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May 14, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 14, 2004

Au revoir to L'Amie Donia Au revoir to L'Amie Donia (May 14, 2004)

Acclaimed Palo Alto restaurant to close after decade-long success

by Avital Binshtock

Donia Bijan recalls the1994 opening night of her restaurant as a mob scene, filled with patrons eager to sample her French cuisine.

Many who tried L'Amie Donia in its early days got hooked and kept coming back for more. For 10 years, Bijan has had the pleasure of serving a steady stream of regulars at her Bryant-Street eatery. They sit in their special spots, order in their special way, and rarely forget to update Bijan about their lives.

"They know our names and we know their's," Bijan said.

Those relationships will soon be a thing of the past, as L'Amie Donia will be closing its doors by early June.

Several reasons factored into Bijan's decision, but the biggest was Luca, her 3-year-old son. Bijan, a true perfectionist, wants more time to spend with her son.

"I want to be there to give him snacks after school," she said.

Besides that, Bijan feels she has not come up for air since she started cooking professionally in 1984. She marvels at how she initially balanced a marriage, a son and a career.

Bijan has not questioned her decision since she made it, although she acknowledged, "It's bittersweet. When I opened this place, it was my baby."

The restaurant will be renamed La Cheminee, but will honor Bijan's legacy by remaining a French bistro.

Bijan's one requirement when selling her business to ?? was that they hire her staff.

"I did not want lives disrupted because of me," she said.

Bijan compared her team of 15 cooks and servers to a pilot and crew flying a plane -- each worker depends on the others. Bijan knows she can count on her team when the pace gets frenetic.

"We don't call in sick," she said. "It's just not done."

Though she likes things done her way, she expects her cooks to add their own flair to each dish. She tells them that cooking is not an art, but a craft, like carpentry. Though it may get repetitive, they must cook each meal as if they had never made it before.

"You really have to feel that this is the first time you've ever made spaghetti," she tells them.

Bijan's insistence on newness prevents her menus from growing stale; she writes them based on the time of year, strongly believing that "When the seasons change, the food should change."

At the front of the restaurant is an ornately framed slab of glass. Scribbled at the top in a white scrawl is "Market Whims" and under that, a list of the day's specials and their prices (around $28). Another menu, "Spring Offerings," has entrees like "heaven on a half shell" (oysters) and bouquet of asparagus. The dessert menu tantalizes with its warm apple galette and an array of confections, such as palmiers and bonbons.

The only decorations on the warm yellow walls are softly colored oil paintings by Bijan's husband, figurative artist Mitchell Johnson; there is nary a framed restaurant review or Zagat rating to be found ("I don't want someone else to tell you, 'you should try it,'" she said). Dainty reminders of France are sprinkled throughout the dining room: a wrought-iron Eiffel Tower and a tiny Paris guidebook.

In describing L'Amie Donia's success, Bijan said that much of it is in paying attention to the details. Also, she can not tolerate dissatisfying a customer.

"You never want someone to leave that door unhappy. You can't fix it. You've ruined their night and that's unforgivable."

Though celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Joe Montana and Chelsea Clinton have dined here, and though the restaurant has received coveted accolades (this year's Zagat Survey lists L'Amie Donia as the highest-rated restaurant in Palo Alto), Bijan still derives the most pleasure from serving her same loyal clients.

"To me, the regulars are the stars," she said.

Bijan always knew she wanted to cook.

"Food was a big deal in my family," she said. "My parents cared about the ritual of sharing meals."

She remembers her mother chilling bowls before pouring soup in them, the smell of madeleines just out of the oven, the perfectly creased tablecloths underlining the dishes. Bijan wanted to carry the essence of her childhood memories into her own restaurant.

But before she did, she moved to California from her home state of Michigan, graduated from Berkeley with degrees in French and Italian literature, and relocated to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu.

"I knew if I was serious about cooking, I had to go to the heart of it," Bijan said.

But she did not know how rigorous her training would be. She was the only woman in a brigade of 30 cooks. She was determined, though, to break ground and hold her own. That she had learned French as a child helped.

Though she picked up technicalities at Le Cordon Bleu, Bijan said she learned infinitely more about French cuisine just walking along Parisian streets, looking into cafes, inhaling aromas and occasionally treating herself to one of the world's best eclairs.

Upon returning to California, Bijan cooked for 10 years at San Francisco's exclusive Sherman House Hotel. When it came time to open a place of her own, she moved to Palo Alto, where her parents and sister lived.

"I have had remarkable support from this community," she said.

Today, Bijan glides around her restaurant with a seasoned professional's confidence. Still, even on the best nights, she described her job as a labor-intensive one which demands long hours and calls on every muscle and sense. When L'Amie Donia's doors open for business, "There's no mercy. It's show time."

Though Bijan will devote most of her time to being a mom, she will not leave cooking completely. She plans to occasionally cater private parties and teach cooking classes.

She has many morsels of wisdom for young restaurateurs, earned through 20 years of hard work: "Try to learn everything the hard way," "Let the ingredients speak for themselves," and "Cook from the heart because that's when it's genuine."

Editorial intern Avital Binshtock can be reached at [email protected]

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