For the layman, Café Routier is often painstakingly mispronounced. When my mother visits, she prefers to pronounce it Café Roo-tee-errrrrrr, with the hardest of “r’s”, like a goddamned provincial. It’s a pronunciation that’s been corrected for her countless times, but somehow doesn’t stick. If you frequent Café Routier, you know somebody who either calls it by this name, or at least has called it by this name, at some point in time. That said, its still an odd name for a French bistro.
In doing some initial research on the name, the first tidbit I found were the Routiers or bands of paid mercenaries, often foreign, who traveled by routes during the Middle Ages to fight, and were most utilized during the 100 Years War. Yeah, probably not the origins of Café Routier’s name.
Digging deeper though, and remembering a particular No Reservations episode where Bourdain stops at one of these, Les Routiers are the famed bistros speckled along the main thoroughfares in France. As no proper Frenchman will settle for a shit meal, these attracted truckers and travelers alike by their iconic blue and red logos. If you saw one of these, it signaled a reasonably priced multi-course menu with starters, plat du jours, cheese, maybe dessert, and even red wine. Don’t fuck with the French when it comes to their food.
And so Café Routier was probably named after this or some variation of Les Routiers and while it’s fare is significantly more high-end than it’s French brethren, Café Routier retains many of the characteristics that make those establishments tick.
Set amongst the bustle of the Boston Post Road in Westbrook, there certainly isn’t a lack of dining options for travelers along this route, but Café Routier is simply a cut above the rest. What makes Routier exceptional is the consistency in their dishes and the variations that this restaurant provides. You don’t get a bad meal at Routier. The execution of their dishes is flawless and they actually provide ample portions in their plates. In other words, while Routier is a bit pricey, there is no shot that you walk away disappointed or hungry.
The assortment of dishes to order are astonishing as well. You essentially get the choice of four different menus whenever you visit. Now Routier isn’t a Diner, nor is any of their food remotely similar to those most ubiquitous of America eateries, but if you take into account the sheer breadth of Routier’s menu, it’s insane that they make it work. Find a legit restaurant that provides:
- Specialities Menu that is constantly available. It’s their tried and true offerings. The Steak Frites and Campstyle Grilled Trout are tremendous. Like Bolognese at a great Italian Restaurant, the Steak Frites at this French Bistro exceed already high expectations.
- Seasonal Menu — 3 Starters, 3 Main Courses — whatever is fresh.
- Regional Menu — 3 Starters, 3 Main Courses — probably their coolest feature. Currently it’s Southeast Asia. In the past it’s ranged from Piedmont to Argentina to the Basque Country.
- Mood Lounge Menu — Upscale Bar Food.
This is incredible and also a bit mind-blowing. Café Routier has been a force not just on the Shoreline food scene, but on Connecticut’s as well for decades. For them to be ambitious enough to push a huge menu out, but also change fifty percent of that menu four times a year, and dive into regions that must be out of their chefs’ comfort zones, is laudable. Further, duck is an omnipotent force on their menu and the culinary gods will always smile upon this.
Where Routier gets interesting and, to be frank, a bit comical is it’s appeal to singles and, more specifically, cougars. Yes divorcées are abound in the Mood Lounge and they all seem to be catching mean buzzes and saying things like “Finnnneee, I’ll have just one more”. Scanning the room for potential suitors and poking fun at awkward first dates, the Mood Lounge is ground zero for crushing if you are over the hill.
All kidding aside though, Routier’s bar is actually packed because of the first-rate cocktails they push out. The Bloody Cactus — jalapeño infused espolon reposado tequila / blood orange juice / lime / cointreau is my single favorite house cocktail on the shoreline and the Green Monster — gin / cilantro / lime juice / sugar / ginger is refreshing too. While they have some stiff competition from the likes of The Essex, Moxie, & Grano Arso, Routier is definitely in the discussion for best cocktails on the Shoreline and can easily be argued as the best. They might be yours. Either way, it’s worth going to Routier for the cocktails alone, save their magnificent food and iconic French fries.
The longevity and consistency of Café Routier is commendable. They’re a rock in both the Connecticut and Shoreline fine food scenes and deservedly so. They were doing modern, inventive, high-quality dishes well before many restaurants in this area were, and even with increased competition, they remain in the highest of altitudes of quality indeed. Like their namesake — the Routiers that came before — the weary, the traveled, and the hungry can always find refuge in this welcoming French bistro.
Strengths: Cocktails / French Fries / Steak Frites / Inventive Regional Dishes / Rotating Menu / Lively Bar Area
Weaknesses: Main Dining Room Can Be Empty due to Mood Lounge’s Popularity / Predominantly Older Crowds
Tips: Get seating in the Mood Lounge, it’s more lively than the main dining room. From there you can order from the FULL menu, even though you’re in the Bar Area.
FEAST: Best part about Routier is you never know what you’ll order because the menu is in constant shift. I mix and match between the seasonal and regional when I go. Steak Frites is always a trusty order too.
FROTH: Bloody Cactus — it’s a wonderful drink.
FEAST: 9/10 – FROTH 8/10 – Food: 9/10