By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
He was a restaurant owner and entrepreneur who owned multiple restaurants in D.C. and Alexandria, and did not retire despite his advancing years and poor health. Yves Courbois, owner most recently of Yves’ Bistro on Swamp Fox Road, died Tuesday, September 15. He was 75.
Courbois died at Fairfax Inova Hospital having undergone a series of knee operations and two heart surgeries, in addition to suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Refusing to dial back his workload as his health declined, his body could take the strain no longer, friends and family members said.
“He was extremely charismatic,” said brother Jean Pierre Courbois. “He would make friends very quickly. In fact, in his restaurant he worried more about people than food. To him, dining was an experience that you shared with others.”
Courbois was born in Hanoi, in what was then colonial French Indochina, now Vietnam, and grew up in France. He moved to the U.S. in 1960 at the age of 20 and began work as a waiter at The Monocle on Capitol Hill, having previously served stints in the French paratroopers, as a racecar driver and as owner of a racehorse in France. After several years as a waiter, he opened his own restaurant, and it was at Au Pied de Cochon at the corner of Wisconsin
Avenue and Dumbarton Street in Georgetown where he made his name.
He opened the eatery in 1976 and it stayed in business until 2004, a nearly three-decade run of success. It opened to positive reviews in the late 1970s, and Courbois capitalized on that success, opening two other French restaurants, Aux Fruits de Mer and Au Croissant Chaud, in Georgetown.
“The ‘foot of the pig’ is the kind of place where one comes for a snack or a full meal in unpretentious informal surroundings at hours that run almost around the clock,” wrote Donald Dresden in The Washington Post in 1976. “One of the owners/operators said recently, ‘This is a place where people come to eat, not dine.’ It’s really a neighborhood restaurant that is trying, and succeeding, in being just that and nothing more.
“The premises were one of Georgetown’s old-fashioned bars that had changed hardly at all over several decades. The Cochon’s owners have done the place over with informality, polished up the bar and put in tables with artificial marble tops, much in the style of a French brasserie.”
Au Pied de Cochon had its own chapter in the Cold War: in 1985 a KGB spy, who had defected to the U.S., redefected to the Soviet Union at the restaurant. In August of that year, Vitaly Yurchencko walked into the U.S. Embassy in Rome asking to defect from the USSR. When he did so, and having helped the CIA expose some double agents working for the KGB, he arrived in the U.S., but started to regret his decision.
By October 1985, Yurchencko was under relaxed supervision from a security detail, and it is believed that he snuck away from his guards through a restroom window at Courbois’ restaurant to return to the Soviets. But The Post alleged at the time that he vanished as they finished dinner in the restaurant, having asked his detail whether they would shoot him if he walked away.
In the aftermath of the incident, the restaurant added a new drink to the bar menu called the “Yurchenko Shooter,” a combination of Stolichnaya vodka and Grand Marnier on the rocks.
Even though the restaurant struggled with bankruptcy and was shut down by fire in 1992, along with Aux Fruits de Mer, it was a mainstay of Georgetown until 2004. When the restaurant closed down, it was expected that the then 64-year-old Courbois would retire. But that would prove not to be the case, as in 2011 at the age of 70 he opened Yves’ Bistro on Swamp Fox Road, in the heart of the burgeoning Hoffman Town Center.
At his new establishment, Courbois looked to bring the atmosphere and food of his previous French eateries, and found a new audience for his product as the area continued to expand and develop. Open from breakfast onwards, Courbois put in long hours at Yves’ Bistro, sometimes 18 hours a day, seven days a week as he and his wife Oyuna personally kept on top of every financial transaction and sale.
His family plans to keep Yves’ Bistro open with Courbois’ familiar mantra: don’t worry about food costs and the bottom line, but love your customers and show them that love.