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The Never Cool, Never Trendy La Petite Auberge

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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.

[Krieger, 5/13/10]

Raymond Auffrey, one of the two owners of La Petite Auberge on Lexington and 28th, has one foot on the top of a bar stool. He smiles at you as you come in—a real smile—comes out from behind the bar and hands you over to one of the young, French-accented waitresses in black skirts and white cotton blouses. Auffrey then heads back behind the bar and puts that foot back on the bar stool. After a couple old male friends finish their meal, they join him at the bar and Auffrey instinctively reaches for a bottle of green Chartreuse, holding it like it was a bottle of prize Scotch. He pours one man a snifter-full and they begin trading war stories. One tales ends a bit too frankly and they laugh. "Why do these things always come out when we drink Chartreuse?!" says one of the men.

Auffrey and his friend Marcel Guélaff opened their tiny, cozy, dark French bistro in 1977. If you read the framed clips on the wall, La Petite Auberge was never cool, never trendy. But it was always popular with those who prized its friendly, unpretentious, dependable and discreet style. Its regulars have been going there for more than 30 years. Some are locals. Others are staid Upper East Siders who also haunt those other bastions of old guard French cuisine, La Grenouille and Le Veau d'Or. The restaurant also enjoyed, for a time, the status of a publishing industry hangout; Jackie O came here when she worked at Doubleday. And a photo on the wall reveals that pre-Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayer was also a habitue. "She used to come all the time," said my stony-faced, yet strangely seductive Gallic waitress. "The last time was right when she was nominated."

Not everyone can be a former First Lady or Supreme Court justice, of course. Most regulars are simply old New Yorkers and French-Americans in need of a bit of coddling and quiet, and others are that certain kind of cultured, die-hard Manhattanite kook who wouldn't feel comfortable in a more status-conscious eatery. Like the seventy-something lady with the died-red mane collected haphazardly at the top of her head with a hair clip. She talked nonstop in a loud fluting voice to her largely mute companion, her head cocked to one side, her eyes closed, about everything from museum shows, to her marriages, to the time she ran away as a child.

Another man expounded importantly to his hard-of-hearing parents about how the art world was thoroughly corrupt, and how Stockholm was a provincial capital, Berlin was great but closed up too early, but Paris—now that was a real world capital. La Petite Auberge has a snug, dark-timbered, low-ceilinged home, and a rather flavorless, but comforting Poulet de Chef for these folks.

Plus a $20 chocolate souflee, if you've got 40 minutes to spare. I did have the time, but I didn't have the two people needed to eat the thing. The waitress asked Auffrey, who said he was willing to make me a single-sized souflee for $10. Nice. "Raymond, you're the best," said one of the men at the bar as they got up to leave. "That's what I'm here for," said Auffrey.
—Brooks of Sheffield

La Petite Auberge

116 Lexington Ave., New York, NY