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Chronicle Critic Dissects Problematic SF Restaurant Celebrating Colonialism

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Soleil Ho both historicizes and pans Le Colonial

Le Colonial Le Colonial

Soleil Ho, who became the Chronicle’s dining critic this year, replacing longtime predecessor Michael Bauer, has reversed the paper’s previously positive position on 20-year-old French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial. The restaurant, which Ho deconstructs and criticizes for its blatant celebration of colonialism (it’s in the name!) was most recently the subject of a two-and-a-half star, favorable review from Bauer.

In 2017, he wrote simply that the restaurant “evokes a tropical French oasis in Vietnam during the 1920s ... and deserves to be as popular today as it was when it was new and trendy nearly 20 years ago.” But in her new, authoritative review, Ho points to the problem at the heart of Le Colonial: It prompts diners to “take on the positionality of the colonizer,” and also, the food is no good.

“It seems odd to think that dinner could be tasty enough to help the bitter pill of colonial fantasy go down easier,” Ho writes, “but the fact is that the food at Le Colonial is not very good either, full of bone-dry meats, clumsily plated $36 entrees and nigh-undrinkable $15 cocktails.”

Rather than simply dismiss Le Colonial, though, Ho takes a more scholarly approach, historicizing the era in which the restaurant was conceived and opened by French restaurateur Jean DeNoyer. Ho spoke to Erica J. Peters, a local historian who has studied the impact of French colonization on Vietnamese food: Le Colonial, Peters tells Ho, must be considered in a post-Vietnam War nostalgia for a previous colonial era, a template for which is Marguerite Duras’ 1984 novel L’Amant and the 1992 film Indochine, which dramatized the French colonial period.

Of course, “nostalgia is a blurry lens through which we can view history,” Ho writes. “We often rewrite it so that the hard, inconvenient parts are pushed to the sidelines in favor of what makes us feel good.” And this particular nostalgia isn’t for everyone.

The difficulty I have with Le Colonial is that its nostalgia is completely unrelatable. There’s nothing poignant about it; I don’t want to go back to that time and place, to presume that I would be the person served and not the one doing the serving.

Read Ho’s whole review here, which is definitely generating discussion and praise — and apparently getting some angry emails, too.