Appetizers
April 29, 2011
La Bonne Soupe's last day; an ailing chef sells his bistro

The humble Frenchman at the top of Sacramento's food scene spent the day Friday slicing sandwiches and placing them on plates and ladling soup into bowls, then moving in his unhurried way to the cash register to make change for his customers - one after another, and for one final time.

"Today was a very sad day. My tears were very close to my eyes," said Daniel Pont, the owner and chef, not long after locking the front door.



Pont has been a fixture and practically a legend downtown since he opened the unassuming business six years, squeezed in next to a bail bonds office on 8th Street. Some liked him to the fictional "Soup Nazi" on "Seinfeld, though Pont's impeccable manners and soft-spoken demeanor made the comparison a stretch.

His soups, however, took on a life of their own. Pont's lunch-only bistro emerged out of the pack of eateries to become a destination, a tourist attraction, and a little slice of downtown charm. In the Sacramento Zagat restaurant guide book, La Bonne Soupe had the highest rating for food of any restaurant in the city. The success and the subsequent fanatical following gave the city a new dose of personality and charm.

.

The lines out the door, even in rainstorms, were notorious. But Pont's legion of admirers didn't simply wait in line - they practically gushed as they stood and watched the maestro behind the counter. The way he moved, the accent, the manners. It was all part of the recipe.

If there were critics, they wondered why the 72-year-old Pont didn't hire someone to handle the cash, sweep the floors, scrub the pots and pans. Pont would have none of that. He was proud and stubborn, and he knew what he wanted.

But his body knew better.

Though the rewards are many, being a chef is neither glamorous nor lucrative, and it is not an old man's game.

About four months ago, Pont felt such intense pain in his hips that he was forced to close the restaurant for five days. He could barely walk. He couldn't sleep. The news from the doctor was grim - bursitis, the kind of ailment that standing all day could only make worse.

"My doctor said age is a factor," Pont told me after he locked up Friday. "I said, 'Tell me something I don't already know.' I am 72, but my body is more like 100. I have been cooking on my feet for 55 years."

Pont added, "Being a one-man show, it was a wonderful six years. But the last year, I felt the pain. I realized I created it for myself. I had no freedom. I feel bad. I feel like I let people down. I had a fantastic club here. This was my private club. Of all the restaurants I've had -- and I've had restaurants with higher caliber cooking -- I've never had a clientele of such higher caliber."

Recently, Pont decided to sell the business and soon found a buyer. Details about the new buyers were not immediately available.

"I didn't give them any recipes. That is not the way we do it. I gave them some advice. Keep the concept. But you don't have to copy me. Create your own menu. Be good. Be authentic. And come to work every day."

For soup aficionados, Pont's departure is the second piece of bad news in recent weeks. Just a couple of blocks away, Fog Mountain Café closed its doors less than a month ago, apparently a victim of state-mandated furlough days and the lagging economy.

Pont's situation was different - he never lacked customers. In fact, he could not possibly feed everyone who wanted to stop in for lunch.

Scandal and drama? There was some of that, too. In October, 2009, Pont shut his restaurant in anger after receiving a citation from a health inspector because of cockroaches. Humiliated, Pont vowed to close for good, to the dismay of his fans. He eventually reopened and his business boomed once more.

Though he is old and aching and now finished with this venture, Pont's days in the kitchen are not over. He says he will be back, but this time leading a team -- he will listen to his body. His next restaurant, he says, will have him creating the menu and overseeing its execution. But he will no longer be a one-man show, and the downtown food scene will never be the same.

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