ST. FRANCISVILLE — The Francis Southern Table & Bar is more than a place to get good southern food. It's a destination.
"There were some customers one night who said they were from Kaplan, and I asked them, 'Wow, what brought y'all into town?'" co-owner Jason Jackson said. "And they said, 'Well, we came to eat.' I asked them if they were going to spend the night and see some things in the area, and they said, 'No, we're driving back home tonight. We came to eat.'"
The story boggles Jackson's mind because St. Francisville, just north of Baton Rouge, is a two-hour drive from Kaplan, just south of Lafayette. That means the customers spent four hours on the road just to come have dinner.
While their trip might have been a little longer than that of most patrons, it's not that unusual.
"We have customers who drive up from Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Denham Springs and over from Lafayette," he said. "Every weekend you can ask people at numerous tables, 'So where are y'all from?' And every once in a while you get the one that looks at you like you're dumb and say, 'We're from here.' The others are from different places."
Jackson knew he was buying into something special when he and co-owner Greg Martinez became business partners five years ago.
"It's always been a dream of Greg's to be in the restaurant business," Jackson said. "I was in the restaurant business with Sammy's Grill for 20 years before this, and I left there in 2014 and joined up with Greg's family in 2015 originally as a consultant. I liked the idea so much I ended up buying into it."
The Francis opened in 2015, a year after its smaller sister business, The Francis Smokehouse and Specialty Meats, opened next door. Martinez, whose wife's family is from St. Francisville, runs the smokehouse.
Jackson, a resident of Zachary, operates the 8,000-square-foot restaurant. Before the state's coronavirus lockdown and subsequent reopening phases, The Francis easily could seat some 300 people in its indoor, outdoor and upstairs dining areas.
Tables have since been removed to meet the state's current dine-in regulations of 75% capacity, but Jackson isn't complaining.
"The to-go and takeout only part in the beginning really hurt us," he said. "We lost a lot of money in April. But we're very fortunate to have the front patio and the outside patio upstairs, so we were able to pull tables and still have more sales from May through August than we did last year. It's been a blessing for us. It's been a lot of work, but it's been a blessing, because the kitchen ran smoother and there was less wait time."
The Francis stands atop a hill on the corner of U.S. 61 and South Commerce Street.
"The building is kind of a showstopper, and there have been a lot of people who have never heard of us," Jackson said. "I would say Monday through Thursday, we're mostly supported by local customers. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday it's kind of fun to hear some of the people who live in town, because they walk in and say, 'Who are all of these people?'"
The answer: People who have come for a delicious dinner.
"Our appetizers, alone, can make a meal," Jackson said. "Something unique that we do is duck confit egg rolls. They're made of duck confit meat, which is meat that's cured in its own fat from the duck. It's not gamey. It's very tender, very mild. I tell women, 'Don't let the duck part scare you. If you don't think you like duck, try it.'"
And then there's the Francis Fancy Fries — thick potato fries topped by a house-made brown gravy, pulled pork, jalapeños and Monterey jack and pepper jack cheese sauce.
The smoked prime rib po-boy is a favorite, as is the shrimp and avocado salad.
"And something unique on our main menu is our Eggplant Feliciana," Jackson said. "It's fried eggplant medallions topped by crabmeat au gratin and served with a stuffed potato and fresh asparagus."
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The Francis also makes in-house crawfish bisque — they even stuff the heads — and its pasta lineup includes a combination shrimp, crawfish and andouille dish.
"It's all pretty much southern fare," Jackson said. "A lot of places are afraid to have a heavy seafood menu, maybe because of the cost of seafood. And meat, as well. We take a little bit different approach than other restaurants. I don't worry about the cost as much, you still have to think about it, but I'm more worried about the product. And we still have a variety, we're still able to change fairly quickly."
The Francis sources its food and ingredients from local suppliers. It's open seven days a week and also offers catering and, sometimes, live music.
With St. Francisville being a small town, Jackson said he and Martinez knew they were being ambitious opening such a big restaurant.
"But anytime you open a restaurant, it's a risk," he said. "The combination of the dreams that Greg and his family had and the dream that I had coming into it worked out well, and we opened up being as busy as we can be."