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A clean bill of health and an outpouring of customer support have prompted the reopening of a wildly popular downtown lunch spot, La Bonne Soupe Café.
On Wednesday, owner Daniel Pont will resume serving the French onion soup Zagat rated as the best in the world only months ago, as well as the sandwiches and other food that earned his restaurant Zagat's top rating in Sacramento.
The cafe passed a Sacramento County health reinspection Friday, nine days after a restaurant inspector closed it upon finding cockroaches.
Pont, a renowned 70-year-old French chef, said Tuesday he's recovering from the stress and heartbreak that landed him in the hospital just before the first scheduled reinspection. He spent all day Tuesday preparing to reopen the restaurant he first opened in 2005.
"Today, I came here to see how it is to work," he said. "I cooked for the family today. So I was happy to be in the kitchen again."
The restaurant had been closed for about three weeks before the initial inspection -- initially for a vacation, but then while Pont tended to his wife, who had become sick and spent several days in the hospital.
The closure and Pont's collapse pushed loyal customers to rally to his defense. While a for-sale sign quickly went up, customers left flowers and cards outside the restaurant. They sent emails and filled his answering machine with their calls. They phoned Sacramento County's restaurant inspection program to complain. They even volunteered legal assistance or help at the cafe.
"They were wonderful and that's one of the reasons I stopped the sale, for now," Pont said.
Mark Urquhart-Webb, a program manager with California Air Resources Board, stopped by the cafe at 920 8th St. to read the messages left by well-wishers. He and his wife had enjoyed the French food cooked and served by Pont, who runs the restaurant alone.
"It took nearly the full hour to get served. The food was just fabulous," Urquhart-Webb said. "It's not a Subway moment at all."
His friend, Raphael Hitzke, won a "Best of Best Film Award" at the Tucson Slow Food Film Festival with the documentary, Vive La Food!, featuring Pont and William Rolle, another French chef operating a one-man show, in East Sacramento.
Signs on the door said, "Nous t'adorons Chef Daniel," and "If and when you decide to reopen, we will be waiting for you."
Pont has worked in all facets of the hospitality industry for 52 years. His grandparents taught him to make bread and butter after the family survived World War II in France.
He opened his first restaurant, Le Ranch House, in Sonoma in the early 1970s. He went on to open Chez Daniel, La Maconais and La Maison, all in the Bay Area.
He retired, then he and his wife moved to the Folsom-El Dorado area five years ago to be close to their daughter and her family. Pont left retirement to open the cafe downtown.
Customers soon packed the tiny cafe, where Pont worked 60 hours a week, including Saturdays when he'd go in to deep clean. A small counter was the only thing separating him from customers who watched him prepare their meals, one at a time. The line outside grew longer and started earlier as word of the restaurant spread. Regulars knew they had to turn up by 11 a.m. to avoid the worst of the lunch rush.
It was at 10:40 a.m. one day that an inspector showed up in Pont's last minutes of preparation. Pont felt he was treated disrespectfully by a young inspector who refused to come back after the lunch rush. He's never been treated rudely or cited for any other problems in 70 health inspections at five restaurants, he said.
"We are not students here. A restaurant that never had any violations should not be treated the same as one that constantly has problems," he said. "They hurt me badly and I have to put it behind me."
Some people have said they thought the inspection was prompted by a complaint — possibly from someone jealous of Pont's Zagat rating.
However, John Rogers, the county's environmental health division chief, said the surprise inspection was routine and not initiated by any calls or complaints.
A copy of the inspection report shows that the inspector was on the premises from 10:40 a.m. to noon. The inspector tried to pull Pont aside but Pont said he couldn't and refused to talk to the inspector, Rogers said, adding there was no other verbal communication from the inspector.
Inspectors, who are now visiting restaurants three times a year, must inspect in the morning at least once a year to see whether people are using proper cooking temperatures and food-handling practice, as well as the cleanliness of the facility.
"We advise staff not to go in the middle of lunch. It's too hectic," Rogers said.
A supervisor present for the reinspection Friday agreed the annual morning inspection would be conducted much earlier from now on, and be finished before Pont opens at 10:30 a.m.
"It's a difficult situation to be in for all parties, and we do it as respectfully as we can," he said. "We understand we're coming into their place of business ... and that they own this establishment. They have some ownership and some pride, and people need to be treated in respect."
Pont took down a for-sale sign but said diners will have to decide the future of the restaurant.
"It's up to the customers," he said.
Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.