Like Dining in
a Friend's Home

by Jeri Magg

Mari wants people
to feel as comfortable
in the bistro as in
their own homes.
THERE'S A COZY little French restaurant tucked away on the Tamiami Trail in Fort Myers where the owners, Christian & Mara Vivet, greet guests with the words “Bienvenue chez nous” — welcome to our home (the Blue Windows Bistro).

Along with the friendly atmosphere and intimate ambiance, diners return often to experience a real taste of Paris cuisine.

Created by Christian & Mari in 2006 as an ‘underground bistro,’ it has morphed from a small catering enterprise to an upscale boutique restaurant noted for its international fine wines paired with a delicious assortment of classic French dishes such as escargots, coq-au-van and crème brule.

In 1976, at age sixteen, Parisian born Christian attended the Ecole Hotelier de Polegny culinary school. He had to pass an entrance exam to qualify for one of sixty spots. “I was in the three year program which covered all the aspects of the restaurant business: culinary, service, management/accounting, and some parts of the hotel side,” states the Chef.

After graduating in 1979, he gained experience by working seasonally in restaurants or resorts in places like England, Switzerland and France. Looking for more opportunities, Christian learned of a chance to come to the United States. After sending a letter to one of the Chefs involved with the French Pavilion at Epcot, in Orlando, he gained an interview and was hired. Following an eighteen month stint with Disney, he traveled to San Francisco to work for various high-end establishments.

Preferring a smaller town atmosphere, he moved to Fort Myers in 1988. He and his first wife were familiar with the area having visited many times while living in Orlando. “We were both in the tourist industry and knew between Naples, Fort Myers and Sanibel, there should be good job opportunities,” he states.

He was first employed for five seasons at Jean Paul’s Restaurant on Sanibel before moving on to the University Club for seven years and then as the manager/chef for the King’s Crown Restaurant at South Seas Resort. “Then my life changed,” he muses, “I got divorced.” After that he moved to Naples and worked at various places before deciding to take a break.

Seeking something different, but in his field, he took a position with a Naples software company and trained caterers on the proper use of the software. This birds-eye-view of the catering industry started him thinking about giving it a shot. “I watched these people succeed with what I thought was an inferior product. I was sure I could do better.” By that time he’d met and married Fort Myers native, Mari. A short while later the Naples Daily News wrote an article about ‘Underground Eateries’ popping up in major cities across the country.

The concept was simple, explains Christian. “You create an event, find a venue and then invite friends to pay for a wine dinner.” Mari, who loves to entertain, made up a list of friends and invited them to their home. Christian’s culinary expertise was soon the talk of the town. Along with Mari’s vivacious and outgoing personality, friends and neighbors were clamoring to attend these fun-filled events while also making arrangements for the Vivet’s to cater their business and private parties.

Unsure of this idea’s success, the couple sublet kitchen space at a Fort Myers downtown night club. “I didn’t know if we’d be profitable, so I kept my day job,” laughs Mari. It didn’t take long before this new catering enterprise’s popularity sent them in search of more room and the business moved into its present space in 2009.

Initially, the Vivet’s divided the space into storage, business/office and show tables where clients could taste the food and choose cutlery, linens, china and decorations. However, after the economy took a nose dive, most of their business clients cut back, so their catering events were generally weddings or private house parties held on weekends.

One hot summer day in July, while having lunch, the couple discussed ways to create more customers. Mari, still working days at an air conditioning company, thought it might be time to open a small bistro. Laughing, Christian explains, “I always told Mari I never wanted to run a restaurant, especially a French one!”

But they finally decided, with Christian’s background in French cuisine and Mari’s expertise in marketing, a French bistro with an a la carte menu would fit the bill.

Mari had the idea for the name. She wanted guests to look at America from a French perspective, through the blue shutters that frame the windows of homes in France, hence Blue Windows Bistro.

After painting the walls and adding ten tables, Mari emailed her past clients about their new, for adults only, bistro. Initially open only during the week for dinner, the menu was comprised of only four appetizers and a few entrees to allow them to continue catering on weekends. “We trained our customers to call ahead, just in case we had a catering gig during the week, to make sure we were open. I’d meet people who’d heard good things about our bistro, but joked because we were never open!” she laughs.

In October of 2009, just a few months after opening, food critic Jean Le Boeuf gave the restaurant a four star rating. Business grew by word of mouth and the couple was overwhelmed with catering and running a restaurant. Christian became very picky about catering jobs before finally deciding to concentrate on the bistro.

Now in its fifth season, Mari has finally retired from her day job and devotes her time to the bistro. When customers ask how she likes being retired, she chuckles, “I guess I’m so at ease here, it doesn’t look like work. But that’s what I want, for people to feel as comfortable in our bistro as in their own home.” Christian is also proud of the fact that many of the area’s Chefs dine at their bistro on their nights off.

Now able to close during the summer months, the Vivet’s traveled to Europe last year while still keeping in touch with their clients and friends. “We talk about Christian’s fishing and our dog romping through the rivers and all the great places we’ve visited. Our clients love it!”

They credit the continued success of the Blue Windows Bistro to their striving to consistently serve good classic French food in a friendly, homelike atmosphere. In the kitchen Christian, with one assistant, plans the menus and cooks the food. Mari greets the customers and makes sure the wait staff is friendly and efficient.

Though they advertise little, Mari’s email newsletter to her customer/friends alerts them to various wine dinners and other parties. Mari suggests that the best way for new customers to get ‘a taste’ of the bistro is to arrive at 5pm for the ‘Twilight Menu.’

The Vivet’s plan to continue providing the ambiance and fine classic French cuisine that ensures every customer will feel like their “dining in a French friend’s home.”

Blue Windows Bistro
15250 S. Tamiami Trail • Fort Myers
Open Monday-Saturday at 5pm

March-April 2014

Christian is proud
that many of the area’s
Chefs dine at their bistro
on their nights off.

Christian was manager and Chef
for the King’s Crown Restaurant
at South Seas Resort.