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Josephine Baker's Son Pays Tribute to Mom at Chez Josephine

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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.

[Horine, 5/26/11]

I am sure there are many reasons why Chez Josephine has survived 25 years on W. 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. It's situated right next to a line of Off-Broadway theaters, guaranteeing before-curtain and after-show patronage. Also, the food, a quirky American-European mix (cassoulet, fried chicken, spaghetti bolognese) is not bad at all, if on the expensive side. But no attraction here beats Jean-Claude Baker, the restaurant's owner and host.

The man is more of a character than any of the people found in the plays next door. Tan, with a full head of hair and typically dressed in satin, oriental jackets, he reminds one of the Robert Preston character from "Victor/Victoria," or perhaps Georges, the debonair nightclub host from the musical "La Cage aux Folles." He is suavely Continental, gracious, eccentric and officious. The surname is a great signifier. He is one of the many adopted children of Josephine Baker, the Jazz Age dancer and chanteuse who, later in life, became the Angelina Jolie of her day in terms of manufactured motherhood.

But even the worst detective, unequipped with that information, would deduce as much after a quick scan of the premises. The garish room is fairly papered with Josephine Baker artifacts. Posters, paintings, caricatures what have you. It's a veritable museum to mama. The decor otherwise is a mix of tropical island and Moulin Rouge. The walls are red. The tin ceiling is aqua. The chandeliers are many. There is a metal palm tree next to the pianist, who plays lightly during the dinner hours. It's a crazy-looking room. But it all works, somehow.

Jean-Claude is not an absent owner, an absent host, an absent manager or an absent anything. I have never visited Chez Josephine where he was not the first thing I saw upon parting the red entry curtains. Alert as a hawk to every action in his ruby-hued world, he is everywhere at once, yet always at the door to greet newcomers. He hops from table to table, dusting with Gallic charm his many loyal regulars: the aging straight couples, the aging gay couples, the parties of theatre ladies, and the English actors who, for whatever reason, find the restaurant inexpressibly appealing.

Baker will always have time for you. Catching his attention, he leaned in, his face six inches from mine. "Yesss," he said, with feline inflection. He cocked an eyebrow. "You've been here before." I congratulated him on his quarter century. "Thank you, Monsieur." The achievement is even greater when you consider he rents the space. His landlord is Theatre Row, however, and the relationship is copacetic. "As long as I am around, I can be here," he said. He later sent a couple macaroons to my table.
—Brooks of Sheffield