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Vol au vent: stewed veal in a white wine and grained mustard cream sauce.
Vol au vent: stewed veal in a white wine and grained mustard cream sauce.
Cafe Alsace

Restaurant Owner Benedicte Ulsas Cooper Is Decatur’s Ambassador of Alsatian Cuisine

Cafe Alsace in the heart of Decatur pays homage to this unique region of France, while also being one of the city’s most charming dining gems

Eater is highlighting some of Atlanta’s oldest restaurants and food institutions through a series of photo essays, profiles, and personal stories. The restaurants featured are a mix of longtime familiar favorites and less well-known venerable establishments serving a wide variety of cuisines and communities in Atlanta and the surrounding metro area. These restaurants serve as the foundation of the Atlanta dining scene, and continue to stand the test of time.

When French-born Benedicte Ulsas Cooper first visited Atlanta in 1990 on a summer student work visa, she never expected to move here permanently, or open a restaurant paying homage to the traditional Alsatian dishes of her native region. But after spending three months hawking ice cream from a mobile truck in Marietta and the surrounding suburbs, Cooper fell in love with Atlanta and launched a hospitality career that spans more than three decades.

“It was an amazing way to meet people and taught me about business, building your clientele, and consistency in service,” says Cooper of that first food industry gig. It’s the same philosophy Cooper now practices at Cafe Alsace — the tiny downtown Decatur French restaurant she opened in 1997.

Benedicte Ulsas Cooper of Decatur restaurant Cafe Alsace.
Benedicte Ulsas Cooper
Cafe Alsace

Cooper earned a business degree in France, but food is also in her DNA. Her grandfather owned a bakery, her father was an avid gardener, and she learned to cook classic Alsatian dishes, like tarte flambee, spaetzle, and beef bourguignon, by spending time in the kitchen with her mother and grandmothers. The Alsace region in France borders Germany and Switzerland along the Rhine River and blends the cultures, languages, and foods of the three countries together.

After permanently relocating to Atlanta in 1995, Cooper began working in the restaurant industry, first as a waitress and cook at a French restaurant, then as the manager at former Decatur spot St. Agnes Tea Room, part of the eclectic the Dream Hostel that once stood on East Howard Avenue and had peacocks roaming the backyard. It was there a customer approached Cooper about taking over a small restaurant on East Ponce De Leon Avenue in the heart of Decatur.

“The chef had just walked out, and all the equipment was still there,” she says of the space that would eventually become Cafe Alsace. “I fell in love with the space and its small size. I already knew the area of Decatur a little bit, and I thought I could make something happen there.”

When Cooper first opened Cafe Alsace in 1997, she billed it as a casual dining restaurant, rather than calling it a French restaurant, which often comes with fine dining expectations in America.

Cooper’s tight, homey menu during those early days included her favorite comfort foods, like hearty quiches and soups. She soon expanded the menu into Alsatian dishes such as traditional cassoulet and coq au Riesling, along with wines from the region and sweet treats of French tarts topped with seasonal fruits and chocolate mousse.

“Alsace has a strong German influence in food, architecture, wine, and dialect,” Cooper explains of the border area’s unique culture and its impact on the culinary traditions found throughout this region of France.

Despite three decades working in kitchens and owning her own restaurant, Cooper insists on calling herself a cook and not a chef. She still spends two nights a week in the kitchen preparing meals for the restaurant and mingling with people during lunch and dinner. The intimate dining room is appointed with simple wooden tables and chairs and decorated with family photos and trinkets from her annual trips back home to France. And whether it’s someone’s favorite bottle of wine or a past special they loved, she rarely forgets an order.

“I can see people in the space, eating the food that I cooked and follow them through their whole experience of dinner, and that’s what I love the most,” she says. “I often remember what they ate and enjoyed more than they do.”

Alsace onion pie.
Alsace onion pie.
Cafe Alsace
Fig chocolate tart.
Fig chocolate tart.
Cafe Alsace
Duck leg confit with brandied cherry sauce and homemade spinach-goat cheese gnocchi.
Duck leg confit with brandied cherry sauce and homemade spinach-goat cheese gnocchi.
Cafe Alsace

Throughout the years, the dining room at Cafe Alsace has played host to Emory medical students researching cures for cancer, generations of families, first dates, birthday celebrations, and anniversaries. The tables are also filled with regulars simply enjoying lunch on a Tuesday afternoon or having dinner on a random Thursday evening.

“I like that I’m providing space and food for you to do what you want, whether that’s a fun evening with friends, a romantic dinner, or a family moment with your kids,” she says. “I want people to have a whole experience when they are here, to have a good time, and to be taken to France for a couple of hours.”

People looking to bring a bit of France home with them after a meal at Cafe Alsace can purchase macarons and mini meringues from the restaurant, along with Provence tablecloths, soaps, glassware, and other gifts.

While she’s had opportunities to expand Cafe Alsace over the years, and with many of her restaurant peers chasing accolades, Cooper is content in keeping the restaurant small and manageable. She wants Cafe Alsace to be an accessible and affordable place to dine, where people are able to walk in for a $30 dinner because they didn’t feel like cooking that night. She’s invested in remaining an integral part of the Decatur community for years to come and to her mission as an ambassador of Alsace and its cuisine through the restaurant.

“When I decided to open Cafe Alsace, I hoped it would be for a long time,” says Cooper. “It’s more of a European thing to open a business that’s supposed to last your lifetime.”

Open Tuesday - Saturday for lunch and dinner. Reservations by telephone (404-373-5622) encouraged for dinner.

121 East Ponce de Leon Avenue, Decatur. cafealsace.net.

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