EXETER – When Mamma’s Fine Dining closed in 2010, it left a historic hole in downtown Exeter. The building sat empty for five years before it was reborn as one of the most upscale and unique eateries in town.
Café Lafayette opened on Jan. 1, 2015 according to the vision of co-owner and head chef Fred Imbert. The classically trained chef left his homeland of France more than 20 years ago to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant that would allow him the freedom to combine the culinary classics of French cuisine with the modern meld of an American menu.
Imbert brought with him more than 30 years in the kitchen, including stints in Hanford, Kaweah Delta in Visalia and Monet’s across E Street in Exeter. He describes the menu as a classic steakhouse with a French twist. Dinner entrees include Epaule D’Angneau, a slow roasted lamb shoulder with shallot confit; Faux Filet, a 12-ounce dry aged New York steak; and Poulet a la Moutarde a L’Ancienne, a wholegrain, mustard crusted, slow roasted organic, free range chicken.
For lunch, Lafayette pays homage to classic French café’s with a menu that includes a baguette with daily soup, such as potage cultivateur (farmer’s soup) with leeks, turnips, potato, cabbage, onion, carrot and fresh herbs; Burger Lafayette, an angus beef patty with heirloom tomatoes, morbier cheese and caramelized onions; and Croque Madame, a slow roasted organic chicken with heirloom tomatoes, mornay sauce.
But there wouldn’t be a four-star French steakhouse or a 2017 Beautification Award winner if not for a significant investment by Imbert and his partners Bruce and Sandy Wileman. “It was in bad shape and took a lot to bring it up to our standards,” Sandy said.
As you enter off of E Street, golden script initials of the restaurant are embedded into the black metal gate. The brickwork on the patio courtyard was redone to make the flower beds smaller and the seating larger for about two dozen people in front of ivy climbing the white brick wall to the south, reminiscent of a rural French cafe.
“We have had weddings there in the courtyard and the brick, ivy, lights with the bride and the groom, it’s really quaint,” she said.
Sandy said bathrooms had to be remodeled and upgraded for wheelchair accessibility. They built an 18-foot bar near the entrance. A new kitchen was added tripling the amount of space and the old kitchen was narrowed and converted into a freezer/storage room. Another storage room was a dirt floor with wooden framing before it was finished and converted into a banquet room. She said the banquet room nearly doubled the seating in the restaurant and allowed privacy for parties and gatherings.
“Dining is more than just eating food, it needs to be an experience,” Sandy said.
The businesses’ name not only pays homage to a major French figure in American history, General Lafayette, but the building itself is important to local history. The building at 151 S. E St. was originally constructed in 1938 by Dr. Rueben C. Hill as one of the city’s first hospitals. Sandy said many customers are surprised and intrigued to find out the upscale restaurant once served as the city’s only hospital.
“I think it adds to the charm and the mystique of the building,” Sandy said.
With 22 employees, Sandy said Lafayette is looking to expand and build upon some its popular offerings. Beginning on Easter Sunday, April 1, Café Lafayette will bring back its popular Sunday brunch, but instead of ending it each November, will make it a year-round affair. Imbert also plans to bring back his French Dinner Club, where off-menu dishes are paired with wine. For more information on Café Lafayette, call 559-592-WINE (9463) or visit their web site at cafelafayette.com.