This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
Apparently, I'm not writing these features fast enough. I was on my way to the corner of W. 50th Street and Ninth Avenue to investigate the Spanish survivor Costa del Sol, when I found the sprawling, low-slung restaurant sealed up tighter than a drum. Who went there? Not too many, apparently.
Shifting my eyes one door to the east I found, nearly hidden in the shade of a large tree, Chez Napoleon, the 48-year-old resident of a solitary, four-story, red-brick walk-up. It would be French food tonight, not Spanish.
One of Chez Napoleon's enduring attractions must be its intimacy. The interior is cozytown. There are six small tables in the first room. A second room isn't much larger. (If your party numbers more than four, you better tell them ahead of time.) Some primitive murals of The Little General's military triumphs adorn the upper reaches of the walls.
The lower reaches are filled with framed jigsaw puzzles depicting old-time posters advertising French products. These are the work of the hirsute, biker-like Guillaume Bruno, the bartender. He is the son of waitress and manager Elyane Bruno, and grandson of the restaurant's matriarch and chef, a woman known as Grand-Mere Marguerite Bruno. The picture of Marguerite in the menu shows all of her 80-plus years. But hanging on the wall is a fetching black-and-white from days gone of a youthful Maggie showing a great deal of leg and cradling a fox!
The Bruno family is actually the third clan to own Chez Napoleon; they bought it in 1982. They've got the small business down to a science. Service is brisk and warm. There are hints that the twee French charm is a bit put-on (the Edith Piaf background music; the faux oil painting depicting the Bruno family as 18th-century French artistocracy; a bathroom called a "Water-loo"). But there's plenty of genuine charm to go around as well, particularly from the easy-going, mainly French-speaking waitresses. Its quiet exterior notwithstanding, the joint doesn't hurt for business. Theatregoers and regulars had it filled on an early Wednesday evening. A white-haired gentleman, who had been dining there for many years, said, "You don't feel like you're in Manhattan." And elderly couple who had last visited 15 years ago said, "It hasn't changed."
A $30 prix fixe will get you a soup, one of four entrees and dessert. Otherwise, entrees (Steak au Poivre, Canard a l'Orange, you name the classic) run from $19 to $34. The style is French home cooking, and actually a bit better than that. Souffles can be ordered in advance, but, amusingly, only during times when the kitchen isn't too busy. I was dining in the pre-theatre hours, so I was out of luck. A reason to return.