Monet's Wine Bistro in ExeterOct 08, 2014 12:58PM ● By Brandi Barnett
Love of A LamppostOctober/November 2014
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Erin Davis
Much like the beloved children’s novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this story begins with a lamppost. “I said to myself that any town that puts in nice lampposts is going to be a good town to be a part of,” explains Jennifer Davis. She had moved to Tulare Country from the Bay Area, where food and art and theater were always at her fingertips, instantly accessible – like magic. “It was hard at first,” Davis admits, “but I do feel I’ve been blessed to be able to create what I wanted in the town, what I wanted to see here, instead of sitting here wishing somebody had done it.”
Davis is talking about her restaurant, Monet’s Wine Bistro, located in downtown Exeter with those notable lampposts. And just like the above-mentioned story, Davis’ restaurant is like a portal to another world. “I wanted you to feel like you were in a café around the Louvre,” says Davis. But dining at Monet’s is also like eating a chocolate pastry from the inside out. Davis laughs, and admits she had a similar thought around the time the restaurant first opened in 2007. “The ceiling looked like a chocolate bar. I wanted to break off a piece and eat it,” she says.
Step through the front door and you’d understand. The small, comfortable room is painted in chocolate and caramel colors, and the ceiling is an ornate pattern that looks like the squares of a candy bar. Davis intentionally wanted the restaurant small and intimate, though she admits that arranging tables for guests can become a game of Tetris. Rustic church pews make up the seating along the street-side windows, which look onto some of Exeter’s iconic murals. In a recess below the ceiling, a mural of the French countryside is painted in sepia tones. Simple, wooden café chairs and a few wooden high tables (made from the building’s old front door) make up the majority of the interior’s décor. Portal or pastry, there’s no denying that Monet’s is comfortable, and proof that less can be more.
In fact, Davis’ original plan for Monet’s was less – just a wine bar with limited appetizers. But two weeks after opening the restaurant, Davis serendipitously met a French chef who developed a full menu, including some staples of French cuisine – escargot, croque monsieur, petite raclette – et viola, there you have it. The simplicity of wine and cheese gave way to a new special every evening, and now, seven years later, Monet’s will soon renovate to expand its dining area.
Before she opened Monet’s, Davis owned Wildflower Cafe across the street, which specializes in coffee and sandwiches. Davis jokes that when her children were born she needed a coffee shop, but when they got older she had to trade the coffee for wine. There’s truth behind every joke, because Davis really wanted to slow things down. It’s a value she picked up through her travels in Europe, where she fell in love with Europeans’ way of making time, making an experience of their meals. Monet’s was a means to bring that little piece of Europe to Exeter, which in part is why she picked the name Monet’s. “He was an artist and he loved to entertain,” she says.
Davis steps away to give a customer a hug. For a few minutes, they talk while the customer swirls and sniffs different wines. The moment is spontaneous and sincere, and captures the very essence of the idea that Davis has been trying to express. And according to Davis, even the French tourists say they feel at home at Monet’s. Maybe it’s the lampposts, or maybe the restaurant is a kind of portal to some corner around the Louvre. Whatever it is, Davis attributes it to community. “It’s a fun place to be, and I meet amazing people all the time.” With that, Davis returns to her conversation with the customer at the bar. And for a moment anyway, things slowed down long enough to make an experience of the moment.
Monet’s Wine Bistro
120 S. E St., Exeter • (559) 592-9453
Closed Mondays and Sundays