After 35 years as chef and owner of his signature, classic French restaurant in downtown Vineyard Haven, Jean Dupon has put Le Grenier on the market.
“I love what I do, but I’ve had a good run,” Mr. Dupon said this week. “I just turned 69, I think it’s time for me to start relaxing a little.”
The restaurant will be sold along with its downstairs partner La Cave du Grenier. The asking price is $1.6 million for both the business and the two-story building. The restaurant went on the market in late August.
Situated at the end of Main street just before the place where the business district melts into a quiet residential area overlooking the outer harbor, Le Grenier sits atop the newly-renovated downstairs cafe La Cave, which opened in June.
Sitting in his downstairs cafe Tuesday morning, while upstairs preparations were already underway for another evening of traditional French fare such as onion soup gratinÃ©e and steak au poivre, Mr. Dupon reflected on his 35 years in business — and the changing culture of the Vineyard through the decades.
“When I first came here [in the early 1970s], it was not as busy,” he recalled. “Life was a little more relaxing. As the years have gone by, everything has gotten more expensive, so you work harder and you don’t have as much time to enjoy yourself.”
He came to the Vineyard in 1971, first owning a cheese shop in Chilmark called Fromage Imports. He left the Island for a few years, returned in 1977 and started working as chef at Le Grenier, and eventually bought the business and building.
“In the morning it was beach time and then I worked at night,” he said. “Now I work seven days a week, about 15 hours a day, year-round. Last time I was at the beach was…” he paused and said he simply couldn’t remember. “I work harder now than I have in a long time.”
Too many restaurants to count have come and gone on Main street Vineyard Haven, he said, but Mr. Dupon credits the long-term success of Le Grenier to one thing: consistency.
“The quality of the food is always there, always the same,” he said. His menu today is nearly identical to when he started as chef, including one of his favorites: Lobster Normande, a creamy classic French dish he added to his menu when presented with one of the Vineyard’s staple seafoods.
“A few years ago I tried to change the menu just to make it more fun for me,” he said. “I almost had a mutiny on my hands from customers. I didn’t realize that people came back here every summer for the same dish.”
Memories and thank-you’s scribbled to Mr. Dupon on hundreds of wine corks lining the trim of the restaurant are a visual display of that customer loyalty.
Above a table for two next to the front windows, a handful of corks dangle with dried roses and flowers.
“These are from the people who had their first date at this table,” said Mr. Dupon, poking at the roses. “They got engaged here 25 years ago, and have come back every year for their wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Baum, every July 6th.”
The restaurant has hosted weddings and the staff has played a supporting role in proposals, although, as in life, not all of them went as planned
“I remember one man was going to propose so he told all us about it ahead of time — everybody knew about it, even the customers,” he said. “So at some point at the end of dinner, he got down on his knee and proposed to her. And she said no. And let me tell you,” he laughed. “Nobody knew what to do!”
Celebrity regulars at Le Grenier included Lady Bird Johnson, Diane Sawyer and Walter Cronkite, but no matter what their status, Mr. Dupon makes a point of saying hello to every customer, and invites children to help make their own desserts in the kitchen.
He has watched three generations of families come back year after year. And his own multi-generational family helps staff the restaurant: daughter in law Michele Dupon, granddaughter Jessica Dupon and grandson Zachary Dupon all work alongside Mr. Dupon.
“Zachary is in the kitchen cooking tonight,” said Mr. Dupon. “He’s done everything in the restaurant. He cooks, he’s on the floor, he’s the host, he busses. Everything, just like I did.”
Mr. Dupon said he will miss all the friendly relationships he has made, not only with customers but with co-workers.
“Yes, I’m the boss but we are like a family working together here,” he said. “They’ll do anything for me and I’ll do anything for them.”
What will he do when the business sells?
“Buy a fishing rod, a tent, and go camping.”