Walking by the charming Garçons de Café in Downtown LA’s Spring Arcade building, one might see something akin to a busy Parisian street scene. The after work crowd swirls wine glasses, nibbling on plates of charcuterie and cheese, while a jazz singer prepares to perform cover tunes. A mishmash of art, hanging lights, and weathered brick walls provide visual interest while sturdy wood shelves display mostly French wine bottles.
Something like this should be fairly common in LA, especially in Downtown where nightlife is the calling card, but in reality scenes like this are something to cherish — particularly as the ongoing pandemic continues to make for an uncertain life for many owners and workers in the neighborhood. It’s a personal vision that new owner Mathieu Giraud wanted to preserve when he took over ownership of this five-year-old wine bar earlier this year after stints at some of the area’s best restaurants, including Broken Spanish and Patina.
Mathieu, who had developed a good relationship with previous owners Thomas Choulot and Sofian Ketfi, offered to buy the business with hopes of carrying its legacy as one of Downtown’s best wine bars. In Mathieu, they knew they would get a competent operator that would keep the business’s identity as a little oasis of French culture in LA. However, despite the overtly French selection of Garçons de Café’s wine list, Mathieu has made it point to diversify that a little bit to open up to Italian, Argentine, and even ‘local’ Mexican wines from the Valle de Guadalupe region. Right now the wine list has about sixty selections, including reasonably priced bottles that start at $35 but stretch all the way up to $255 for a 2011 Château Figeac Bordeaux from 2011. But most wines are well under $60, with glasses priced fairly between $12 and $18.
As for the food, the menu isn’t much more extensive than small wine-friendly bites (due to the space’s tiny kitchen) but Mathieu says they’re finding creative ways to partner with local producers to serve compelling food alongside the wine. The tapas menu has a strong set of smoked salmon, hummus, foie gras terrine, paté de campagne, and buffalo mozzarella to share, plus toasted Clark Street Bakery baguettes for tearing, dipping, and smearing. Those baguettes are also used as vehicles for sandwiches like Parisian jamon beurre or Italian-esque caprese. Mathieu says a local French woman has been making the quiches for Garçons de Café, while a selection of dark chocolate dipped organic fruits like mango or dates, and a crème brûlée, offer something sweet to finish.
When asked about the difference between managing a place — even a landmark restaurant like Broken Spanish or Patina — and ownership, Mathieu says that “it’s much different from having to manage 30 people. It’s just myself. It’s a different feeling but I really do love it. I can fully focus on the business, growth, and opportunities to make the place better. Everything is coming together throughout my career and I can use the experience and knowledge from working with so many talented people to bring this bar to a new level.” A big indicator of that new verve is the wine bar’s Wednesday jazz nights, which bring in various musical acts and usually offers an array of genres, including bossa nova. With vaccines mandated for patrons business has increased in recent months, with Mathieu saying October was a strong month for sales.
The enduring operation of Garçons de Café is a breath of fresh air for a Downtown restaurant scene that has been battered by the loss of regular office workers and a sustained nightlife crowd. Things are slowly picking back up with the return of Downtown’s daily traffic and reopened restaurants, but the pandemic certainly put a question mark on local institutions like this humble Parisian wine bar that are so essential to giving the central business district a sense of wine culture. With everything from jazz nights, local art, a refocused wine list and menu, and experienced hospitality, Garçons de Café should be set up for a fruitful future.