Tucked into the corner of a small shopping center on Highland Road, French Market Bistro has quietly become one of the best restaurants in Baton Rouge. It didn't start out that way.

The popular eatery actually opened as a deli in 1996.

Twenty-five years later, there's never a time when the restaurant at 16645 Highland Road isn't busy.

Now operating at 75% capacity, co-owner Justin McDonald said the restaurant is being swarmed by lots of returning and new patrons.  

Co-owner Justin McDonald gives us a tour of French Market Bistro. Staff video by Robin Miller

"We'll be celebrating our 25th anniversary all year," McDonald said. "We're not planning any special events, but we are celebrating. That's what we're known for, celebrating."

McDonald opened the restaurant with co-owner and chef Timothy Kringlie as a 3,700-square-foot deli.

"We prepared foods and put them in a deli box," McDonald said. "We tried to be everything to everyone. That's kind of what the customers wanted, but the deli didn't last too long. So we became a full-scale restaurant."

Then, in October 2015, French Market Bistro expanded within the same building, doubling in size. 

"Our business exploded," McDonald said. "We were once the best-kept secret in Baton Rouge, but not anymore. We've been very popular lately, and we've been seeing a lot of new faces in the last couple of years."

McDonald credits the restaurant's commitment to quality food and outstanding service for its popularity. He also gives credit to his staff, many of whom have been with the restaurant since it opened.

"Our staff is like family to us," McDonald said. "They know our customers, and our customers know them. If you were to look at our reservations, you would see that a lot of our customers request servers."

Chef and back-of-the-house manager Borivane Khemmanyvong also has been with the restaurant since day one. He oversees the preparation of such customer favorites as its signature cream of brie and crabmeat soup.

"My business partner, Tim Kringlie, invented it so to speak," McDonald said. "It was brought over from our sister restaurant, Mansur's on the Boulevard."

The cedar-roasted red fish, roasted in a butter and garlic mash, also gets raves.

"We actually bake the red fish on the cedar plank in the oven, just to give it a little essence of the smoke," McDonald said. "Other great items on our menu are chargrilled oysters; we're famous for them."

McDonald said French Market Bistro's menu is the result of 20 years of experimentation.

"If things don't work, we take them off," he said. "But everything we have now is so popular that it's hard to take anything off. We have so many regulars, and if I take something off, they're like, 'Oh, where did it go?'"

McDonald calls it a balancing act that's hard to balance.

"You're trying to create new things and keep all the old things without growing the menu too big where the kitchen can't handle it," he said. "So, it's a great issue to have."

Mixed into the balancing act are nightly specials that include steaks and fish.

"We get fresh fish every day," McDonald said. "And we're known for our steaks. They're sizzling. They're outstanding. I'd put them up against anybody in town. We get our ingredients from everywhere, but we always try to source locally and support our local vendors."

Rounding out the menu favorites are such desserts as the white chocolate brownie with ice cream, Mississippi mud pie and creme brulee.

"Our creme brulee is our most popular dessert item," McDonald said. "It's different. We make it with Butterfinger crumble, and it's outstanding. Our bourbon pecan pie is also popular."

Looking to the future, McDonald and Kinglie expect to stay busy as the pandemic restrictions lessen, and wine manager Kylie Johnson is planning wine dinners that will highlight the restaurant's large selection of wines.

"One of the biggest compliments we get from our people is that, pound for pound, we are the most consistent, quality-oriented restaurant," McDonald said. "They know they're going to get high quality when they come here. That's how it's been for 25 years."

Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com