Whenever I see that miniature Eiffel Tower on Route 9, just outside of Saratoga Springs in Gansevoort, I feel woozy with nostalgia. Three decades ago, when my French-Canadian-American husband and I landed in Saratoga, Chez Pierre was one of the first restaurants we visited. We nibbled on the country pâté, savored the buttery escargot and oohed-and-aahed over the Chateaubriand. After our perfect meal, we posed for pictures next to the neon sign in the parking lot.
Step into the homey yet elegant restaurant today, and the menu and atmosphere are largely the same as they were in 1964, when French-born Pierrette Baldwin and her American husband, Joe, first opened its doors. In the dining room, crisp white tablecloths are set with vintage Strawberry Hill-patterned Syracuse China, and cheery wall murals depict life in a French village. Frog legs, escargot and sweetbreads are always on the menu. “They’re very popular,” says Pia Baldwin Field, daughter of Pierrette and Joe. Pia and her husband, Lincoln, who’s the Head Chef, are Co-owners of the French restaurant, where Beef Wellington and Veal Oscar, made from original family recipes, have been served for more than half a century. “These are classic, Old World dishes that you don’t find anywhere else,” says Pia. “And everything is still cooked to order.” For dessert, Mousse Au Chocolat and Crêpe Suzette are favorites, along with Chef Field’s light and creamy crustless French cheesecake. The names of the dishes might sound high-and-mighty to the untrained, American ear, but trust me, Chez Pierre’s never been pretentious. “We’re more country French,” Pia says.
Since Joe Baldwin died five years ago, Pierrette or “Ma mère,” as her grandchildren call her, is the not-so-secret ingredient that keeps the family together—and the business afloat. “Every single family member has worked here,” says Pia, who’s one of the Baldwins’ four children. “Every grandchild, all of us and our in-laws.” Joe did the cooking until 1991, when son Pierre took over as chef. In 1999, Lincoln replaced Pierre. Three of Pierrette’s grandchildren are currently waiting tables. As for Pierrette, she’s always been a gracious and engaging dining room presence—or, as she likes to put it, “the hostess with the most-ess,” the woman who every July, on Bastille Day, sings “La Marseillaise” to a huge crowd.
When I ask her about her upbringing in France, the 83-year-old Pierrette gets misty-eyed as she tells me about growing up in the Lorraine region during World War II, her father being imprisoned by the Nazis and the scarcity of food. Then her face brightens as she remembers how, a few years after the war, she fell in love. “My story is unbelievable. I met this GI from Glens Falls, NY.” Now I’m the one getting misty-eyed. My Norwegian grandfather was a Nazi prisoner, and like Pierrette, my father experienced the horrors and hunger of war in the 1940s. Chatting with Pia and Pierrette at a small table near the kitchen is such a pleasure I almost forget that I’m here to interview them. The camaraderie and fine food, only eight miles from Downtown Saratoga, is an irresistible combination. “I’ve got people coming here 50-some years,” Pierrette tells me. “They feel at home when they come here. After you come a few times, you’re not a customer, you’re a friend.” (saratoga living’s Executive Editor, Will Levith, a Saratoga native, ate his first French food here while sitting in a high chair with his parents.)
Of course, Chez Pierre has had its share of famous patrons too. In the early days, Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. dined here. Today, you might see Marylou Whitney, hockey broadcaster Barry Melrose or LPGA legend Dottie Pepper enjoying a meal here. Recent saratoga living cover star Rachael Ray, a Lake George native who’s been coming to the restaurant since she was a baby, too, brings the Baldwin family a gift, such as a bottle of champagne, every Christmas. Madame Baldwin may have her moment of fame next year, as her 24-year-old grandson, Tyler, is creating a documentary about his grandmother that the family hopes to show at a local theater in 2019. “He went to France with her,” says Pia, Tyler’s mom. “He’s so enamored with her story.” I, too, am captivated by Pierrette’s personal history. You can bet your frog legs that wherever the film is shown, I’ll be there sitting in the dark. Look for me. I’ll be the teary-eyed woman with a box of Kleenex on her lap.