Food & Drink

A Love Letter to Petit Louis Bistro

Louis is my go-to, a place where I’m greeted with a cheek-to-cheek kiss and where the food is...well, chef’s kiss.
—Illustration by Noemi Fabra

Tojours L’amore

A love letter to Petit Louis Bistro.

Just before the world shut down, I was on assignment at Petit Louis. Although I’d eaten at the beloved Roland Park bistro for many years, it was my first time seeing the compact kitchen, whose “walk-in” refrigerator is located outside the building.

Housed in an 1897-era building, it had its limitations, for sure, but you’d certainly never know that from eating there. And now I had the urge to do so right away—that night, with the pandemic looming, as pressing a matter as any.

All around Baltimore in March 2020, restaurants were closing for who knew how long. So, I turned off my tape recorder, put down my reporter’s notebook, settled into a red velvet banquette, and placed my favorite order: a gin martini with olives, a mesclun salad, a plate of trout amandine, and a ramekin of crème brûlée for dessert.

With so much uncertainty, in the quiet of a near-empty dining room, sitting there somehow centered me. It was a last meal of sorts.

Louis is where I go when I need a reset. It’s where I celebrate most milestones—from birthday lunches to New Year’s Eve (with gratis glasses of Champagne at 6 p.m. as the clock turns to midnight in Paris). It’s where I went for steak frites with a dozen friends after my adult bat mitzvah. It’s where I watched my once-teenage, now-married son devour the signature roasted chicken for two—by himself.

In other words, Louis is my go-to, a place where I’m greeted with a cheek-to-cheek kiss and where the food is…well, chef’s kiss.

French food was a source of curiosity for me as a child. I was fascinated by Laroussse Gastronomique, the 1,098-page culinary bible that sat on my mother’s shelf, though I can’t recall her ever cooking anything in it.

Larousse made me something of an expert on its country’s storied cuisine, if only for the wrong reasons. I knew that rabbit, snails, and frog legs were a fixture of their diet—and that I wanted no part of it—though the onion soup and the pastel macarons sure captured my imagination.

Traveling to France for the first time after high school, I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Though I was too young to appreciate it, a trip to Paris with my parents meant late-night dinners at the then-Michelin-starred Maxim’s and a field trip to the vaunted Paul Bocuse in Lyon, where our 10 p.m. reservation had me dreaming of sleep more than the St. Jacques coquilles I’d just ordered.

Later that week, in the Latin Quarter, when my mother mistakenly ordered couscous with chevalthat’s horse meat—not even a trip to the famed Fauchon for a mug of chocolat chaud could keep me from swearing off French food just as my true culinary education was beginning.

But the years passed and along the way, my palate was awakened. After all, tastebuds change with life’s seasons: For me, it was pizza parlors, Jewish delis, and Chinese food as a kid; cheap pub grub, food trucks, and greasy spoons to nurse hangovers in college; neighborhood spots, food halls, and cafes while raising three children.

Now at 61, I’m looking for a place to sit with my family and friends over a glass of red wine and something to eat that’s delicious, homemade, and soul satisfying. And, yes, with my dad now gone and my mom waning at 91, to remind me of where I’ve been now that the photos have long faded.

This life’s journey has led me to Louis. With its chipped marble bistro tables, bordeaux velvet curtains, real Frenchmen and Frenchwomen on staff, and light that filters in through old leaded-glass windows, it casts a spell that still holds sway all these years later.

Maybe because it takes me right back to the City of Lights in 1981, when the world was ripe with possibility, and my life had more questions than answers—before I knew how it was all going to turn out, and that it would soon be my actual job to eat at a French bistro, of all things, and in Baltimore, of all places.

Gone is the girl who once feared foie gras. In her place is a wiser woman, someone who understands that when you’re in good hands, and with people you love, mostly anything coming out of the kitchen is worth eating. Especially at Louis.

This is one of five deeply personal Love Letters—reflections on restaurants that hold a special spot in our hearts—from our 2024 Best Restaurants list. View more of our picks, here.