Two-Decade Bastille Day Tradition Continues Saturday

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July 9, 2008 — For the 20th year, André and Danièle Ducrot, and their son Olivier, proprietors of the Frederiksted restaurant Le St. Tropez, will honor their French heritage with a Bastille Day celebration Saturday.
Bastille Day, the French national holiday marking the storming of the infamous Bastille prison in 1789, is well known on St. Thomas, where there is a very old, established community of French descent. On St. Croix, with its different history, the Ducrots are the primary wavers of the French tricolor for the holiday. The real holiday falls July 14, but they take some license and celebrate the Saturday before so they can be sure of a big party, Danièle said.
The Ducrot family fell in love with St. Croix and promptly moved here in 1988, remaining through trials and tribulations ever since. Every day, guests entering the place are greeted with "allo, allo," from Danièle, her tan face smiling warmly under locks of silver. You feel almost transported to another place and time, yet still integrally a part of the picturesque Frederiksted community.
They came to Frederiksted after another lifetime in restaurants. Growing up in the south of France, not far from St. Tropez, André and Danièle met in 1957 while still teenagers, fell in love and got married. In 1966, they had their son Olivier and, the same year, moved to Canada and ultimately Vermont. There for more than two decades they operated a successful French restaurant called the Café Shelburne — which remains in business to this day.
"A friend of ours came to St. Croix and told us we had to come and see," Danièle told the Source Tuesday. "André and I came down and we loved it, so we moved here."
In 1988 they opened their first St. Croix restaurant; Le Strand Café, in the old hotel across from the Athalie McFarlane Petersen Library.
"We spent nine months fixing up the place," Danièle said. "It was so beautiful. We were open for nine months after that and then (hurricane) Hugo came."
Hugo did tremendous damage to the building. Then, a few days later, looters took everything valuable, including a numbered, limited-edition Tiffany lamp, and burned the rest.
"I was in France visiting family when Hugo hit, and didn't know anything about a hurricane until after," she said. "I was there because my sister had a fire in her apartment in Germany. She showed me pictures of her apartment all burnt. I had pictures of our beautiful new restaurant I wanted to show, but I didn't want to show them as she was suffering with her place. Little did I know as I looked at the pictures, my place was burnt already."
Periodically, as the story unfolded, the face of her son Olivier, who is now chef, would appear briefly in the kitchen window to tell the waiter this dish or that was ready to pick up.
She found out about Hugo by chance, while traveling from France to Vermont, before returning to St. Croix.
"In the airport in Boston, I asked for café au lait and a newspaper," she said. The paper made reference to then-President George H.W. Bush: "The front page headline was 'Bush Sends Army to St. Croix.'"
But she didn't find out until later how bad the damage was. André told her not to come back just yet, and when she came, to bring everything she could, from toiletries to perfume, as nothing was readily available on St. Croix.
"I bought an enormous bottle of perfume to bring with me, so I could still feel like myself," she said. But before she got back, her hotel room was robbed, and she lost all her jewelry, all the toiletries and her perfume.
"I never cried before that, but somehow, it was when I lost the perfume that I lost it," she said.
She returned to St. Croix, and undeterred, the couple began anew. That same year, she opened up a restaurant called Le Crocodile, on Strand Street, across from where Richards and Ayers Realty is now. "While I was doing that, André found this place (the current location) and that is that."
Thus St. Tropez came to open at 227 King Street in 1990.
Guests periodically arrived as Danièle told this tale. She would stop, greet and seat them, then return to her perch, sip a little merlot and resume her story.
One of those diners, entering Le St. Tropez for the first time Tuesday evening paused, looked around at the decor, listened to the sounds of some French crooner in the mold of Edith Piaf over the stereo and spontaneously remarked, "I feel I've just walked into an O. Henry novel."
Many on St. Croix have fond memories of Le St. Tropez.
"I remember coming here when I was 15," said St. Croix filmmaker Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz. "It was the first time I was in a real French restaurant. … It made an impression on me and is, to me, an important part of Frederiksted. My memories of this place are a part of my life here. I still come here all the time."
Norma Krieger, founder and director of the Society of Caribbean Artists, has a great fondness for the restaurant, too.
"St. Tropez's intimate ambiance gives one the sense that you are in your own living room or home," Krieger said. "You are immediately comfortable and relaxed. The bar especially is transformative, placing you in an international setting — perhaps Paris, somewhere in Europe or even New York. It is reminiscent of the days of the Parisian artist salons. It is a place where minds meet and you could have a dialogue, share ideas, or network with a local or visitor to the island. It has a creative spirit, attracting artists, politicians, writers, business owners, who all share a common goal, to eat good French food, relax and meet interesting people."
Le St. Tropez will celebrate the national holiday from 11:30 a.m. onward into late evening. The menu will feature bouillabaisse, coq au vin, French cheeses, salads and plenty of wine.
"It is the same menu we have served for Bastille Day for 20 years," Danièle said.
Call (340) 772-9772 for reservations, but Danièle warns that since it is an all-day affair, there may be diners before you who have lingered over a glass of wine, so don't be too upset if you have to wait a minute or two.
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