I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
May 7, 2021
I’m a sucker for a great French brasserie and over the years, we’ve been lucky to dine at some of the best. 39 Rue de Jean in Charleston, Echaude in Quebec City, and the now sadly closed Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan all left me with delicious memories of crispy pommes frites, mussels steamed in white wine, succulent duck confit, and melt-in-your-mouth steak tartare. I could go on, but I really don’t want to get drool on my keyboard.
Given my deep affection for French cuisine, I was definitely intrigued when I noticed this tiny little restaurant pop up a few doors down from Slow Hand on Gallatin Avenue (home of our favorite cookies in Nashville). I was even more intrigued that the place was always packed when we passed it at night. We talked often about visiting, but then Covid appeared and that was that.
A couple of weeks ago, Dennis and I took our newly-vaccinated selves to Once Upon a Time in France and scored the last available table. This was good, because Once Upon a Time in France doesn’t take reservations and we aren’t wait-thirty-minutes-for-a-table people. Entering the restaurant felt a little bit like watching Cinderella transform from servant girl to princess — Outside, Once Upon a Time in France looks humble and unassuming. Inside, it’s actually hard to believe you’re not dining in a lovingly preserved historic building in some hip, sophisticated neighborhood.
From the distressed tin ceilings to the black and white tiled floor to the cozy bar and 1920s-era fixtures, the decor exudes a slightly worn Jazz Age chic and is undeniably French — It’s so delightfully non-Nashville-like that I was instantly charmed and ready to give this restaurant an A +++++ for ambience before I’d had a bite to eat or a word from the waiter.
It’s no wonder the owners nailed it — They’re the real deal! Musician Melvil Arnt left France for Nashville in 2016 to pursue his career goals but once he got here, he saw the city was lacking a true French bistro. Partnering with his father, professionally trained chef Laurent Champonnois, he opened Once Upon a Time in France. On their website, the owners are quick to warn potential customers not to expect fine dining — Instead, they write, they run a casual French bistro with first come, first served tables and very little space.
We were seated and presented with menus and again, I was impressed. In addition to a lovely selection of French wines, there were lots of European beers and a wonderful range of French cocktails to choose from. The Kir Royale is one of my favorite drinks so I was thrilled to see it on the menu, but I decided to try the pastis on this visit — It’s the drink of choice in Peter Mayle’s Provence, after all, and I was excited to finally try it for myself.
Pastis is an anise-flavored liqueur diluted with water and ice cubes and often enjoyed outside French cafes on hot summer days. I want to be a snobby Nashville foodie here and say my pastis was tres magnifique, but honestly, it just tasted like liquorice water. Still, I drank it and gazed coyly around me as I did so, hoping at least one person in the room was marveling over that incredibly adventurous and youthful-looking woman drinking pastis in the corner.
A girl can dream.
The dinner menu was solid and surprisingly affordable. It had many of the bistro/brasserie favorites I’ve come to love over the years, like duck pate, French onion soup, beef bourguignon and cassoulet. Dennis and I typically share everything we order when we dine out so that we can try as much as possible, so we settled on the soup as a starter and the duck confit and steak frites as our main course. According to the menu, the steaks here are served somewhere between ‘blue’ and well-done. We’d heard of rare, of course, but never blue, so we had to ask what that meant. The answer: Raw, basically — seared on the outside, but otherwise uncooked. We settled on ‘medium rare on the rare side’ instead.
Bread service came while we waited — It consisted of sliced baguette rounds. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, because it wasn’t like we were there for the free bread, but somehow in a French bistro, I was hoping for something a little more memorable. This was no different from a baguette I’d buy at Kroger, and it was cold and untoasted — an afterthought.
Soon, though, the soup arrived which more than made up for the bread. This specialty of Laurent Champonnois was full of flavor — The sweet onions and rich broth were enhanced by egg yolk and port wine and topped with a melty white cheese. The soup definitely could have been hotter, but its flavor was divine. We savored every spoonful.
Our main courses arrived and it became clear from the very first bite that the duck confit was going to be the star of our meal. I love duck, but rarely is it cooked to perfection. This duck was perfectly crisp on the outside and tender and moist within. It just might be the best duck I’ve ever eaten. I’d come back to Once Upon a Time in France just for the duck and if you’re a duck lover, you should too.
Dennis’s ribeye steak, topped with Roquefort, was solid, but the fries were lukewarm. This was a letdown, because the pommes frites at other French restaurants we’ve loved have been a standout part of the meal. For dessert, we split a creme brulee. Once again, the flavor was excellent, but it tasted like the dessert had been prepared long before it was served and I prefer the sugar crust of a creme brulee to be torched right before it’s delivered to the table. However, I couldn’t help but be forgiving of our meal’s small issues, because this restaurant is indeed so very, very small, and it’s always busy. I’d imagine the kitchen situation here is something of a nightmare, spacewise, and I was honestly surprised our meal was both as good as it was and delivered in a timely fashion.
I have no idea what the owners’ future plans are, but I hope they can eventually move into a larger space with a larger kitchen — I think it could have a big impact on the meals and hopefully turn this four-star dining experience into a five-star one. In the meantime, I would enthusiastically recommend Once Upon a Time in France as a fantastic date night option, especially if you love all things French as much as I do. There’s really nothing else like it in Nashville and we need more clever, inventive, beautifully-decorated restaurants like this one in the city.