Their slogan is "Where the East Bay meets the Left Bank," and Le Central, in the middle of Bristol, usually does a fine job fulfilling the claim with more than good french fries. Gone are the days when the town had to settle for a Café La France on the spot.
These days the place has more than the diner-style lunch counter of its beginnings, where you could sip your glass of picpoul and have a bite. Now there is a full bar and plenty of bistro-style tables, the tablecloths protected by a sheet of paper so you don't pay a premium for their laundry bill. Charming paintings by Inez Storer and others brighten the ambience. The kitchen is headed by proprietor/chef Jesse James, who worked in restaurants in Italy and Boston before setting up his own places in San Francisco.
We came for lunch recently, and I've been there for dinner, but I didn't know that there is a tapas menu available Monday-Thursday from 5 to 6:30 pm. "Les Plats" range from $2 for such items as bruschetta and tapenade to $5 for either of two preparations of grilled salmon or three of grilled shrimp. Browsing such dishes between glasses of sherry sounds appealing.
Le Central | 401.396.9965 | 483 Hope St, Bristol | Mon-Sat, 11 am-2 pm, 5-9 pm; Sun, 10 am-2 pm, 5-9 pm | Major Credit Cards | Full Bar | Sidewalk-Level Accessible
Our midday choices were none too shabby either. Obligatory at that time of day, a burger and grilled chicken sandwich is available (each $9.75). More interesting, and cute in theme, is the traditional croque monsieur ($8.75), pan-toasted with ham and Gruyere. Cuter yet are variations on the classic BLT, containing grilled chicken or lobster ($9.75-$16.75).
Only one and a half of the soups ($6.75) that the three of us started with made the expected grade. The littleneck chowder was fine, smoky from bacon, with golden potatoes and four in-shell clams; but the onion soup gratinee, while tasty, was not baked to brown the cheese, and my supposedly Vietnamese soup contained little that would define it as such — no cilantro, no lime, though the latter was brought on request. But except for the un- or inadequately filtered tap water, pushing patrons to buy bottled, everything else was excellent.
Perusing my main dish opportunities, I considered the goat cheese and tapenade sandwich with roasted red pepper ($9.25), which sounded like an interesting amalgam of tastes. Also tempting were the moules au feu ($8), the mussels roasted in a little cast-iron pot with parsley-garlic butter, juicy with brine, which I'd enjoyed on a prior visit.
I settled on having the petit hanger steak ($12.50), which is also available on the dinner menu with potatoes and crispy shallots for six dollars more. This version was quite a bargain, the thick strip of beef melting the same pats of roasted-tomato butter but served with both white and sweet roasted potatoes with onions and a generous on-plate salad. The ample dish reminded me of how lunch versions of dinner items can be such good deals. Cod Provençal with ratatouille is on the lunch menu for $10.50, and that dinner is $15.25, although fish is easier to portion smaller.