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Leonce Picot, South Florida restaurant giant who ran La Vieille Maison, dies at 86

His restaurants were for special occasions and leisurely, well-lubricated business lunches, elegant places where champagne corks popped, diamond rings changed nervous hands and anniversaries were celebrated with caviar and lemon souffle. He did not cook, but Leonce Picot knew how to make beautiful memories.

“People still come up to me all the time and say, ‘I got engaged at Casa Vecchia,’ or ‘I remember going to the Down Under on prom night,’ ” Picot’s daughter, Laura Picot Sayles, said after his death on Friday. “It’s remarkable to see how people are still so emotionally attached to these restaurants and my father after all these years.”

Picot, a pioneering restaurateur who operated what one food writer described as “the Triple Crown of fine dining in South Florida,” died Friday at his Fort Lauderdale home. He was under hospice care for pulmonary disease, Sayles said. Picot was 86.

Picot operated restaurants through five decades, gaining prominence with the Down Under (1968-1996) in Fort Lauderdale before opening La Vieille Maison (1976-2006) in Boca Raton and Casa Vecchia (1979-1994) in Fort Lauderdale. He earned his greatest acclaim with La Vieille Maison, an exquisite, expensive temple of French gastronomy in a 1920s Mizner home on East Palmetto Park Road that was bestowed high rankings by the Mobil and AAA travel guides in the days before Yelp and TripAdvisor. La Vieille Maison’s first chef, Christian Planchon, prepared Florida lobster bisque at food events that were part of Ronald Reagan’s presidential inaugurations in 1981 and 1985.

“Three wonderful and different restaurants that made a mark and were the standard for many years,” longtime Fort Lauderdale restaurateur Jack Jackson said Friday.

“He was one of the early great restaurateurs of South Florida with the Down Under, a great visionary who elevated food and wine in this region,” said Mel Dick, president of the wine division of powerhouse distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “He used to fly in trout from Idaho. I still remember that trout.”

The restaurants were from a bygone era. The Down Under featured eclectic American food for a crowd out of “Mad Men,” one of the first restaurants in Florida to feature Bass Ale on tap from England and champagne by the glass (Perrier Jouet Grand Brut). Casa Vecchia featured Northern Italian cuisine.

La Vieille Maison was modeled after classic Parisian fine dining, where tuxedo-clad captains handed menus without prices to women and knew the wine preferences of regular patrons. Servers prepared crepes Suzette tableside and traversed a narrow staircase to deliver foie gras with lingonberry and filet mignon with Bordelaise sauce to private dining rooms.

“All three of the restaurants had stairs, which the waiters hated,” Sayles recalled. “They used to tease him, call him mean and say, ‘Do you do this on purpose?’ ”

Picot was a demanding and passionate perfectionist who coaxed the best from chefs and his staff while making politicians, business executives and tourists feel at home.

“He lived a large life, and he had a blast doing it,” Sayles said. “I grew up in those restaurants. He used to tell us, ‘If you want a bed to sleep in, you have to help out on the weekends.’ ” Her mother, Carolyn, who died in 2015, made the daily floral arrangements for tables at La Vieille Maison.

The memory that sticks in Sayles’ head: a sea of tables covered with champagne bottles and martini glasses at Friday lunch at the Down Under, a favorite of Fort Lauderdale’s movers and shakers that once stood beneath the Oakland Park Boulevard bridge on the Intracoastal.

“These were the days before downtown had been built up, when all the big businesses and insurance companies were on Commercial, Oakland Park and Sunrise [boulevards],” Sayles said. “Friday lunches were something else. I used to call it the Bad Boys Club. Things could get a little sloppy. At 4 p.m., we’d give last call and throw everyone out because we had to clean the tables and get ready for dinner service at 6 p.m. Otherwise, they would have stayed all night. Can you imagine that?”

Leonce Picot was born Jan. 28, 1932 in South Orange, N.J. His father died when he was young, Sayles said, and his mother moved to South Florida in 1940. Picot, who grew to 6 feet 2, was captain of the basketball team at Fort Lauderdale High, which won state titles in his final years. He attended the University of Miami on a basketball scholarship, but gave it up after he found himself “a benchwarmer,” Sayles said. He supported himself through his love of jazz, promoting concerts in Miami and Fort Lauderdale after launching a jazz show on a radio station.

Picot, who started his restaurant career at age 14 as a soda jerk at Stanley's Drug Store on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard, returned to the restaurant business when the Mai-Kai opened in 1956. Co-founder Jack Thornton hired him as director of marketing. Twelve years later, Picot branched out on his own to open the Down Under.

“The Down Under changed Broward County dining,” Jack Jackson recalled, noting Picot bucked convention by building a restaurant overlooking the water instead of on a trafficked corner. “Usually, the parking lots were on the Intracoastal … The restaurant had such a fresh eclectic style with top California wines, wonderful and interesting food, and a visually stimulating architecture and design. He paved the way for the dining that we see today.”

Besides his South Florida restaurants, Picot had a brief foray into Northern California, Sayles said, opening restaurants that were critical successes but commercial failures in San Francisco and Monterrey in the 1980s. The family also ran a wine shop in Boca Raton that closed last decade.

Said Mel Dick of Southern Glazer’s: “He was a big promoter of great wines that were starting to be produced in Napa Valley in the 1970s, a big promoter of fine European wines and champagnes.”

A private memorial service will be held for Picot at a date to be announced, Sayles said. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that “a glass of champagne should be enjoyed while making a small donation to a cause of personal importance.”

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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