Interview: Bidding adieu to Rue de L’espoir

Deb Norman reminisces about her favorite foodie memories


It’s the end of a delicious era. Rue de L’Espoir officially closed its doors on August 9 after serving the community American bistro fare for 39 years. Owner Deb Norman opened The Rue when she was just 24-years-old. Now, it’s time to close them. She received an offer she couldn’t refuse and is taking the opportunity to spend some time on herself. We talked about her favorite memories over the years, her favorite dishes and what she will miss the most.

You were a trailblazer in many ways when you opened Rue de L’Espoir. What was missing on the East Side in 1976 that The Rue offered? 
When we first opened, the only restaurants around were steak houses, Italian restaurants and Chinese restaurants. We opened up a little bistro that served quiche and crepes. So we kind of carved out a niche for ourselves that previously wasn’t available. And we were women. There were no… restaurants that were wom.en owned. 

The first time I came out of my office to talk to a liquor distributor he said, “Hi honey, where’s your husband?” I said, “You’re looking at him.”

Why do you think you were successful from the very start?
I think it’s because we offered something no one else did. People were curious. You could get a hamburger anywhere, you could get a spaghetti and meatball dinner anywhere, you could get Chinese food anywhere. But you couldn’t get quiche and you couldn’t get crepes anywhere.

How did the culinary explosion over the years affect The Rue?
We had to reinvent ourselves four or five times to be able to keep up with the culinary changes that people were experiencing as their palates were getting more sophisticated. It forced us to grow and evolve in different ways and expand our menu.

Can you talk about some of the food trends you’ve noticed?
It’s food that’s as fresh as possible, using local purveyors, going local. Know the names of your farmers, know the people you’re buying food from. Try to shop as small as you possibly can, as fresh as you possibly can and still put out a product that you’re proud of and that you can make some money on. 

What are some of your favorite memories?
People come in and tell me: we had our first date here, we got engaged here, we had our first baby shower here. One of the nicest things to happen was [that] that baby shower turned into a bridal shower for their daughter who was getting married. I like the generational thing. When there are people who have been coming here for 30 years, some have been her for 39 years; that’s four generations of a family. What’s better than that? There’s nothing better than that. 

How have people responded to taking beloved dishes off the menu?
There was a Lobster Macaroni and Cheese – that I actually think we created… way back in the 1990s. It was just scrumptious; it was decadent. When we took it off, people would say, “I’m not coming back.” Same thing with Sesame Chicken. My response is always, “It’s time for you to try something else.” 

Can you tell me about some of your favorite dishes?
We used to have, way back in the ‘80s, a Pork Porterhouse. It was a cut of meat that people were not using. It was a chop and a tenderloin with the bone still in it. It was a big thick piece of pork that took forever to cook that would melt in your mouth. It was just delicious. But I liked the Lobster Macaroni and Cheese, too. 

What will you miss most?
The people. It’s just starting to hit me now that some of these people that I took for granted because they came in once a week, I’ll never see them again. I’ll miss that. That personal connection. 

So the big question: why close?
It’s time. I’ve been in this place for 39 years. It’s hard work; it’s 24/7. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I have an opportunity to sell it and walk away, and I’ve decided to do that. It’s time to spend a little time on me. My first plan is to do nothing for a few months and just enjoy what’s going on. I’m an avid bike rider, I’ll probably do lots of biking, I’m very athletic so I’ll be spending a lot of time rejuvenating my body and mind. 

What do you want people to know about the restaurant business?
The only way to really be successful when starting a restaurant is to start small and be hands on. It’s a business of a thousand details that all together make up this one big whole theatrical experience. I like to call it theatre. 

Two customers come by at the end of our interview. “It’s not your last day is it,” Deb says to the customer. “No, Friday.” Debs gives her a kiss on her cheek and a hug. “I’m happy for you,” says the second customer. “Everyone can’t believe it. But all good things must come to an end.” “That’s right,” Deb says. “You can go down to Rue Bis and have breakfast. It won’t be the same but it will be good.” “And I’ll get a chance to see you?” asks the customer. “Yes, every now and then,” says Deb. “Goodbye, thank you, I’ll see you on Friday.” “Are you okay?” asks the customer. “I’m good,” says Deb.
Births, deaths, she’s been through it all, and she has absolutely no regrets.

East side monthly, Rue de L'Espoir, Deb Norman, Hope Street, crepes


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