Update: The Chalet Basque closed in 2010, after co-owner Steve Osowiecki passed away.
The waitress piled grilled lamb chops and roasted garlic chicken onto plates at the monthly barbecue at Le Chalet Basque, a tradition that has endured for nearly 50 years at the La Puente restaurant.
The diners, plates in hand, moved down the food line as they served pinto beans, macaroni salad, French potato salad (with no mayonnaise) and tossed green salad with a home-made house vinaigrette. They made sure to grab slices of fresh sourdough bread from the wicker basket before sitting at the long tables, which were lined with platters of blue cheese. Bottles of red wine are de rigueur.
It was a recent Saturday night — the first one of the month. And all of the customers had been there many times before.
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“We’ve brought a lot of people here,” said Bill Gooding, who was there with his wife, four daughters and some friends. They’ve been coming to the Chalet for 15 years.
Le Chalet Basque has featured its Basque barbecue on the first Saturday of each month since 1962, when the restaurant business was bought by Danielle (Arretche) Osowiecki and her brother, Jean Pierre “Pampi” Arretche. Sister Christiane “Kiki” (Arretche) Gillette joined the business for a few years. Today Osowiecki and her husband Steve keep the tradition going.
At the time, the business was a modest restaurant called the French and Basque. But the Arretches turned it into an elegant eatery that became a popular place in La Puente.
The business community of Industry and La Puente have patronized it for years as a favorite lunch spot. Former Industry mayor John Ferraro, an Italian married to a Basque, used to be here all the time, noted Osowiecki.
On a recent Saturday night, Osowiecki reminisced about running the restaurant for the last 48 years. The place has seen busier times, but the reminders of times past — and Basque culture — were everywhere.
The wall of the main dining room is decorated with a colorful mural of a sheepherder watching his flock of lambs in the Basque country. The scene is typical of the countryside of Esnazu, Nafarroa Beherea where the Arretche-Zubiri family claims its roots. The Arretches’ uncle, Jean Pierre Zubiri, also owned it for a stretch, keeping up the successful monthly Basque barbecues.
In its heyday, the barbecue attracted 150 to 200 people to the banquet room in the back of the restaurant. Osowiecki remembers when Channel 7 newscaster Henry Alfaro and his wife Carol ate standing up in the kitchen because the place was so packed. In the 60s, the dinner was $2 a plate, including wine.
Basque accordion music was a key feature of the tradition, as diners stayed to dance fandangos, polkas and waltzes after eating. Basque youth flocked to the restaurant for the cultural party. Lawyer Mike Bidart played the accordion for several years when he was young. Later came Joe and Grace Cadwell. Today young people prefer to hit the bars, while the older immigrant generation that popularized the barbecues is dying off, noted Osowiecki.
The roots of the Basque community in La Puente run deep. Attracted by the open land, former sheepherders settled in the agricultural area in the first half of the 20th century.
Many of them stayed in four boarding houses in the small downtown. Some were employed by the French American Bakery, a mainstay at the corner of 2nd and Main streets in downtown La Puente, next to the Chalet. A former handball court behind the Chalet was a gathering spot.
The La Puente Handball Club on Amar Road, formed in 1939, was another local anchor point of Basque culture. Basques helped build the club’s handball court, playing there every weekend and hosting a monthly dinner.
In recent years, the town’s historic downtown, along with the local Basque community, has lost much of its vitality. But Le Chalet Basque is still in business, thanks in part to its loyal clientele and new customers who have little, if any, link to the area’s rich Basque history. They love the restaurant’s French Basque cuisine. A group of young clients who rent the banquet room for monthly parties ask Osowiecki for “that funny soup with garlic,” she noted, smiling, referring to Basque garlic soup, traditionally eaten at the end of the night to prevent hangovers.
The lamb is what brings Eric Blackshaw of San Dimas coming back “damn near every month,” for the past six years. He was there with his girlfriend and two friends. “I was raving about the lamb tonight,” he said.
Forty years later, the all-you-can-eat meal is still a deal at $15, although the traditional red wine is no longer included in the price. Bottles are $7. Kids 7 and under are free.
Le Chalet Basque
119 N. Second St.
La Puente, Calif.