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In France, le bistrot is a neighborhood eatery, usually family-run, where locals go for good food, generous portions, and affordable prices in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. A bistro is small, its decor minimal, and since there’s usually just one chef in the kitchen, the menu is limited to a few highly perfected dishes for which local customers come back night after night and tourists wait in line. Such is the case with Duckworth’s Bistrot in Gloucester.

First-timers to this highly praised restaurant often have difficulty finding it. Although its address is on East Main Street, it’s off the beaten path in a part of town that’s more residential than commercial. In fact, the husband-and-wife business partners own the building and live with their two small children above the restaurant.

Five days a week, Nicole Duckworth gets up early to go downstairs to the small restaurant kitchen to bake her signature desserts Рchocolate cake, banana cake, cr̬me caramel, profiteroles, and cheesecake Рwhile Ken minds the kids. In the afternoon, they trade places, and Ken preps for the evening crowd, working solo until his small staff Рan assistant and a dishwasher Рarrive.

The Duckworths have been at this for four years, following their dream of running a small neighborhood restaurant where they can, as they say, “serve customers as if they are guests in our home.” As a result, Duckworth’s Bistrot receives consistent high marks for its French cuisine, and deservedly so. But what reviewers seem to have overlooked is that in addition to serving fine food, the Duckworths have also successfully created an authentic French dining experience.

On the night that we visited, we were welcomed cordially by Colleen, a hostess who has been with the Duckworth’s since the beginning. We watched her greet regulars by name and bring them their “usual.” Patrons, a cross-section of ages, chatted casually and comfortably across tables in an intimate environment with candles and fresh flowers.

Colleen is well versed in the menu and at ease making recommendations. She explains that all of the entrees, and many of the wines, are available in half- and full-size portions. While the half-size entree option is perfect for smaller appetites, it also makes dining out on high quality French cuisine more affordable.

I chose two half-portions, the Bell and Evans chicken breast with broccoli rabe, mashed potatoes, and braised shallots in red wine sauce ($12/22) and the seafood stew ($14/26). My dining partner went for the coquilles St. Jacques (12) and the half-portion of the seared duck breast with sauteed apples and fennel in a sweet and sour cider sauce ($15/28).

Our immediate reaction to the dishes, beyond the artistry of their presentation, was at their size. “People are always very surprised about our portions,” Colleen says. “They’re very generous. In fact, the lobster and vegetable risotto dish is so large that I always steer people toward the smaller portion. It could be overwhelming.”

It was difficult to choose our favorite among the four entrees. The seafood stew was just that, a stew, not a chowder or a soup. Large fresh chunks of lobster and fish, shrimp and clams, doused with rich fragrant broth, vied for space in an overstuffed bowl. The playful addition of mushrooms in the classic coquilles added an earthy flavor to the buttery sweet scallops. The melt-in-your-mouth chicken and the cooked-to-perfection duck were graced with robust sauces so well prepared they mark the skill and technique of a truly accomplished French chef.

In true bistro fashion, the Duckworths are not culinary-school trained. Ken Duckworth started cooking at age 16 in Tampa, Fla., and eventually made his way to Boston, where he worked for the renowned Maison Robert. The Robert family sent him to Paris for immersion training. While Chef Duckworth certainly has the classic skills to carry on the legend of a large formal French restaurant, he likes how he’s balanced his life and work. He’s not interested in opening other restaurants or becoming a celebrity chef. “I just wanted to open a place where I would want to eat,” he says. You can’t get any more French than that.

Duckworth’s Bistrot

197 East Main Street, Gloucester

Tuesday – Saturday 5:00 – 9:30 p.m. (subject to change in the summer)