FORT WORTH -- "Hi, Miss Louise, I came to celebrate my birthday," a patron named Susan Lawler told Louise Lamensdorf as she slipped into Bistro Louise for a late lunch with a friend Tuesday.
Before sitting, Lawler confided, "My heart's broken. I come here as often as I want to treat myself."
In five days, Lamensdorf's award-winning Mediterranean restaurant will close its doors after a decade and a half on South Hulen Street in Fort Worth.
But at 74, Lamensdorf says she's not ready to retire.
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She will continue to offer catering services and, if she can find a location in Fort Worth's Seventh Street corridor, will open a more casual-style restaurant featuring her distinctive take on French and Italian cuisine.
Lawler said she will miss Lamensdorf's sea bass and Roquefort-crusted quiches, the sort of dishes that made her a serial winner of the AAA four-diamond award and won numerous shout-outs in magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appétit and Texas Monthly. Last August, Wine Spectator named Bistro Louise one of the nation's best restaurants for wine lovers.
Sunday brunch, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will be the bistro's last meal service. A deal to sell the restaurant fell through when the buyer couldn't secure financing, Lamensdorf said.
Relations with her landlord are good, but higher property taxes pushed up rents in the area. Moreover, she said, her clientele increasingly saw her restaurant as a "special occasion" destination, which was not regular enough to "support me."
For many, it's the end of an era, says a friendly rival, Michael Thomson, proprietor of Michael's. He blames customer trends, fed by cable TV food programs that stress trendy diners, road food and local cuisine for hurting upscale continental restaurants.
"Bistro Louise was one of the last strongholds after the Carriage House, the Balcony and the Swiss House -- the Big Three some 25 years ago," Thomson said. "She kind of maintained a lot of that mentality in the dining community. If she keeps going, it will be a welcome sight for Fort Worth."
Lamensdorf reinvented herself at 42 when she and two friends, Elizabeth McCall and Renie Steves, launched the French Apron Cooking School in 1979.
A physician's wife with four children, she learned to appreciate fine food by growing up in Louisiana as well as by eating at her French-born grandmother's table. Bertha Eichel Krauss, she said, never made sandwiches. Instead, there were multi-course meals with stuffed veal and fancy desserts. Over the years, Lamensdorf's culinary skills were broadened by stretches working under master chefs in Europe.
After 10 years at French Apron, she became pastry chef at St. Emilion, then cooked at La Marée before landing as the first head chef at Cafe Aspen. The owner was an ambitious TCU student named David Rotman.
"I was 21 and she was 51," recalled Rotman, now the clubhouse manager at Mira Vista Country Club.
"We took a gamble - and won," he said. "I really didn't know how good she was."
After about four years, Lamensdorf wanted to buy the business, but she and Rotman couldn't agree on terms, he said. So she broke out on her own at 59 to create Bistro Louise. It was April 1996.
"Cooking was her passion," Rotman said. "She not only pursued her dream, she executed it. It's great she lasted 15 years."
Lamensdorf said she will keep a couple of key pieces of equipment and some decor.
Hopefully, she'll have another place lined up in a year. Her staff of 19 has promised to return if she does, she said.
The next place will be more casual and, if possible, she'll have a partner to handle the business end -- "and let me be in the kitchen or giving cooking classes or presenting wine dinners."
Until then, Lamensdorf plans to offer private catering as well lunch, dinner and dessert items.
"I have located a service near TCU that will deliver anything for $3," she said. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 817-291-2734.
Wherever the future leads, she promises, "my passion for cooking and culinary education will not go away."
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718