If all goes as planned this summer, one of Madison's most celebrated restaurants will move and expand about 100 percent in capacity, 75 percent in physical size and 30 percent in staffing.
L'Etoile, 25 N. Pinckney St., will move to 10,500 square feet on the first floor of the US Bank Plaza building, 1 S. Pinckney St., when the restaurant's lease expires in July. The change is contingent upon city approval of an alcohol license transfer.
"The move will allow us to carry out our mission" of being a champion of local farmers and making their food accessible to a wider range of income levels, said Dianne Christensen, who co-owns L'Etoile with Traci Miller and her brother Tory Miller, the executive chef.
The three co-owners intend to uphold a 34-year reputation for award-winning fine dining as they also add a new dimension: a casual "gastropub" that will serve locally grown food, some presented in unconventional ways.
"People don't feel comfortable coming to L'Etoile for a salad, cheese plate and glass of wine," Christensen said. "We wish they did."
Tory Miller said he anticipates significantly more purchasing and preservation of local and sustainable ingredients. For example, he currently averages 175 pounds of potatoes a week for mashing and making homemade chips. "That will easily triple," he predicted.
"We don't want to be a big bar hangout, but right now we're sending people elsewhere for a drink before they have dinner with us," because L'Etoile has only six bar seats, Traci Miller noted. "So, we're losing income."
The trio's second business at 25 N. Pinckney, the limited-menu Café Soleil, could continue relatively unchanged but under new ownership. "We just want to have the right person in the position," Traci Miller said, an attitude similar in spirit to L'Etoile founder Odessa Piper's when she sold the restaurant in 2005.
The move would also:
• Make it easier to accommodate larger events. Plans call for a 96-seat private dining area, elevated five feet above the L'Etoile dining room. All or part of this banquet space could be curtained off from restaurant diners' view.
• Add breakfast, brunch, lunch, small-plate and "nosh options" via the yet-to-be-named gastropub (a business separate from but next to L'Etoile).
• Improve handicapped accessibility.
• Improve efficiency. An upstairs kitchen presently accommodates both L'Etoile and Café Soleil, via a staircase. The new L'Etoile and casual pub would each have a kitchen.
• Give the chef a way to clearly establish his own identity. "It's been five years, but some people still think Odessa owns L'Etoile - or is helping me with secret recipes in the kitchen," Tory Miller said.
"It's the final break," Traci Miller said. "People will realize this is our restaurant. Odessa certainly built the brand, but Tory has done enough to lay a claim that's all his own."
A challenge will be the dramatic change of setting. Although just down the block, the lofty and glass-walled US Bank building is unlike the intimate confines that have defined L'Etoile.
"We want to offer coziness," Traci Miller said, "but quaint we can't do." The chef agrees, describing L'Etoile's first home as endearing: "The feeling and history of the place, you can't just move it," Tory Miller said.
The US Bank space, including the banquet dining area, would accommodate about 300 people, roughly twice the seating of L'Etoile and Café Soleil combined.
"We've been looking at other spaces since day one," Traci Miller said. Larger, modern quarters "will give us more time to think about the important things. We've known that we need to focus on the big picture more."
L'Etoile has presented fewer $85 multicourse wine specialty dinners recently, and in February 2009 introduced occasional, budget-minded Tuesday dinners that routinely serve 100 and generate waiting lists. "It's $22 for one plate of delicious food, served at a big table where people socialize, and I like that," Tory Miller said.
Traci Miller compared their business mind-set to a food cooperative, where shopping is easy "because you know someone has read the labels for you. I think people have the same level of trust with us," she said, describing her brother as "simply unyielding" in his quest to fill a menu with locally sourced ingredients.
"It's always going to be about the ingredients," Tory Miller said. "That still will be what we're about."
Piper, who established L'Etoile in 1976 and turned it into a nationally respected showcase for Midwest cuisine, offered her blessing.
"The new L'Etoile team keeps busting out with new takes on the local food scene, so this step just seems like a natural fit for their passion and creativity," she said. "In these years since I sold the restaurant, folks who know L'Etoile keep thanking me for choosing the Millers to take it over. It gives me the feeling that they have a lot of people pulling for them, not just me."