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New Space, Same Vibe at Maria's Mont Blanc Restaurant

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, 3/17/11]

Maria's Mont Blanc Restaurant was one of those small midtown bistros that went down in the years before the recession hit, when the Real Estate Gods of Times Square decided the area no longer had room for mid-priced eating and drinking options. But, unlike Barrymore's, Sam's, JR's, McHale's and other victims, Mont Blanc managed to find a new location—right across the road from their former home, on E. 48th Street between Eighth and Ninth, as a matter of fact—and resurrect itself.

Mont Blanc spent twenty years at its first home, and has only been in its new space for four years. Hence, the restaurant's charmingly shabby, lived-in quality has vanished. But the feeling that you're in the capable hands of a close-knit family remains. I've rarely seen such conscientious kindness as that exhibited by Mont Blanc's staff toward its faithful clientele. A garrulous, courtly man was celebrating his 90th birthday the next table over. Not only did the waiter not flinch when the old man's friends produced a store-bought cake to sing "Happy Birthday" over, he brought plates and offered to keep the cake in the fridge for the party while they went to the theatre. Maria, when she's there, pays a call on most tables.

Mont Blanc calls its cuisine "European," though regulars know the focus is Swiss specialties. People come here for the various fondues and for the Raclette, which are served for two and, at $45, are the most expensive items on the menu. Otherwise, the prices are quite reasonable, and the bountiful dinner prix fixe is a steal. My $29 got me a large plate of pickled vegetables, herring and sour cream; a salad; a wine-sweet plate of Veal Dumpling a la Viennese and mushrooms; one of the best apple strudels (hot, with ice cream and fresh whipped cream on the side) I've ever had; and coffee. But the best part of any meal here is the traditionally Swiss way they do potatoes. A golden, hot, Rösti the size of a frisbee (it's like a giant hash brown) is cut into quarters tableside, a wedge given to each diner.

Many regulars—most on the middle-aged and elderly side—followed Mont Blanc when it crossed 48th Street. Some said they hadn't been back in years, but it was clear none of the diners had ever forgotten the place. The restaurant has also always been popular with theatre people, who prize it for its quiet decorum and homey feeling. An actress currently starring in the Broadway play "Good People" sat next to me, promptly leaving her bottle of wine at 7 PM to head to the theatre. And a couple of slim young gay men in the corner sipped at beaker-size martinis and gossiped about Bernadette Peters and the new season, about which they "couldn't find anything to get excited about."
—Brooks of Sheffield