes Damien and Lisa as well as the staff.”
The Making of a Chef
Building such a diverse clientele is a tall order, and more than one person loyal to Bistro Vatel wonders if Chef Damien can capture lightning in a bottle and successfully move his kitchen, front of house, and customer base to a new address. Watel isn’t worried as long as he can find the right space. He is no stranger to taking risks and readily shares stories of his successes, followed by a recession-era failure that nearly cost him everything.
During the interview, we sat in red leather chairs that hearken back to the 1990s when Watel worked as a cook on the line for Chef Bruce Auden at Biga, then located in a period house on Locust Street in Tobin Hill. Watel worked alongside another young chef in the making, Mark Bliss, now the chef-owner of the highly successful Bliss restaurant in Southtown. When Biga evolved into Biga on the Banks on the River Walk, Auden sold the chairs to Watel, symbolic in a way since Auden’s culinary DNA is found in more than a few next-generation chef-owned restaurants.
Many younger restaurant goers do not know Bistro Vatel simply because the Olmos Park area is not a destination. With three weeks remaining until Watel closes, there is a small window of opportunity for first-timers to experience the original location.
Watel is not your average immigrant kitchen cook who worked his way up to chef-owner, although he certainly has paid his dues along the way. His father, Jean-Pierre, was an architect who experienced success and then failure as a businessman in the city of Lille, north of Paris, a gourmand who took the family out to dine several times a week in good times.
“My dad was a restaurant lover and an art lover,” Watel recalled. “Growing up, there was a Picasso drawing in our dining room. He had to sell it when he went bust, just like me years later. He always wanted to own a restaurant, which is probably why he pushed me in this direction.”
Watel attended cooking school in Paris and worked his way up from an unpaid stage to a paying spot on the line in the kitchen. His father had taken the family on a driving tour through the United States when Damien was 11 years old, including his first visit to Dallas, where Watel’s uncle Jean was a restaurateur who introduced him to the Dallas culinary scene.
By the time Watel moved from Paris to Dallas in 1984, he spoke good English and had a plan to one day open his own place. When he and his uncle quarreled over something insignificant, Watel quit and went to work for a nearby competitor. Six months later, he found an empty space and went into business for himself.
He opened Watel’s in a McKinney Avenue strip center and spent the first day wondering why he didn’t attract a single customer. In Paris, he reasoned, neighborhood people walking by would have stopped and come inside out of curiosity. He actually turned away his first customer, a regular at his uncle’s restaurant who was always drunk and came looking for a new place to hang out.
“I was 2-3 weeks away from closing and going broke,” Watel recalled, “and then I got a favorable review in the Dallas Morning News and suddenly people were lining up outside the door.” The early 90s were boom years in Dallas, and Watel quickly grew successful as expense-account diners became regulars.
“And then I met Kathleen, a girl from the Finck family in San Antonio whose father [Bill] was a state representative. She introduced me to San Antonio, which I really liked,” Watel recalled, describing their wedding at the Argyle Club and his decision to sell Watel’s, which continued to operate for a total of 25 years.
The marriage produced two children now grown, Stephanie and Harry, but didn’t last. Damien and Kathleen remain friends. Later, he met Lisa, who was cooking for actor Tommy Lee Jones, and the two fell in love and married. They have one son, Enzo.
After a stint as a chef and co-owner at Cafe Soleil, now Paloma Blanca’s on Broadway in Alamo Heights, Watel opened Bistro Vatel. It was an instant hit.
“Bistro is not just a restaurant – it’s a retreat,” said Claudia Huntington, who, with her husband Marshall Miller, is a regular. “It’s a place that feels more like a visit with friends, and oh, by the way, has some of the best food in San Antonio. Your friends greet you at the door, welcome you in knowing what some of your favorite food and drink may be, provide a magnificent meal, and leave you smiling on your way home. It’s no wonder that Damien has created a culture of friendship, quality, service, and kindness because that is what he and his staff are as people.”
The ‘Golden Boy” Expands South and North
“Business was so good that I found myself paying too much in taxes,” Watel recalled, “so when the laundromat closed at the other end of the strip center I opened up Ciao Lavanderia and next door, the wine bar Ciao Vino in 2003.”
Success seemingly came so easy that Watel then opened up Le Frite Belgian Bistro in Southtown in 2006.
“Southtown was just starting to take off fast, and Rosario’s was really the only place to eat down there at night,” he recalled.
Auden, Bliss, and other friends in the business called Watel the “golden boy” as he continued to expand. Watel’s mother, Lucille, opened a commercial bakery and patisserie across the street from Bistro Vatel.
“The idea was my mother and her team would supply the bread for all my restaurants,” Watel said. “It isn’t easy to find bakers in San Antonio who know how to operate a French bakery.”
Watel tried to purchase the Olmos Park strip center, but Dealey declined to sell. Flush with cash, Watel instead bought a piece of property in fast-growing Stone Oak, joining other chef-owners eager to open new restaurants along Loop 1604 to tap into the sprawling suburban economy.
“That’s when everything changed,” Watel recalled.
Watel went into debt and invested millions in the Stone Oak commercial development that included Ciel, modeled on Bistro Vatel, and Ciao2, a combination of the original Ciao Lavanderia with an expansive bar and patio area; an upscale art gallery owned by Mexican nationals; and space for other retail businesses. The new restaurants opened in 2008.
The development became front-page news when the Stone Oak Property Owners Association (SOPOA) complained about The Fork, a public art installation outside the restaurant, a 14-foot upright, polished aluminum fork, the work of San Antonio artist Gilbert Duran, a friend of Watel’s whose paintings still hang inside Chez Vatel Bistro.
City inspectors supported the SOPOA, and eventually a compromise was reached with Watel building a wall around the installation.
“The Fork was always meant to be art. Art it is, and I hope we get to the artistic business of cooking soon and forget the silly fork battle,” Watel said at the time. “Even though the attention gets to be a bit much, publicity is one thing positive for the artwork itself and public awareness about Duran the artist. It is validation for the rest of us for encouraging such creations. Let’s hope our [whole] city gets more and more public art.”
Watel’s new venues were well-received by food critics, but he soon had bigger worries.
‘The Great Recession hit San Antonio, and the bottom fell out of all my restaurants,” he said. “Everything I had suddenly went down to nothing. Everything I had worked so hard to build went down a dark hole in Stone Oak.”
The bank foreclosed on the property, and Watel was forced to sell off restaurants to survive. Bistro Vatel changed its name to Chez Vatel Bistro, and locally based Cuisine Machine LLC took control of the restaurant in 2013. Watel sold Le Frite and closed Ciao Lavanderia and the wine bar. The bakery also closed.
“Ever since then I’ve been building back up,” Watel said recently.
One thing he did not lose was his loyal customer base at the bistro, or its reputation as a destination for French wine lovers.
Watel recently welcomed Burgundy grower Nicolas Rossignol, a fifth-generation winemaker from Volnay, who presided over a tasting for local wine buyers. DC Flynt, a master of wine and prominent French wine importer whose base is in Lake Charles, La., recently came to Chez Vatel Bistro with his sons, Campbell and Miller, to present several of his current Burgundy and Chablis selections.
“The unique aesthetic of Damien Watel stems from ideals one often associates with Taoism: an emphasis on craftsmanship, imagination, simplicity, and attention to detail that is executed in a surprisingly relaxed and familiar manner,” Flynt said last week. “These elements combine to create a specific mood that belongs to Bistro Vatel alone. You just love being there, and you get the distinct impression that the feeling is mutual. It is the place you walk into after a year, and Nancy gives you a big beautiful smile and a giant hug that says, ‘Where have you been?’ and ‘Welcome home.'”
I’ve been fortunate not only to break bread and raise a glass or two with the likes of Rossignol and Flynt, but also to attend some of the more memorable birthday celebrations and other events when local oenophiles have brought treasured bottles from their cellars.
San Antonio, of course, has other restaurants that are more than just good places to dine, but Bistro Vatel enjoys a particularly loyal customer base.
“Bistro Vatel is where we had our first date, and four years later we had our wedding reception there,” said Corie Duncan, who with her husband, dermatologist Dr. Scott Duncan, was seated last week in their corner table near the front window. “We celebrated my father’s 90th birthday, and then had our friends and family at Bistro when Daddy passed away. On every shelf there is a bottle of wine or more that we have shared, each with a special memory. Throughout the years we have come to think of Bistro as our home.”
It’s that kind of sentimentality that explains why so many patrons are rooting for Watel to find another place in the neighborhood, a new place to go that somehow makes them still feel at home.