Whither the Old-School French Restaurant?

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One of my first articles for the Voice was on some of the decades-old midtown French restaurants that are still hanging on by their fingertips. These are places that have been around since Hell's Kitchen was a little France, most opening in the 1930s and 1940s. Notably, there's Le Veau d'Or, Tout Va Bien (my favorite), Chez Napoléon and La Grenouille.

When I was doing research and reporting for the story, two places didn't make it into the final draft just for space reasons: Le Biarritz on 57th Street and Rene Pujol Restaurant Français on 51st Street. Now, just in the last couple months, both places have closed. It makes me wonder how long the other places will be able to stay open, especially in this economic downturn.

Obviously, openings and closings are just a natural part of the restaurant world. But there is something wonderfully eccentric and unfashionable about these old French spots. And some of the food is so meticulously prepared and so straight-ahead delicious it makes you realize what you've been missing while eating at trendy new restaurants. When was the last time you had cherries jubilee? Do you remember how boozy and sublime cherries jubilee is, with its hot brandy, half-melted vanilla ice cream and sweet cherries? I suggest you run over to Chez Napoléon for a version that's theatrically flamed table side. But do it soon, before cook Marguerite Bruno (86 years-old) retires, or the Bruno family loses the lease, as they are likely to in 2010.

Not only do they (mostly) serve great food, many of these restaurants are living time capsules that remind us of what was essentially the birth of modern New York restaurants—the 1939 New York World's Fair, where a cook named Henri Soulé ran a restaurant in the French Pavilion. The next year, Soulé opened Le Pavillion on East 55th, hiring fellow French immigrants, and later La Cote Basque. Alums from his restaurants went on to populate New York with their own French eateries. In fact, Grub Street pointed out that the Soulé apprenticeship model is still how New York's restaurant world functions. In 1966, Claiborne wrote that Soulé was "The Michelangelo, the Mozart and the Leonardo of the French Restaurant in America."

We've lost Rene Pujol and Le Biarritz, but go over to Tout va Bien during the upcoming US Open—where you might run into Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal (no joke, make resys). Or stop by Chez Napoléon for boar stew, a wedge of paté or cherries jubilee. They're still throughly French, completely eccentric and alive, for now.



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